"This summer can't go by fast enough": Jordan Smotherman can't wait for his Belfast Giants return
Exactly a year ago, Jordan Smotherman was weighing up his future as an ice hockey player, with two offers on the table.
One would see him end his professional ice hockey career after 16 years and take up a coaching/general manager role with a team in the East Coast Hockey League.
The other would see him opt for a second stint in Europe by signing with German DEL side Iserlohn Roosters.
Although it probably seems strange now, given the path his career has taken since, the decision wasn't one that Smotherman was sure of at the time, particularly given his plans for the future.
Having had brief experience of coaching with the Manchester Monarchs, whom he led as interim coach in the latter stages of the 2017-18 season, it had opened up the 33-year-old's eyes to the potential going forward.
However, the timing wasn't quite right.
"It was close to home and for me it was a good opportunity because it’s the next thing I want to do in my career," he explains of the offer at an unnamed club in the ECHL.
"But I wasn’t quite ready to hang up the skates, even though I wasn’t having as much fun playing as I used to.
"An opportunity like this doesn’t come up very often and I did think maybe this was my time, but the idea of playing some more stuck with me."
So, with the coaching plans parked, Smotherman agreed to join the Roosters on a one-year deal, making them his seventh European team after a six-year spell on the mainland from 2011 to 2017.
It didn't transpire the way the Oregon native had intended, however, Iserlohn finding themselves in mid-table obscurity in the DEL and unable to compete for the play-offs - not the ideal situation for player or team.
As for Smotherman himself, just four goals and 11 points in 35 games with the Roosters was not a true reflection of his capabilities, and he knew that. Personally, things had not worked out either.
"It just was not a good fit for a number of reasons," adds the forward.
The rescue came thanks to an offer from the Belfast Giants, head coach Adam Keefe and head of hockey operations Steve Thornton coming in with a contract to sign for the 2019-20 season.
Despite his struggles in Iserlohn, Smotherman agreed to the deal, which gave him something to look forward to when his stint in the DEL had come to an end.
Ironically, that ended up coming a lot sooner than anticipated as, whenever the opportunity arose to make the switch sooner - with the departure of Hunter Bishop - it was jumped on by both parties.
25 games, 13 goals, 10 assists, 23 points and three trophies later, it's rather safe to say that it was a decision that panned out for both Smotherman and the Giants.
"It was a bit of a career saver for me. Coming to Belfast made that decision to keep playing worth it," he admits.
"It reignited the passion I have for the game, every night stepping out on the ice is exciting, the atmosphere at our games, the passion of people around the rink, what it means to the city, it makes it worth playing for a few more years to come."
Now Smotherman can look forward with much more optimism than what he did 12 months ago. Instead of fretting over a decision of whether or not to continue playing, he knows where he'll be come August.
His position will be on the left wing for the Giants at the start of the new Elite League season, and likely as a top-six scoring forward after his impressive impact down the stretch last campaign.
Away from the numbers, Smotherman was the game-winner in the Challenge Cup final and was a wholly positive influence on the locker room, settling in Belfast quickly after his mid-season move.
It helped that he showed plenty of commitment before he had even stepped foot in Northern Ireland with his mad overnight dash from Iserlohn to Belfast to be on the ice against the Nottingham Panthers the next day.
That earned him a lot of respect within the Giants' fan base and, even after that, his status within the team only rose with his commitment on the ice and personality off it.
"That was a very pleasant surprise from last season, the warmth that both Scotty (his wife) and I received from the fan group after only a short period of time was overwhelming, but in a good way," he smiles.
"It gives you that little bit extra motivation, not that you need any given how big the games were down the stretch, but just knowing people are behind you and enjoy who you are as a player and a person makes you want to win even more."
While last season was what re-invigorated Smotherman's love for the game - and yielded three nice, shiny objects for good measure - his focus has already turned to next season.
With Belfast aiming to defend their treble - the Elite League, Challenge Cup and Erhardt Conference titles - as well as compete in the Champions Hockey League, the idea is simple: be faster and better.
That, for Smotherman, is the ideal situation, and he can't wait to be a part of it.
"I had so much fun in the last two months of the season there really wasn’t any other option for me, that’s for sure," he enthuses.
"Now I can’t even put my excitement into words, knowing what I’m getting into and knowing the organisation and the people of Belfast, what it’s all about."
As for his summer plans, well, the saying goes that players never have an off-season, they simply go straight into pre-season once their campaign has ended.
While some would challenge that assertion, and few would actively stick to it, while Smotherman is back home in Boston, he's already been making sure that he'll be coming into the new season firing.
If the Teal Army thought nearly a point-a-game production from their left winger was good, then, amazingly, the former Atlanta Thrashers forward insists he could be even better next season.
"It was trial by fire this year, and that worked out, but there’s something to be said for having a full pre-season with the group of guys, particularly with the CHL," says Smotherman.
"I came in middle of the season but probably not in the best of shape, so that’s why I’m putting in a lot of work over the summer. I’m excited to come back at what I consider my peak and put in my best performances in the new season.
"Points-wise I did pretty well, but I’m talking more conditioning-wise. In Germany, things slowed down for me in the month or two before I came, I put on a bit of weight that I didn't want to be carrying.
"I’ve already dropped the initial 10, 15 pounds I wanted to and I’m hoping to be a little quicker and fleet of foot next season."
There have also been calls for the 33-year-old to be in the conversation for the captaincy next season, what with the Giants needing someone to take on the role with the departure of Blair Riley.
While he's never worn the 'C' with a team, Smotherman has been an alternate captain at Tingsryds AIF and Rogle BK in Sweden, as well as with Manchester in the ECHL.
And while Smotherman doesn't say no, he does believe that whether he is genuinely in the mix for the role or not won't change his influence on the roster.
"It’s not anything I’d ever want to turn down, if I was ever given the opportunity then I would be massively honoured," he says.
"We’re going to have a number of good guys in that room who could wear the 'C' on their chest, and the good thing about a hockey locker room is you don’t need a letter to be a leader.
"If it happens, it happens, it’s not going to change anything for me, I’ll just keep being the happy-go-lucky guy in that locker room every day and make my team-mates better."
As he prepares to return for a second season - or perhaps, more accurately, his first full season - in Belfast, there's more than just the hockey Smotherman is looking forward to.
"The day-to-day life. I miss the routine of practices in the morning, going to the rink and then doing your thing with the guys," he says.
"Living so close to the heart of the city, I miss the day-to-day going for a walk downtown, popping into a restaurant, get a pint, the very easy accessible environment that Belfast provides.
"Next year we’re excited to explore some of the areas outside the city, some of the places outside downtown."
There's no doubt about it, though. As much as the fans are thrilled that he's back - and certain reporters too - there's nobody more excited to be back in teal next season than Smotherman himself.
"I couldn’t be happier," he adds. "This summer, as much as I love home, can’t go by fast enough."
The Belfast Giants' Champions Hockey League fixtures are expected to be confirmed early next week, and it is believed the away fixture at Lulea will be one of the two games in October... an interesting note from the CHL draw, Liberec and Augsburg are twinned cities... the Sheffield Star reported earlier this week that the Giants are looking at a reunion with defenceman Ryan Martinelli... defenceman Jordan Subban is believed to be attracting interest from Sweden and Germany, making the Giants outside bets to sign him, indeed if they have any interest at all... new Giants winger Patryk Wronka looked to be having a good time in Kosice at the World Championships, checking out some of his new team-mates and opponents on Team GB... a reminder that the Giants are hosting a fan event on Wednesday night, which will feature a couple of signings... congratulations to Nottingham, who will host GB's third round qualifying group for the 2022 Winter Olympics... on that note, expect the Elite League to take a week-long break while the tournament is ongoing.
Belfast Telegraph Digital