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September, 2011:

Everyday’s A School Day..

Pre-season is as much about learning lessons as it is giving those desperate for just a taste of hockey that tease before the season proper begins. It’s when both teams and fans can settle in on what they want for the season. Assess what’s in front of them and bring opinion on what, if anything, needs to change.

This past weekend brought the visit of the Nottingham Panthers to the Odyssey Arena. By way of silverware, probably last season’s most successful team. While the league, once again, eluded them, the Challenge Cup and Playoff trophy reside in the NIC trophy cabinet. A needle to those Giants fans who hold a special place in their derision for the Nottinghamshire side.

So for the Panthers to return to the scene of the Challenge Cup victory was one that brought many a patron in the arena to forget the purpose of the weekend and focus on battle with what many take as a rival.

Both teams were lacking key players over the weekend, Kowalski, a key part of last seasons achievement for the Panthers had yet to arrive to the UK, while the likes of Garside and, later due to injury, Pelle were missing for the home team. So it was a chance for others to stake their claim in the side. Not least in Belfast where the availability of an 11th import would threaten the safety of a regular first team start.

Sometimes life gets in the way of hockey, as shocking as that may sound. For me this meant attending a good friends wedding on the Saturday and remaining aware for the buzz of my phone. While it may have drawn a *tut* or two from my significant other, I was thankful for those bringing me the good news of a Giants 2-1 home victory and further fuelled my enthusiasm for my first Odyssey trip of the season the next night.

Watching a new Giants side never gets any less difficult despite over 10 years experience. Picking up numbers, playing styles, positioning, shooting side and trying to understand who has been given which role or special teams berth is something that can take a few games, never mind picking it up in an immediate way during a pre-season match. But I usually pick my targets and hope that they provide the underpinning confidence in their play that the statistics we fawn over pre-season suggest.

You can’t draw too much from games like these as, like I say, they are all about learning lessons. The first combat after under a week of training camp is not a game to pin seasons on. So to take either the first games victory or second games unfortunate 4-2 defeat as a means to a seasons end is to misjudge what the purpose of the weekend is.

What I witnessed on Sunday brought a number of positive and negative responses from those around me in the “usual corner”. Some warranted, some not so. But to take any opinion at this stage is to merely vocalise what folk see as potential shortcomings and lessons that they hope the man in the suit on the bench sees also.

While this Giants team do lack in stature, this initially didn’t seem to effect their game. The grit I had hoped would be apparent was certainly displayed, not least on the British line which appeared to be a target for Lepine, Neilson and co. However Robert Dowd ensured a message was to be sent back with them, confidently sticking up for himself when roughed up by a number of the visiting antagonists.

The Giants, in Daryl Lloyd, have quite the thorn when it comes to pushing the buttons of the opposition. Constantly on the move, constantly in the face of forwards. He was entertaining to watch both on and, more importantly, behind the play where his actions would cause uproar on the Nottingham bench, and draw pointing and choice words from Rick Strachan and, on one occasion, a binned Corey Neilson.

Lloyd will make few friends across the league, but his slash’s, glove punches, late hits, trips various other behind the play antics will simultaneously delight the Giants fans while infuriating the opposition numbers. I have no doubt he’ll pick up penalty minutes galore, but if his actions bring retaliations that lead to, for example, a five minute major for cross checking for the opposition like they did on Sunday with Stevie Lee, then the Giants will have little complaint. A player I’m certainly looking forward to seeing more of.

One very noticeable and positive trait the Giants displayed on Sunday was a strong forecheck on the penalty kill. Something I don’t think I’ve seen done effectively on Odyssey since George Awada hung up his skates. The Giants played a very high line against the Panthers powerplay unit and weren’t afraid of being caught short at the back with all 4 outskaters pressing then back-checking as the clock ticked down on the penalty. I certainly hope this isn’t a flash in the pan moment for these tactics.

It is often a mis-given belief that criticism this early in the season is ill-placed. But there is a difference between out-right criticism and causes for concern or learning. These games are put in place to highlight the shortcomings more than they are to display the strengths. With that the Giants did show moments that no doubt went immediately into the notebooks of Christiansen and Stewart.

Christiansen himself admitted that last season’s powerplay, while not statistically poor, certainly left a lot to be desired with regards of form. This year he has put in place a number of players with vast experience in quarterbacking a revised powerplay ethos. This certainly needs further refining. As an example, a 5 minute major against a 16-year old 3rd choice netminder produced a single goal and a the conceding of a short handed goal. While it is easy to point fingers, I will take into account the fatigue of this being at the back end of the weekends fixtures, it is merely a point for improvement many would hope would be addressed in the season to come.

And so the week counts down to the beginning of the season proper. From the visit of the double cup winning Panthers, to the arrival of the league champion Steelers. Christiansen’s opening fixtures could not be a more stern test of the team he has put together.

The scorelines of the weekend past mean next to nothing, it wasnt about who beat who; but how the team can gel on the ice. About who works well in what system and what line. The coaches and the fans will have made up their own minds and as the season approaches hour by hour, the Belfast Giants will be refining their game with another title challenge in mind.

Will the lessons of last season be learned… We’ll see come April.

The Long Wait Is Almost Over

Life runs in cycles. Fashion, Music, Movies and Sport all turn 360 degrees time and time again as our lives go on. Every April we revel in the victories or defeats the ice hockey season has given us, and by the end of August we sit in anticipation of what’s to come. Those past machinations are merely confined to the memory banks for use only in statistical and emotional comparisons.

Once again we have reached that point of eager anticipation; the first drop of the first pre-season puck is merely hours away while hockey fans both casual and fanatical dust off the shirts and plan their pre-match routines with friends. Some of which they won’t have even seen for many a day, as life returned to mundane normality between April and September.

Piece by piece the puzzle of this year’s teams have been put together, with some still needing completion. Preparations are made on the ice for the forthcoming season; PR is distributed to draw in fans to the arena for the first time, or the first time in a long time. Mascots are drawn from cupboards, programmes are printed, cheerleaders rehearse and merchandise is laid out for sale.

But to the fan, spending his or her hard earned cash on a small piece of card that would gain them entry; the peripherals are but that, superfluous to the main event. The rush of noise as a new band of recruits takes to the ice wearing the crest that represents those in the stands as much as those on the ice who came before them.

I approach this season with enthusiasm that I didn’t believe I’d have back in April. I should have known better. Weary from a season that gave so much in promise but returned so little in product, I felt I could happily tone down my emotional involvement in the sport and look to other things. Golf took precedent in the summer months, running, surfing, Glastonbury and working to pay for this fun all took my mind away from hockey.

But not for long.

As the signings rolled in, one by one I started to get more interested. One by one I began to become more enthusiastic. While the initial signings got no more than a glancing look, as more and more were brought in I found myself looking a little longer at each player who would this season be donning the red, white and teal shirts of the Belfast Giants.

Like a drug I’d been weaned off, I indulged just once, then again, and again, and again. And now I sit awaiting a flight to Belfast, yes I have other social plans, but I also already have my tickets to one of the pre-season friendlies.

Why?

A number of reasons really. Mainly because, despite my protestations, I love this sport; the speed, the skill and the physicality. I also enjoy the people around the sport. A tight-knit community of fans who would know most of each other by name, if that be first name alone, and only have one topic of passionate conversation, knowing what aspect each enjoys and arguing till the cows come home any contrary opinion.

Another reason would be the fact I have been very impressed with the team put together this season. A mixture of experience, speed, talent and grit. From Rebek’s vast European hockey experience in defence, to the outright grit of a player like Lloyd. I feel this seasons team has such potential to be one of the best.

Undoubtedly in Peacock, Dowd and Garside the Giants have one of the best forward line British cores in their short history, if not the best in this years league. While the familiarity of a player like Walton alongside the development of Gareth Roberts, and maybe one or two other local lads who have trained pre-season, brings pride in what my home-land can produce.

I also take into account that for the first time in a long long time, I have looked at the “hard man” signing and held up a lot of hope for his role. Adam Keefe may be that franchise “enforcer” the Giants faithful have craved since the retirement of the number 27.

The Giants organisation have been hard at work looking at angles to promote and encourage the excitement leading to these opening games and with the visit of the Nottingham Panthers. Those fans who are long in the tooth need no further encouragement than to stand and shout for their men on the ice against a team for whom they hold little love. A perfect nemesis for an opening stanza.

The season proper is only a week or so away, the opening games are only days away.

My shirt resides in my hand-luggage, my ticket in my wallet as I sit feverishly waiting for the gate of my flight to be called. A sleepless night awaits….

Could this be the season?

Or did I say that last year?

These things run in cycles, after all.