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Belfast Giants hoping for first Challenge Cup success since 2009

 

By Stuart McKinley

Steve Thornton knows what it feels like to lead the Belfast Giants to Challenge Cup success.

Now responsible for leading the club into the future as Head of Hockey Operations, he is relishing the prospect of one of his past glories being emulated.

Thornton was player-coach of the Giants when they claimed their only previous Challenge Cup success back in 2009, beating the then Manchester Phoenix over two legs to lift the trophy.

On Sunday the Giants face the Cardiff Devils in their own backyard in a one-off decider (6pm face-off) and while the Welsh side are currently runaway leaders of the Elite League, Thornton is backing the team that he and current head coach Adam Keefe assembled to bring the trophy back to Belfast.

"Everybody in sport loves trying to play for championships and that has been the goal since I came back here so I'm excited to be one game away from that," said Thornton, who returned to Belfast as coach in 2012 before taking on the management role a year later.

"Cardiff have a great team so it's going to be a tough one.

"In one game where two good teams are going head-to-head and a cup is on the line I expect both teams to bring their 'A' game and I like the team we have."

There is pressure on the Giants going into their first Challenge Cup final since a penalty shoot-out defeat to Nottingham in 2014.

The team, with Keefe as captain, had just claimed the earliest league title success since the formation of the Elite League, but let a 5-2 first leg lead slip away and since then there has been a trophy drought in Belfast - the longest in the club's history.

Keefe was handed the responsibility for ending that famine when he was named as successor to Derrick Walser last summer.

It is only natural that Thornton will back the man he appointed, but it is also what Keefe has done since moving from captain to coach and how he has adapted to ever-changing circumstances that has impressed the man at the top and that's why he will watch Sunday's contest with confidence in the men in teal.

"Adam's done a fantastic job this season," said Thornton. "Every team goes through troubles at different points in the season, with regards to injuries and chemistry. We've had our fair share of it early and often.

"When you lose two guys who are GB internationals (Stephen Murphy and Mark Garside) you can't really replace those guys.

"We had to change the way we play, we've asked more of guys and we've got more miles on guys than we wanted. With the other injuries, Adam did the hell of a job motivating players.

"He's one of the best leaders that I've ever seen and I think a lot of the players who played with him when he was a captain would probably say the same.

"The commitment he's put in has gone above and beyond, but I think the best thing has been his attitude. He comes in every morning, puts the hard hat on and puts in the hours. That's a leader you want to follow."

For Keefe it's about following Thornton by also making the Challenge Cup his first trophy success as a coach.

Belfast Telegraph

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