LAURA SMALL SPEAKS TO DENISE WATSON: It’s been a hectic few weeks for Laura Small. Ever since the Belfast Giants clinched the Elite League title the fans have been busy snapping up replica shirts, which means she’s been kept extremely busy.
Laura works for Kukri at Ravenhill with Ulster Rugby but the company has branched out and also now supplies the Belfast Giants kit.
“I’m merchandising manager for Kukri now which means I’m responsible for everything sold online and also for the team kits on game night,” she told me.
“I spent the summer developing the jersey and socks. People have different specifications so it’s been a learning process for me.”
But how exactly did the 33-year-old become involved with the ice hockey team?
“Through a family connection,” she says. “My uncle was a previous owner. It was a sport we watched as a family and I became addicted to it and very passionate about it. I started volunteering, looking after merchandise and getting involved in charity work like visiting hospitals alongside the players.
“I love meeting other people who feel the way I do about the Giants. It’s great that people here have embraced a sport which most of us weren’t born into in Northern Ireland,” she added.
“The Giants are a close, small family. For instance, Mark Brooks [the current marketing manager] started as a skate sharpener aged 14. It’s a great place to work. Everyone has grown up together,” she smiles.
As Laura says ice hockey is not as well known a sport as football or rugby in Northern Ireland.
The rules and regulations take a bit of learning but Laura received guidance from one of the best in the business!
“Todd Kelman [Belfast Giants general manager) keeps me right. Also we had a great coach called Steve Thornton who answered lots of my questions,” she says. “And you learn from the fans who’ve watched ice hockey in the NHL. We also made cheat sheets for a while and I memorised those!”
Laura says the players who come across to Northern Ireland already have a good knowledge of the province, so she hasn’t had to act as a tour guide.
“A lot of the players have girlfriends from here and they are looked after wherever they go. The current squad are a great bunch of guys who have really bonded.”
I suggest to her that there must be a diva in the midst, but Laura wouldn’t take the bait, replying: “Honestly there’s not really! They’re pretty good. The players interact with the supporters a lot and that doesn’t happen in every sport. I guess there are similarities between the Giants and Ulster rugby. The players know how important the supporters are too.”
Much has been said about the family atmosphere at the Odyssey on game night and it’s clearly something Laura is proud of.
“It’s a safe environment. The kids are indoors and we do games throughout the night. Like pizza giveaways and the Subway challenge. We are constantly trying to make it a great night out.”
There are many positives to be taken from the season but I asked Laura how the sudden departure of coach Doug Christiansen last year affected the dynamic of the team.
“Yeah last year was difficult. Doug leaving us was a shock and a disappointment but Paul (Adey, pictured right) came in and the players were determined to do well. The team are strong.. I really think they will go forward even stronger and win the Challenge Cup and the play-offs.”
And memories of the Elite League win are still fresh in her mind: “It was a really special night - bringing the trophy back here and parading it in front of the fans. It was a great feeling to share it with them.”
Laura keeps herself fit but admits she prefers watching rather than playing sports. American sports are her big love and she says basketball is her favourite, “In particular the Rockets”.
She’s also keen to promote volunteering in sport. “It’s the best way to get into a sport. And don’t be put off if it’s a male-dominated environment. If you want to get involved go ahead.
“You know I think more men are afraid of me than I am of them. Someone said to my boss recently, ‘Oh you’re Laura’s boss’ to which he said ‘well technically I am, but if you’ve met her that’s not the case!’”
Something tells me that everything will continue to run smoothly at Belfast Giants HQ while Laura is working away in the background.