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Rob has played Giant role in 1,000 landmark

By Stuart McKinley

Published 17/09/2016

History boy: Rob Stewart outside the SSE Arena ahead of the Giants’ massive weekend
History boy: Rob Stewart outside the SSE Arena ahead of the Giants’ massive weekend

Over the last 16 years there has been much more to the Belfast Giants story than the normal sporting triumphs and failures.

From playing in front of excited sell-out crowds in the early days, title successes, play-off victories and European adventures to cup final heartbreak, on-ice brawls and seeing the club almost cease to exist, Rob Stewart has seen it all.

He's also occupied a number of roles since being part of the first Giants team to hit the ice in Nottingham on September 16, 2000.

At home to the Edinburgh Capitals tonight will be number 999 and tomorrow night in Dundee, Stewart will be behind the bench as assistant coach for the club's 1,000th match.

Having been part of a large percentage of those he is well qualified to judge the success of the last 16 years.

Critics said ice hockey in Belfast wouldn't last much more than a couple of years - and they were almost proved right when massive debts and a winding up order put the club on the brink of extinction in 2003 after three seasons.

Stewart was just about to become the head coach at that stage, but hard work by himself and a group of others saw them survive and that period is now just part of the Giants' history.

"I never thought that the Giants wouldn't be here long-term - although we had that hiccup three years in," explained Stewart.

"The fanbase has grown over the last 10 years and if anything the fact that the club survived back in 2003 showed that people cared.

"The team wouldn't have been here in the first place without Bob Zeller and Albert Maasland and it would have folded without Jim Gillespie stepping in and the people here owe him a lot."

The Belfast Giants and the Odyssey Arena are now a part of ice hockey that is here to stay. Amazingly Zeller thought that he would have to hand out free tickets in order to fill the place for the first home game against the Ayr Scottish Eagles.

As it turned out the 'sold-out' signs were up well in advance of the big night.

The turnstiles still click like crazy on game night.

"It's a sport that grabs people," said Stewart.

"Some people will have gone once and never came back, but there are a lot more who have got the bug straight away," he added

"It's family orientated and while the more traditional sports of rugby and football have their core fanbase I think we have taken a few away.

"Everyone will have their favourite games, the league wins, the Play-off title in 2003 was special and I have great memories of those because they were significant - and they should be significant," he said.

"I remember other ones too because of the incidents in them, like the Nottingham game when Paxton Schulte got attacked and a couple of games against Newcastle when they were around and had a team built on toughness.

"In 16 years there have only been two or three when I haven't been around with the Giants and I have been fortunate enough that I haven't missed a trophy win."

Stewart first arrived in Belfast as player-assistant coach to Dave Whistle at the beginning before taking over the reins when his friend left for Germany.

He was unceremoniously sacked after just a single season, but would return as a player to be part of the 2006 Elite League winning team just weeks after his 40th birthday.

In recent years he has been assistant coach as well as heading up the junior development programme, which he hopes will help ensure that the team will survive another 1,000 games - and with local talent on-board.

"There is some talent coming through, there are some kids who really love their hockey and parents who are very supportive," said Stewart.

"It's taken a while, but we are getting there with the junior programme."

Stewart continued: "We have some kids in Canada, one who is in Sheffield with one of the minor teams and hopefully in the future we will have local guys on the team again when the next 1,000 games come along."

Belfast Telegraph

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