Belfast Giants past and present to honour Rob Stewart
Published 18/02/2014 | 01:30
When Rob Stewart made what he describes as an easy decision to follow his close friend Dave Whistle to Belfast in the summer of 2000, he could never have imagined how much it was to change not only his ice hockey career, but his entire life.
He has been through a lot in the 14 years since then, experiencing success and failure – although much more of the former than the latter – with the Belfast Giants and he remains the past, present and future of the club.
Stewart has been involved in all four of the Giants' league title triumphs, as a player in 2002 and then again in 2006, when he had already passed his 40th birthday.
For the last six years he has been assistant coach, first to Steve Thornton, then Doug Christiansen and this season he played a part in helping Paul Adey's team claim the title.
The next generation of Belfast-born Giants are being nurtured by Stewart too as he fronts up the club's junior programme.
Now the time has come for the 48-year-old to receive the praise and recognition he deserves as a team of Giants legends prepares to take to the ice once more in Stewart's testimonial at the Odyssey Arena tonight.
Famous names like Mark Cavallin, Paxton Schulte, Jeff Hoad, Kevin Riehl, Colin Ward, Thornton and Whistle have come back to honour their friend and former team-mate.
"I'm starting to get a bit excited as the guys are starting to arrive," said Stewart.
"I haven't seen Mark Cavallin, Jeff Hoad or Kevin Riehl since they left Belfast, but like other times when there have been testimonials, once we all get back together it's just like we've never been apart.
"The dressing room banter will start to fly again and we'll all have a good time."
Stewart was one of the first men that Whistle signed after agreeing to become the Giants' first coach. The pair grew played against each other at university, but it was when they came together in Romford, Essex, 22 years ago that a lasting friendship began.
They moved to Basingstoke, Telford and Bracknell together before coming to Belfast, where in three seasons Stewart never missed a game. When Whistle moved to Germany in 2003, Stewart didn't go. Instead he succeeded his friend as coach of the Giants.
He was thrown into extremely difficult circumstances. The Superleague collapsed, the team almost went to the wall.
Despite all his efforts Stewart became the only coach ever sacked by Giants after they finished fourth in the inaugural Elite League season. Tony Hand was announced as new coach just a couple of hours after Stewart was told of the decision back in 2004, but that is all water under the bridge.
"It was a tough time to take over the club because I didn't know if we would even have a team and I couldn't sign anyone for months," he said.
"If the team didn't survive I was out of a job so I had to work hard to keep things together.
"It was very difficult, but I like to think that in that year some things happened that helped the team in the future, like bringing local kids Mark Morrison and Graeme Walton into the team."
Tonight's special night will also be a family affair for Stewart. His brothers Keith and Greg will join him on the ice and even his son, nine-year-old Mackenzie, is going to be in the line up.
That has sparked a battle between father and son over a shirt number, but as Rob says: "There's only one number 16."
Nobody who knows the history of the Giants can argue with that.