Belfast Telegraph

Thornton excited to lead Giants' summer overhaul


Prize guys: Belfast Giants director of hockey operations Steve Thornton (right), wit Robert Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Odyssey Trust (left) and captain Blair Riley after winning the 2018/19 Elite League title
Prize guys: Belfast Giants director of hockey operations Steve Thornton (right), wit Robert Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Odyssey Trust (left) and captain Blair Riley after winning the 2018/19 Elite League title
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

When Belfast Giants pair Darcy Murphy and Tyler Beskorowany were confirmed to be departing earlier this week, for Germany and Slovakia respectively, there was despair among the team's fanbase.

After all, their departures signalled the loss of two major reasons why they won three trophies last season, Murphy scoring 50 goals and finishing as the league's top scorer, while Beskorowany prevented even more between the pipes at the other end as the Elite League Player of the Season.

They're not the only ones to leave Belfast either. All-Star defenceman Josh Roach has agreed a move to EHC Linz in Austria, while captain Blair Riley will also move to pastures new, meaning there will be a fair amount of turnover for the new season.

It's not uncommon for this to happen to the Giants. Last season, leading scorers Brendan Connolly and Sebastien Sylvestre left for Glasgow and Croatia respectively. In 2015, top scorer Raymond Sawada left for Japan.

The Giants have, for many years, been a stepping stone to bigger and better things for players, as much as some don't want to admit it. But perhaps it's time they embraced that reputation.

"If we have a guy that comes in and scores 50 goals for us, helps us win trophies and moves on, then I would take that right now," says the Giants' director of hockey operations Steve Thornton.

"That's just the way it is. It'll hurt when they leave, but playing in the Champions League might actually attract players like that."

It's Thornton who, along with head coach Adam Keefe, assembles the roster each season, and with the off-season in full flow, their joint office at the SSE Arena is a hive of activity each day.

The pair have a whiteboard which dominates the room, on which they write down ideas and players they want to target. Between them, all day they will identify signings and call agents and references on each as they try and build the perfect team, Thornton by utilising his general manager contacts, Keefe focusing on his playing and coaching ones.

So far they've done a good job. Elite League leading scorer Murphy has been replaced by the next best thing in the league's second top scorer from last season, Ben Lake. Beskorowany is yet to be replaced, but sources indicate that the search is nearing its conclusion.

But the job doesn't end with a new goalie. With only 10 names so far, the Giants still need around 12 more players to complete their roster for the new season as they aim to defend their crowns.

Thornton cracks a grin, before admitting: "I do like this part!

"We're trying to sell Belfast and build a winner. You get a little better at it every year, but we don't have scouts, so we're not travelling the world watching players, we're building a picture based on resumes and references, so it's not a perfect science.

"We get it right a lot, but you can easily get it wrong, and we're doing everything in our power to avoid the ones we get wrong.

"There's compromises and gambles on a lot of the players you take. If they're older, are they past their prime? Someone who might have had an injury last year, are they ready to go again? Then it's managing those decisions on what compromises you can take and what ones you can't.

"It was possibly grey for a while, because you just wanted to put the best roster on the ice, but now it's more black and white."

Last season, they very much got those big decisions right as the Giants fell one game short of a domestic clean sweep in the play-offs, losing to the Cardiff Devils in the final, and were a penalty shoot-out away from adding the Continental Cup too.

When it comes to putting together a title-winning roster, however, there's no magic formula. No matter how many points a player has scored, or his previous form, it can be something that the statistics never allow for that gets the team over the line.

"You need to have a certain number of goals. But then you need so much more, you also need to have toughness, leadership, speed, depth, guys who are willing to accept different roles, guys who have won before because that is contagious," Thornton adds.

"But the most important thing you need to have is in close games - when you're playing 80 games a season every game is a close game - you need to have character.

"Your team, generally, matches the identity of the coach, and our coach has character, you can tell that's the kind of person he is and that's the team we want to be.

"That's the guys we want to recruit: when the going gets tough after three days on the road and you're in a road building that's not quite as nice as (the SSE Arena), are they going to show up?

"When you have a team of good people with character who will turn up, that's probably what won us the league last year."

With the Elite League ever improving, and rivals such as the Devils, Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers also gearing up for a title challenge, the emphasis is on the Giants to set the standard.

Head coach Adam Keefe has already set out his stall, the team want to get faster and they want to be even better than last year, not just to continue their dominance domestically, but also to do British hockey proud at a European level in the Champions League.

So, with so much riding on the recruitment this off-season, there is a lot on Keefe and Thornton's shoulders.

"There is pressure and I feel if I didn't feel pressure, and it's more the pressure I put on myself, then I'm probably not the right person for the job," insists Thornton.

"You don't want to get too comfortable because every weekend is like a shareholder's meeting on a Monday morning, your results are instant and we all want to win. Adam wants to win, I want to win, the organisation wants to win, so I don't want to spend a summer working hard to be in a position where that's not happening.

"It's not a bad thing, I really enjoy it. I like this part even though it's tiring and I'm proud to be a part of it."

Follow Adam McKendry on Twitter @admckendry

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