We struggle to recall a louder noise in the SSE Arena. The scene was one of nervous tension in the winner-takes-all final game of the 2019 IIHF Continental Cup. Visiting team Arlan Kokshetau had taken a 2-0 lead into the final period with the Giants facing a mountain to climb.
Chris Higgins, returning to Belfast after over a year away had put the Giants onto the board only a minute earlier and gave the home fans hope when Dustin Johner took the puck left of goal and rifled it by Ivan Poloshkov to make it 2-2.
The noise as puck met twine was deafening, the home fans elated as goals at 47:44 from Higgins and the equalising goal from Johner 72 seconds later raised the bar for the side and proved their worth on the stage.
Sadly last night wasn’t to be for @BelfastGiants
But this equaliser from @dustinjohner will be part of a game long remembered by Giants fans.
And the roar of the arena. ?? pic.twitter.com/Rzo19mIPev
— A View From The Bridge (@AVFTB) 14 January 2019
Sadly, the moment would prove ultimately fruitless in the Continental Cup as Arlan would take the trophy on penalty shots. But listening to the League and Cup champions as they spoke at the end of the season, that game would drive them on to the successes they would achieve at home.
And these would be the final professional hockey achievements of Dustin Johner who announced his retirement from the game prior to the EIHL Playoff Final against the Cardiff Devils.
Johner’s Giants story is one of two very varied seasons in teal. Signing in the summer of 2017, his first foray into life in a Belfast jersey was one best by injury and frustration. Johner would miss a majority of the year, watching his team lift the Challenge Cup from the sidelines.
But it was interesting to hear how his teammates shared his frustration. Through that injury hit season Johner’s name would commonly be mentioned by his peers as the player they most wanted to play alongside and a shared belief that more could be achieved were he back in skates.
Well founded belief, as it would play out in 2018/19, as Johner returned to show exactly what he could do. The native of Estivan, SK proved to be a sound machine in the forward lines. Creative when he needed to be, but belligerent in his determination to play the puck.
Even if you take away that Continental Cup goal, the next play that instantly comes to mind from last season is how he chased the puck to the corner of the Viola Arena, forechecking hard to put Jordan Abt in a difficult position.
— EIHL (@officialEIHL) March 11, 2019
Abt would try to place the puck around the boards behind his own net, but the swift thinking of the Giants forward would turn the puck over. Johner then on the backhand placed the puck on the advancing Smotherman in the slot for the Game Winning Over Time goal and at last Johner would win a trophy on the ice and not in the stands. What it meant to Dustin is played out more in the excellent “Sudden Death” documentary from Giants TV, as his parents in the crowd had the opportunity to see the key role he played in retaining the Challenge Cup.
Pretty special to have my family and parents at the #CCFinal19. Winning In front of them and our amazing fans is something I’ll never forget! #WeAreGiants #notdoneyet #BackToBack pic.twitter.com/H0YamRyaSz
— dustin johner (@dustinjohner) March 12, 2019
In a season full of silverware for the Giants, the faith Adam Keefe, Steve Thornton and the Belfast Giants retained in Dustin Johner through his previous curtailed season was proven to be sagacious.
He retires following one of his most successful seasons on the ice not only in terms of silverware, but it is hard to argue that the goal against Arlan will be long spoken of by Giants fans. A single moment of legend that will cement his place in Giants folklore forever.
Johner retires after 15 years of professional hockey, 12 in Europe across Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Finland, Germany and the UK.
— dustin johner (@dustinjohner) June 16, 2019
Since his retirement the Johners have announced the impending arrival of another child, and with that we wish Dustin and his family well. And thank him.
See ya Dustin.
Words: Patrick Smyth
Photos: PressEye / William Cherry