Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Giants: How the city's new-boys became more than just a sports team in December 2000

 

Big names: Paxton Schulte in action
Big names: Paxton Schulte in action
Schulte dropping the gloves
Theo Fleury
Todd Kelman lifts the 2003 Championship
Jim Gillespie
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

Nineteen years ago, on December 2, 2000, the Odyssey Arena in Belfast was opened to the public and a new era began.

The first event hosted by the new arena had been preceded by much build-up and excitement, both for the building itself and for the new tenants, ice hockey side the Belfast Giants, who finally made their home debut by welcoming the Ayr Scottish Eagles.

Although that game would end in a rather anti-climactic fashion with a 2-1 win for the visitors, the night was considered a success.

Defenceman Todd Kelman recalled: "It was an unbelievable thing to be a part of.

"I went to Whis (head coach Dave Whistle) and I said to him I needed to start that game because I just knew it would matter to me some day. I'm glad I did."

The brain-child of Groomsport-based Canadian businessman Bob Zeller, the Giants were the hottest new thing in town with a sell-out crowd of over 7,000 people attending that first game against Ayr to get a glimpse of the city's latest sports team.

Back then they had recruited well for their debut campaign. Whistle took the reins after joining from the Bracknell Bees, and he brought several of his players with him. Indeed, it was Whistle who first encouraged them to get involved with the community side of things, something which continues to this day.

Defenceman Shane Johnson, who was one of those to move from the Bees and is still with the Giants as a member of staff today, said: "Dave had already been here and knew what was coming. He was able to tell us it was going to be great and we trusted Dave, so it didn't take that much convincing."

The team were initially sponsored by Harp Lager and they bought into that by nicknaming fan favourite Paxton Schulte, a hard-hitting, no-nonsense forward, 'The Fridge'.

Jeff Hoad was named captain. A combative forward with tigerish skills, he was a natural leader.

Other names in that original line-up included the popular quartet of Colin Ward, Kevin Riehl, Kelman and Todd Goodwin. Ward and Kelman's impact on the team over the next few years was so great that they both had their jerseys retired - the highest honour for an ice hockey player.

But back then, they had their nay-sayers, of course. Those who believed the traditionally North American sport had no future in Belfast. "It won't last," the cynics claimed. "It's only a pipe dream."

The Odyssey itself was dismissed as a 'white elephant'. Now it's part of the Belfast sporting and entertainment landscape, colloquially known as 'The Addissee' after the Canadian players' pronunciation.

But from the start it was clear that this was more than a sports team. They transcended the ice and became more than just a bunch of players shooting pucks and picking fights, even back then.

And in their 20th season as a professional side, that still rings just as true as in the first.

Their motto is 'In the land of the Giants, everybody is equal', and they abide by that now just as much as they did at the turn of the millennium. Football colours are still strictly prohibited from the SSE Arena on a game day. No anthems are played before their games, as is custom at all other UK rinks. Their players will go out and perform voluntary work in all communities, Protestant and Catholic alike.

Kelman, who played for the Giants in that debut season and went on to spend 15 years with the organisation as both a player and general manager, insisted: "The underlying thing about being a Belfast Giant is it's more than just being a hockey team.

"It's not just a saying, those guys lived and breathed it. I don't know if there's been a better group of guys that just got it. Nobody complained about doing all those promotions because they knew we had to grow the team.

"I don't know if there's a team in sport who has done more for the community than the Giants."

Johnson concurred: "All the guys felt like they were ambassadors for the sport, especially as Giants it was emphasised what we meant to the community.

"Particularly in a country where sport has been historically divisive, we wanted to be a unifying sport for Northern Ireland. That's why the Giants wear teal and why we say, 'In the land of the Giants, everyone is equal'. It's in our DNA.

"Credit to everybody involved in those early days, that became the legacy of the Giants."

And yet that only tells a small part of what the Giants stand for and have achieved, particularly given the organisation nearly ceased to exist in 2003.

Facing financial problems and the risk of bankruptcy, the team were saved by local man Jim Gillespie, who took over and steered the organisation back into financial stability, avoiding collapse after just three years.

It's safe to say that without Gillespie, the Giants wouldn't be where they are now. Rather than simply keep the team afloat, his endeavours and relentless work behind the scenes saw the team flourish, not just financially but also by encouraging the team to embrace the community-oriented side of things, which is a big part of what makes them so unique.

He never took to the ice as a Giant but Gillespie was deservedly inducted into the British Ice Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013 for his work, and not one person stood against the decision.

Another tricky period arose in 2013 when personal allegations against American businessman Christopher Knight, who bought the team from Gillespie, threatened to see the club collapse as players refused to play for the new owner.

However, this time they were rescued by the Odyssey Trust, who bought the rights to the team and allowed them to continue playing at the Odyssey Arena under their current guise, and who still own the team today, avoiding another potential pitfall.

And, under Gillespie's backing and then the Trust's stewardship, the team have gone from strength to strength. Off the ice they have created a strong brand, while on the ice it has been an undisputed success since those early days in 2000.

They won the British Superleague in 2002 and added a Play-Off title in 2003 before the league rebranded into its current state as the Elite Ice Hockey League. But even then the success continued to flow, with league titles coming in 2006, 2012 and 2014, along with the 2010 Play-Offs.

Big names have come and gone, the likes of stars such as Theo Fleury, Jason Ruff, George Awada and Darryl Lloyd seen as heroes for their never-say-die attitude for the club on the ice and their personable natures off it.

But for all the star names from North America, the heartbeat of the organisation has always been the local players such as Graeme Walton, Mark Morrison and current netminder Andrew Dickson. Other players from around the UK have made their homes in Belfast and have become club icons because of it, like Colin Shields and Stephen Murphy.

The Giants also look after their own. While only six numbers are retired and hang from the bridge in the Arena, there are countless names of past players and staff members who have brought the team to where they are today, each and every one of them with their own unique imprint on the organisation.

Right now, they are being steered by another generation of Giants legends. Under the stewardship of former captain Adam Keefe, and backed by head of hockey operations Steve Thornton and Odyssey Trust CEO Robert Fitzpatrick, the side are in an unprecedented era of success.

They are current back-to-back Challenge Cup champions. They are defending Elite League champions. They narrowly missed out on the Play-Offs and were a shoot-out away from winning the European Continental Cup last season too. They were named Team of the Year at the 2019 Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards as well.

Fittingly, this campaign, in their 20th anniversary season, the Giants made their first appearance in the Champions League, the premier European Championship, as if to tangibly reflect just how far they have come, and they impressed both with their on-ice skills and their off-ice hospitality for visiting teams.

It's safe to say the Giants have been through both the highs of winning silverware and the lows of nearly going out of existence twice, but 19 years later here they still are, going strong and backed by a loyal fanbase who travel with them far and wide across both the UK and further afield.

'A proud city takes pride in you' is what the fans like to say. And it could not be more true.

The impact they have had on sport in Northern Ireland as a whole cannot be understated either. Their community-based approach has been adopted, adapted and taken on by other sports teams throughout the country, and it has seen them thrive.

In the Elite League they have established themselves as perennial heavyweights. In hockey circles, they are known as a respectable, welcoming and community-driven organisation that does right by its players, staff and fans. Now they are making their impact felt on the continent.

When your reputation precedes you, perhaps that is the best way to be seen as an organisation. Players talk about it all the time, how no one has a bad thing to say about the Giants when they ask about signing for the team. That hasn't been established overnight, that has been cultivated every single day since December 2, 2000 and it will continue to be long into the future.

Club legend Schulte said: "I love to see it's going forward. It's become home rather than just a place for so many guys, and that has continued on from the first season. That, for me, is the most pleasing thing."

Twenty years ago, they said it wouldn't last. And they were nearly proved right.

But as they celebrate their 20th season this weekend by welcoming rivals the Sheffield Steelers to the SSE Arena for a double-header, the Giants will send possibly the most emphatic message they can to those cynics all the way back in 2000.

You couldn't have possibly been more wrong.

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