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'It's weird playing for him': Belfast Giants favourite Curtis Leonard on his link-up with old Cardiff Devils rival

 

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Changed plans: Curtis Leonard had planned on re-signing for the Giants prior to the Covid-19 shutdown

Changed plans: Curtis Leonard had planned on re-signing for the Giants prior to the Covid-19 shutdown

Changed plans: Curtis Leonard had planned on re-signing for the Giants prior to the Covid-19 shutdown

For the last two years, part of defenceman Curtis Leonard's job has been denying Andrew Lord coached teams silverware, but this season the pair have, ironically, found themselves on the same side of the rink!

Belfast Giants fans will fondly remember that goal Leonard scored two years ago when the defenceman squeezed the puck through the pads of Ben Bowns for the overtime winner against Lord's Cardiff Devils - a strike that proved crucial as the Giants went on to win the league on goal difference from those very same Devils.

So you'll forgive Leonard for admitting it's a bit strange being coached by his former rival at the Greenville Swamp Rabbits in the ECHL this year.

"Playing against him all those years, it's kinda weird playing for him now!" laughs the 28-year-old. "But you can see why those Cardiff teams were so good. I enjoy his practices. A lot of skill, a lot of pace. It's fun learning from him."

He's not the only former opponent that Leonard has on his side this season either. Swamp Rabbits team-mates Sam Jardine, Bryce Reddick, Joey Haddad and Mike McNamee were all Devils last season, while Brendan Connolly - a former Giant himself - was with the Steelers and the team have just signed Manchester Storm goaltender Matt Ginn.

"It's like an Elite League reunion!" laughs Leonard. "Those guys are great. They knew the lay of the land with Lordo, so it was good to get the inside scoop. They're all really nice guys.

"Joey Haddad - I hated playing against him when I was with the Giants, he plays on the edge, he plays a hard game. But when he's on your team, you love him!

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Curtis Leonard scoring the goal that helped the Giants win the 2018/19 title

Curtis Leonard scoring the goal that helped the Giants win the 2018/19 title

Curtis Leonard scoring the goal that helped the Giants win the 2018/19 title

"What I really liked was all those guys admitted they loved those games that year, we had such a great rivalry with Cardiff. They loved the intensity as much as I did, which was good to hear."

Had it not been for the coronavirus, chances are most of them would have been back in the Elite League this season. Leonard admits he was hoping to return to Belfast for a third campaign, while Jardine and Haddad had both agreed deals with the Devils for another term.

Instead, they are walking a very fine line of playing hockey while the pandemic rages around them. As one of the elite hockey leagues in the United States, the ECHL has forged ahead with their season under strict Covid regulations, but that hasn't prevented some teams from dealing with positive cases, the Swamp Rabbits among them. And while the majority of the Giants' roster from last year have sat out this season altogether - only seven of 24 have jobs currently - Leonard admits he was always keen to play this season, if indeed one did go ahead, and he insists he feels safe as they try to keep things going.

"I wasn't ready to retire yet. I was obviously hoping the Elite League would start again but we could see pretty early that wasn't going to pan out, so I signed with Greenville pretty early," he says.

"The big change is the travel given the situation. Every morning you have to fill in a form to say you have no symptoms of Covid and then twice a week you're getting tested for Covid, and then when you travel everything's organised. All those nuances that you take for granted are just different.

"You just get used to it. The games aren't different. You're still going out there with your team-mates who you want to win for. When you're in the room, there's still a lot of banter, it's just the off-ice stuff and the travel that's different.

"It's great that we get to play, so it's definitely worth it."

The focus for Leonard currently is helping Lord's Swamp Rabbits to the play-offs, something he believes is well within their reach given their upward trajectory as a team.

With a change in coaching staff and a massive roster turnover - only two players returned from last season - much of their opening few weeks were spent getting to know each other but, now they have some form, Leonard is optimistic.

“It’s been good so far. It’s a new ownership crew here and a lot of people are new to the team, so we’re all doing our part here. It looks like we have a pretty good team," says the Canadian.

“The one thing that’s different here compared to other teams is we have a new team and a new coaching staff. Only one or two players from last year’s team came back and we only played one exhibition game. The first weekend or two we were still adjusting, and since then we’ve been coming together and we’ve been going in the right direction.

"We’ve been competing in every game, so as long as we keep building and things keep going in this upward direction then we can push.”

However, given he was intending on returning to Belfast for the 2020/21 season if it had gone ahead, would he be keen on a reunion should things have improved this side of the pond by September?

He smiles, before responding: "My memories are all good of Belfast. That first year we had such a great group, we won two of the three trophies and lost in the final of the other, and we had such a great rivalry with Cardiff. That was so much fun.

"It was fun to see the city give us such great support. The Continental Cup, Johner scoring that goal and the building erupts - that was amazing.

"Last year, knowing the lay of the land, it felt like a second home to me. I'm open to anything. I really enjoyed my time in Belfast. I don't think I'm ready to retire yet, so that could be a possibility. We'll get through this year first and then I'll re-evaluate on how I'm feeling.

"If I feel like I could still contribute then I could see a possible return. You never know."

Belfast Telegraph


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