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Photo: Vince Rappleyea

#AHLOTB: Samuels-Thomas brings work ethic, dedication

By Craig Elsten | AHL On The Beat

At San Diego Gulls training camp in September, a hulking yet familiar face appeared in what seemed like the wrong place.

Jordan Samuels-Thomas, a consistent member of the Ontario Reign in 2015-16, was at Poway Ice, ready to wear the bird on his sweater and switch sides in one of the American Hockey League’s most physical rivalries.

He would have to wait just a little while longer to see his work rewarded.

As one of the last cuts of Gulls’ training camp, Samuels-Thomas began the 2016-17 season with the Utah Grizzlies in the ECHL. After being traded by the Grizzlies to the Florida Everblades less than 10 games into the season, San Diego signed him to a professional try out (PTO) after suffering multiple injuries and early season struggles.

In his first game with the Gulls, Samuels-Thomas scored a goal on Nov. 11 versus Manitoba and helped San Diego break a five-game winless streak. He scored a short-handed goal in the following game as the Gulls swept a weekend set from the Manitoba Moose which began an eight-game winning streak from Nov. 11 through Dec. 2. To date, San Diego is 9-2-0 when Samuels-Thomas pulls on the sweater this season.

The Gulls quickly recognized what they had in house, signing Samuels-Thomas to an official AHL contract for the remainder of the season. It was a reward that required patience from a man who has learned the game doesn’t always reward quickly, but it will reward hard work.

“I try to do the little things and be the hardest working guy on the ice,” said Samuels-Thomas during a recent sit-down at Poway Ice. “People notice that, and even if it doesn’t work out right away…it will work out.”

Samuels-Thomas came to the Gulls at a time when San Diego’s penalty kill was reeling, having allowed 15 goals in the first eight games. After his arrival, the team killed 39 of their next 42 penalties against. Being a great penalty killer is a job that Samuels-Thomas came to later in his career.

“In college (at Bowling Green and later Quinnipiac), I don’t think I killed a penalty once; I think that’s one of the best parts of my game as a pro,” Samuels-Thomas observes. “I wasn’t known for my defense in college, and I think that’s what I’m best at as a pro.”

Standing tall at 6’4”, the strong forward was drafted in the seventh round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by the then Atlanta Thrashers, going on to a four-year college career between the two schools. In the amateur ranks, Samuels-Thomas was an offensive force, producing 50-54=104 points in 148 collegiate games.

After being traded to the Buffalo Sabres prior to 2014, Samuels-Thomas signed a one-year entry level deal but was back on the market in 2015. He found a home with the Ontario Reign in the AHL, but just like this year spent a brief stint in the ECHL before clicking as a regular part of the starting lineup.

Battling for your paycheck isn’t an easy way to make a living, but as Samuels-Thomas has learned, hard work is what you sign up for when you make a career out of professional hockey.

“I try after every season to evaluate and see where my game is, what I can do better, and what I need to do to stick. I think every time when it comes to contracts, there’s a lot that is out of your control, but you can control what you work on: the small details in the game. The ‘will things’ that other guys might not be willing to do if they’re more talented.”

Jordan Samuels-Thomas’ game is a heavy game. It’s based on puck possession, working hard in the corners, being a defensive-minded forward and being willing to take a hit to make a play. Those ‘little things’ stood out last year as well, when Samuels-Thomas was on the other side of the Gulls-Reign rivalry, participating as the two teams faced one another nineteen times from the preseason through the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Now, for the first time in his career, Samuels-Thomas is playing against one of his former teams when San Diego meets Ontario.

“You play them now, and you know their systems…I know exactly the tendencies of guys and stuff like that,” Samuels-Thomas said with a grin. “Honestly, it’s been a lot of fun being on the other side.”

“The cool thing is that both teams play a really heavy game. It’s fun. Those are the games where I’m at my best. That’s pretty much what I’m capable of doing. These types of games are the most fun for me, and it’s been really fun as a Gull.”

One ancillary benefit has been the opportunity for Samuels-Thomas to be coached by two very different bench bosses in Ontario’s Mike Stothers, and San Diego’s Dallas Eakins.

“They’re both really great coaches, and their resumes speak for themselves,” Samuels-Thomas reflected, “Stothers is a really hard-nosed coach. “I think he’s going to be a little more in your face, challenging you.”

“My experience so far with Coach Eakins, he kind of lets you play your game,” said the Connecticut native. “He knows what you’re capable of, and he wants you to do that. He just kind of helps you and guides you. He definitely does a great job of handling different players and personalities and being the coach he needs to be for each player.”

Born and raised in West Hartford, Connecticut, Samuels-Thomas was inspired to take up hockey when he watched Disney’s, “The Mighty Ducks”, a fact that rings even truer now that he is a member of the Ducks’ organization.

The son of a track coach and two Division I track athletes, Samuels-Thomas signed up for an after-school roller hockey program run by the local police department and began a life of hard work trying to pick up the needed skills to play.

“I wasn’t very good at skating–or anything–to start the first two years, but my parents were great, especially my father, investing time and money because I really liked it.”

Hockey never came particularly easy to Samuels-Thomas, but thankfully for his future, working hard did. With intense support from his family, he started his march up the ranks. His father recognized that he would grow up big and strong, and started him weight training at age 13, sending him to Belleville, Ontario to get a summer’s work of lifting done.

Whether it was enrolling him at a more expensive prep school to get a better overall (and hockey) education, or taking three straight weekend trips to Toronto to be seen in a better tournament, Samuels-Thomas saw up close the sacrifices his parents were willing to make to help him further his career.

“It’s not just a financial commitment, it’s an emotional commitment and a time commitment. So many people have helped me out to get me where I am. Who knows, maybe I’ll play in the NHL, but I love what I’m doing so it’s a huge blessing.”

Samuels-Thomas gets to share his blessings with his wife Paula, who he met at Bowling Green and fell in love with.

“My wife and I have been married for a year. We’ve been together since my freshman year in college. My first and last girlfriend, and wife now. She’s been huge for me. She’s from the Toronto area, and I’ve spent three summers training up there with her family, and they took me in and let me stay at their place and train,” Samuels-Thomas reflected. “I’ve been really blessed. I thank God every day for my family and my wife.”

“Hockey’s such a crazy game, you don’t know with the business side of it how it’s going to go. I know, every time I play, I’ll put on a Gulls jersey and think right before the game, ‘wow, what a blessing it is to be playing professional hockey in Southern California.’ It’s essentially a dream.”

When he pulls on that Gulls sweater, Samuels-Thomas does so wearing the number 42. Yes, Jackie Robinson’s number. Gulls’ co-equipment manager Matt Brayfield assigned the digits to him inadvertently, but, when he saw his new sweater hanging in his locker, he couldn’t have been happier with the fortunate coincidence.

“I’m obviously a huge Jackie Robinson fan, and (Sharks forward) Joel Ward is one of my favorite players as well. That’s a number I gladly took and am proud to wear, and hope to continue wearing.”