Long time Giants fan Aaron Kernohan uses the 20th season to reflect on the great players to pull on the teal.
Twenty years since the Belfast Giants took to Odyssey Arena ice. Twenty different rosters have been constructed. As the 20th anniversary of that very first game in the Odyssey Arena passes I have decided to take a look back over those years and put together what I consider to be the greatest team of all the players who have lined out for the Giants. This isn’t an exercise in identifying the best 20 individual players that have ever represented the organisation, the goal is to build a cohesive team of four forward lines, three defensive pairings and two goalies. So, here we go…
Ruff – Riehl – Berens
This line remains the greatest individual line the Giants have ever iced and you couldn’t form a team like this without that top line; the ultimate combination of skill, speed, scoring and toughness. Jason Ruff may be one of the best all round players the Giants have ever had. Three stints in Belfast for a total of four seasons, with one season as captain, Ruff notched two 30+ goal seasons and claimed two titles; an ISL league title and EIHL league title. One of the original Giants who followed coach Whistle from Bracknell, Kevin Riehl spent 3 seasons in Belfast scoring over 50 goals and 150 points to go with his ISL league and playoff winning medals. Sean Berens announced himself to the Belfast fans walking off the plane and straight onto the ice seven hours later against the Nottingham Panthers where his 2 goals inspired a 4-2 victory. One of the most skilful players in Giants history, with a penchant for the guitar as well, not even a disappointingly short second spell with the club excludes him from this line-up.
Schulte – Fleury – Szwez
The original franchise player in Paxton Schulte who racked up a lifetime’s imprisonment worth of Penalty Minutes but also knew where the net was and put up almost . He was the man who put the franchise on the map. He lines up on one wing alongside another leader and intimidatingly tough guy in Jeffrey Szwez. Two 30+ goal seasons for Szwez led the side to 2 trophies – a playoff win in his first season and a league title when he returned 3 years later. In between them is the greatest player to have worn a Giants shirt. A reigning Olympic champion when he arrived in Belfast, the man with 1088 points in 1084 regular season NHL games announced himself with a goal on his first shift, a hat trick, 4 assists and a fight in his first game before emerging from the bottom of the pile and acting as an innocent bystander when it all kicked off. It only got better from there.
Dwyer – Shields – Thornton
The top goalscorer in Giants (and GB) history was one of the first forwards down on the team sheet. After heading across the Atlantic Colin Shields tried his luck with NCAA College hockey before a stint in the ECHL. Tempted back to the UK Shields claimed an EIHL title in his first season in Belfast before adding two more league titles, two Challenge Cup titles and a playoff medal before his retirement last season. Steve Thornton arrived in Belfast in 2002/3 midway through the season and was a major catalyst in kick starting the season almost pushing the Giants to the league title before notching a point per game in the successful playoff campaign. Spells in Italy, Switzerland and Basingstoke followed before Thornton was coaxed back to Belfast where his visionary play as player coach led to the first multi trophy season with Challenge and Knock Out Cup wins in 2008/9. Rounding out this line and adding a little sandpaper is former NHL star Pat Dwyer. Dwyer was a leader on and off the ice in the title winning 2018/19 side and notched an incredible 81 points in just 54 games across all competitions.
C Bowen – C Ward – Awada
Rounding out the line-up is our skilful grind line. We have another former captain in George Awada, one of the biggest pests the Giants have had in Colin Ward and one of the best 2-way forwards in Giants history in Curt Bowen. All 3 players were equally as adept at both ends of the ice and were integral on special teams in their time – especially killing penalties. But this line wouldn’t give the opposition any respite. In five of seven seasons in Belfast Awada notched more than 20 goals; Ward notched 27 goals in a season in 2003/4 and Curtis Bowen also had a 27 goal season.
Rebek – Stewart
What a top pairing this would be to play against. Jeremy Rebek is one of few single season players to make this team. The captain of the 2011/12 title winning side, an absolute inspirational, tough no nonsense colossus on the back end who forms a defensive pairing that nobody would mess with alongside one of the originals in Rob Stewart. The quiet Iron man who never missed a game. Seek out the photo of Kent Simpson to see what he could do if you riled him up. A man whose importance to this team and city goes way beyond his undoubted abilities as a player.
Sandrock – Elfring
“Shoot Robby, shoot” was the phrase shouted around the Odyssey during his first season as a wet behind the ear youngster making his way in Europe. The slapshot was famous but not that accurate in those early years, but with the demise of the ISL Sandrock followed coach Whistle to Iserlohn, before forging out a career in the European leagues. Returning “home” to Belfast 10 years later the more mature Sandrock with a more accurate slapshot added goals, leadership and an EIHL winners medal to his ISL title. The silky smooth skating Calvin Elfring partners Sandrock, as he often did during the EIHL title winning 2013/14 season. Elfring claimed the EIHL defenceman of the year in that title winning season and allows Sandrock a little more offensice freedom, while also being able to feed that one timer slapshot.
Kelman – Johnson
When Rebek and Stewart and Sandrock and Elfring have worn the opposition down, who better to throw over the boards to wreak havoc than Todd Kelman and Shane Johnson? Two of the original Giants both were incredibly sound in their own end and could rack up plenty of minutes. Kelman also had a knack for knowing where the net was notching one 20 goal season, while Johnson may have been one of the most irritating pests ever to have played in the ISL or EIHL. Both were an integral part of the ISL winning side, the ISL playoff winning side and the first EIHL title while Johnson added a second EIHL title to his resume as well.
Steven Murphy – Mike Bales
In goal is where it gets tough. There’s only two spots and the Giants have been blessed with some great goalies over the years – Ryan Bach, Mike Minard, Stevie Lyle and Tyler Beskorowany are all worthy of a spot.
Steven Murphy disproved the notion that you couldn’t win the league with a British goalie by claiming the EIHL title in his third season in Belfast. Winningest goalie and most shutouts for the organisation – two records that may never be beaten – Murphy is still icing and could extend both of those further. He was one of the first names down on this team sheet.
Mike Bales; backstopping the side to their first ever title in one of the most dominant teams iced in the UK claims the second goalie spot for Bales. Only here for one season Bales made the ISL first all star team before moving on to play regularly in some of the top leagues in Europe and act as goalie coach for NHL Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins.