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Jordan Smotherman: Hands down, being a Belfast Giant has been one of the best experiences I've had

 

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Belfast Giants forward Jordan Smotherman with the Challenge Cup trophy

Belfast Giants forward Jordan Smotherman with the Challenge Cup trophy

Leaving: Jordan Smotherman

Leaving: Jordan Smotherman

William Cherry/Presseye

Belfast Giants forward Jordan Smotherman with the Challenge Cup trophy

In an ideal world, Jordan Smotherman would have stayed in Belfast all summer ahead of a third season with the Giants.

The 34-year-old would have been fresh off his second play-offs appearance with the team and would have been entering the second full year of his two-and-a-half year deal at the SSE Arena.

In fact, Smotherman was so confident that he would be in Belfast for a few more years, let alone one, that he sold his car back in the USA and was preparing to make the Northern Irish capital his permanent home during the off-season.

Unfortunately for both club and player, the coronavirus pandemic had other plans.

A curtailed end to the Elite League season back in March saw Smotherman return to his home near Boston as soon as the announcement was made, and having had time back in the States with his family has allowed him to reflect.

With the indecision over next season, the Giants have, understandably, been cautious about handing out contracts and, as a result, Oregon native Smotherman confirmed via Instagram on Monday evening that he will not be returning to the Giants for a third season and will instead be remaining in North America to continue his career.

If you need any evidence as to what an impact he had on the Giants, both the team and its fanbase, then the outpouring of gratitude in response to the post, which had over 100 comments on it, should be all you need.

"I was almost moved to tears by some of the messages. I've never been embraced by a fanbase like that, and to be able to see the impact I was able to have and hear from all of them, it was very emotional to wake up to (yesterday) morning," said Smotherman.

It wasn't an easy decision to make, especially given the role that he held within the team. Not only was he a player-coach on Adam Keefe's staff, he was also highly respected within the locker room and a firm fan favourite at the SSE Arena.

However, the many unknowns lurking when it comes to Covid-19 forced Smotherman to reflect on his own personal situation. In the end, that lack of clarity on the 2020-21 Elite League season made up his mind for him.

"In all honesty, with the uncertainty in the world and when and if things are going to start - and in general the craziness that's going on over here - being at home is really important to me," admits the former Atlanta Thrashers forward.

"It's tough. I hadn't heard anything from the Giants over the summer, not that there was much to report given all the question marks, and it just came to a point where I had to make a decision that was best for me and my family. Not an easy one.

"Over the course of the summer it's something that's been in the back of my mind and something I really struggled with because I have such a connection to the Giants that I've never felt throughout my career.

"It was something I talked with my family about a bit, and then just in the end it seemed like being here and being close to home was going to be the way to go."

It's something that's plaguing players across the world, not just in the Elite League. With Covid-19 calling a halt to practically every hockey league - bar the NHL, who are still intending on completing their play-offs - it's unprecedented times.

Teams are struggling to fill rosters as uncertainty over the viability of leagues persist. Players are reluctant to sign contracts for the same reason. Jobs are less prevalent for players the longer they opt not to agree any deals with interested teams.

It's something that weighed on Smotherman's mind when making his decision for next season, and he sympathises with those players who are caught in a tough spot right now.

"I would say stress is probably the right word. With so many question marks - and now we're talking about travel bans from the US to Europe because of how severe the situation is - yeah, there's a lot of stress," he admits.

"If and when the leagues are going to start is the major question. I've been talking to a lot of friends who have contracts in the major leagues in Sweden, Finland, Germany - the leagues that can survive for a while without fans - and even the uncertainty of those leagues have guys on edge.

"It's a tough time to be a hockey player, for sure."

So, sadly, rather than look ahead to another campaign with the Giants, it's instead time for Smotherman to reflect on his 80 games in teal, which weren't without drama, elation and, eventually, two trophies.

Even before he arrived in Belfast he pulled off a masterstroke in fan service with a mad-cap overnight dash from Iserlohn in Germany to Amsterdam to fly to Northern Ireland to suit up for the injury-ravaged Giants' game that afternoon against the Nottingham Panthers.

"Crazy hustle, starting at 4.35am to get to the airport in Amsterdam and then play a game," laughs Smotherman, who took first shift in that game and ended up scoring in an 8-5 win.

"I'll never forget the cheer coming out of Boomerang Corner when they cheered out my name. From that moment I knew there was something different about that place. People appreciated that so much, I could tell already how much they cared."

From there, the former Atlanta Thrashers became one of the most popular players among the SSE Arena faithful, frequently meeting with supporters post-match and retweeting fan posts on Twitter.

On the ice he was a hit too. Not only did Smotherman finish the regular season with six goals and 14 points in 19 games, he popped up with the game-winner in overtime of the Challenge Cup final as the Giants defended their title with a 2-1 win over the Guildford Flames in Cardiff.

He was also key to boosting the Belfast offense as they went on to win their first league title since 2014, pipping the Cardiff Devils by goal difference, and added four goals and six points in the play-offs as Adam Keefe's side missed out in the Grand Final to those same Devils.

"Being able to score an overtime winning goal for a cup is something you dream about as a kid. Usually as a kid it's the Stanley Cup you're dreaming about, but to score that goal and see the reaction of everyone in Cardiff, and then everyone in Belfast when we got back, was a top moment of my career," he smiles.

"And winning the league in the hotel. Being able to win a title surrounded by your fans is a unique experience that only the EIHL can provide!"

This season may not have been so successful from a team perspective - the Giants were eliminated from the Challenge Cup in the quarter-finals and were fourth in the Elite League when play was halted - but Smotherman still had a strong individual season, leading the team in scoring with 17 goals and 47 points in 60 games.

But when he reflects on his time in Northern Ireland, it's a time that Smotherman admits he expected given the glowing reports he'd heard before joining, but still left him delighted both in the rink and outside it.

"I've played nearly 1,000 professional games and hands down it's been one of the best experiences I've had," he says. "Organisationally we got to win a couple of cups in a short time there, and the relationships I got to build in and around the team are like nothing I've ever had in my career.

"I had a number of people I reached out to personally before I made any public announcement, and the response I got from them was amazing. They're people who have no links to the Giants but those are friendships that I will continue on for the rest of my life."

And no doubt fans will be glad to hear that Belfast hasn't seen the last of him just yet.

"Belfast is somewhere I will not be a stranger to. I'm planning on coming back several times for visits," he adds with a smile.

You can guarantee the supporters will be rolling out the welcome mat for that one.

Belfast Telegraph