Belfast Telegraph

We need to talk about Kevin: After fighting his way to top, Stanley Cup winner sure to enforce his presence in Belfast

By Stuart McKinley

If there's a problem off the ice Kevin Westgarth is happy to sit down and talk through it. Just don't expect him to be so understanding on the ice.

Known as a tough enforcer, the 30-year-old Canadian was also one of the key figures during the negotiations that went on during the NHL lockout a couple of seasons ago.

It took five months of talks before an agreement was reached between the players and the league, whereas Westgarth usually likes to sort things out in a few seconds.

Westgarth always knew that he would have to fight his way to the top - literally as it turned out - after he missed out on being selected in the NHL draft during his time at Princeton University. The same university that Michelle Obama graduated from.

He did, however, make it all the way to the top, playing for the Los Angeles Kings, Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames in the world's top league, playing 169 games in total before winning the game's ultimate prize just a couple of years ago.

A hand injury ruled him out of the final games of the season as the Los Angeles Kings lifted the Stanley Cup in 2012, beating the New Jersey Devils 4-2 in the seven-game series. He still has his name engraved on the trophy and the memories to go with it.

"Anybody on the planet that laces up a pair of skates wants to win the Stanley Cup, or at least dreams of winning it and to be able to do that was very surreal," said Westgarth.

"It's one of those things that you've pictured a thousand times in your mind and then it's actually happening and you think it must be a dream.

"To be able to do that and share it with my team mates and my family was the most incredible thing."

To be making his Elite League debut for the Belfast Giants just over two years later is a sign of the times in the NHL. To put his arrival in Belfast into some kind of context it's similar to one of Chelsea's 2012 Champions League winners dropping down to League One or League Two because he can't get a game in the Premier League.

"Jobs are hard to come by in the NHL and for the heavyweight enforcers I think it's not a very good marketplace right now," he revealed.

"A lot of them got sent to the AHL and I think of all the guys who were free agents this summer, only one of them out of five or six is still playing.

"I just thought that this was such a great opportunity and I want to make the most of it."

Giants coach Steve Thornton is as excited as the fans at the prospect of a recent NHL-er playing on his team.

And rightly so. Westgarth's name has been on the lips of every Giants fans since his signing was announced last week and he has already had an impact on ticket sales. Within 24 hours the club's management already knew the attendance for tonight's game against the Cardiff Devils would be higher than last Friday's win over the Braehead Clan.

Indeed it is set to be the highest regular season attendance at the Odyssey Arena in years.

Given what he has achieved in his career the capture of Westgarth is one of the biggest signings the Belfast Giants have ever made - probably only behind Theo Fleury in terms of his CV.

Thornton is quick to stress that Westgarth hasn't been brought here to fight, he wants him on the ice and hopefully scoring goals. He's never been a huge scorer, though, and with Cardiff providing the opposition for his first two Giants appearances - at the Odyssey tonight and in Wales tomorrow - the odds are that he'll drop the gloves at some stage.

"I look forward to being a big part of essentially whatever they need from me and if that's to provide some offence I look forward to doing my best scoring some goals, getting some assists and just causing some havoc out there," said Westgarth.

"If the situation calls for it - much to my wife and my parent's dismay - I haven't been very good at saying no, but it's a kind of 'break glass in case of emergency' and I am sure it's going to happen at some point."

Wife Meagan flew into Belfast with him earlier this week, happy to avoid the glare of publicity that has followed them around since their relationship began at Princeton.

They didn't set out to be a celebrity couple, but when you're a sports star who is married to the daughter of another famous sporting figure it's hard to avoid the spotlight.

Meagan's dad is Bill Cowher. Not only is he a former NFL player, he guided the Pittsburg Steelers to the Super Bowl in 2006, where they beat the Seattle Seahawks.

"We've been relatively good at keeping it separate, but her dad is obviously such a huge quintessential football figure over there," said Westgarth.

"We have a great relationship and he's been such a great sounding board and resource through this entire mess that is professional sport.

"He's been through it and seen so many guys come through it and it's always great to get his opinion and his advice too."

It was his own family's roots that played a part in Westgarth's decision to leave North America for a new challenge in Belfast.

"My grandmother was from the Republic of Ireland and because of that I have been able to get my citizenship," he explained.

"It's something I am very proud of and one of our last family trips was a two-week road trip to Ireland and it was awesome.

"We started in Shannon and made our way along the south coast to Dublin, then up and over and across to Galway. It was a heck of a trip. A lot of pubs, a lot of Guinness and a lot of history too.

"I never made it up as far as Belfast, but I've heard great things about the city."

After winning the biggest prize in the sport anything else could be considered small beer, but Westgarth hopes to be popping the champagne again at the end of this season.

"Talking to Steve was a great motivation for me. He has just loved his time playing in Europe over a long time," he said.

"It's such a cool city itself and the professionalism and success of the team is a huge draw. The Giants won last year and I am just looking to help them in any way I can and have a great time."

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