Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Giants lift league trophy in front of sell-out home crowd

Belfast Giants 7-4 Coventry Blaze

By Stuart McKinley

It all started 14 years ago and, despite ups and downs since, this could be greatest ever season.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word odyssey as: 'a long and eventful or adventurous journey or experience.'

How fitting it is then that the Belfast Giants have their home at the Odyssey Arena.

The history of the team could be described in exactly the same way.

Their 14 years in existence have been peppered with many trials and tribulations.

There have been even more triumphs though and this weekend it's party time for the team and its fans.

The Elite League champions got their hands on the Monteith Bowl after last night's 7-4 win against Coventry Blaze and this evening the championship banner will be unfurled at the Odyssey to go alongside the seven others that mark Giants trophy successes.

What an amazing odyssey it has been.

And to think that back in 2000 there were dissenting voices everywhere.

Comments ranged from: "That'll never take off here," and "There's no interest in ice hockey in Northern Ireland" to the even more pessimistic "It won't last any more than two or three years."

The negativity was everywhere – and the team hadn't even broken the ice.

If Bob Zeller, the man who brought the Giants to Belfast, had listened to any of them he'd have been out of here quicker than a Robby Sandrock slapshot.

He would often talk about the 'naysayers' but never took anything they did have to say on board.

The legacy that Zeller gave to Northern Ireland sport keeps on giving, 14 years after it started and well over a decade since he himself moved on.

Zeller did fear that nobody would turn up for the first game. Oh how wrong he was.

A 7,300 sell-out crowd watched the Giants against the Ayr Scottish Eagles and with a typical Northern Ireland attitude they didn't care that the team lost.

The tickets for the next game were like gold dust too and when the Giants beat the Bracknell Bees in a thriller, with two late goals, those who were in the building that night were hooked.

The odyssey had begun – and it shows no sign of stopping.

The Belfast Giants remain the hottest ticket in town. Average home crowds of well over 4,000 have watched the team's march to the title this season and it's not just being associated with success that brings in the punters.

A night at the Giants is like no other sporting event in Northern Ireland.

General Manager Todd Kelman, who was a player for the first seven years before spending the last seven running the club, bills it as an 'entertainment experience' and few who have been to a game can argue.

It may not be the NHL, but it doesn't stop Kelman and his staff trying to run the Giants like one of the world's major clubs.

You won't go hungry at a Giants match, certainly not if you're on the right end of a shot from the Subway Sub cannon, which fires out sandwiches from the centre of the rink during breaks.

If not, there is always the chance of getting a box of Northern Ireland's favourite crisps to throw out to those sitting round you if you win the Tayto Rough Cuts Quiz, with three simple questions about the Giants and plenty of opportunity to ask the audience.

And if you cheer loud enough to be selected as 'Fan of the Match' you'll get yourself a pizza from one of the cheerleaders, who never fail to get the crowd dancing.

If the Giants don't win, those in the stands will as someone goes home with one of the players' shirts after every match.

It all adds to the fun and everything the Giants management do is aimed at bringing the fans back time and time again.

There is no doubt that it works.

And if you are in any doubt as to how hard the players work then just sit near the tunnel and the smell will tell you as the aroma of sweat emanates from the dressing room area during the period breaks, with equipment manager Jason Elleray drying players' gloves.

The fans just keep coming back for more, mainly because it's not just an ice hockey match.

It was the novelty value that saw crowds pack the place in that first season. The team's success was the main factor in the next as they went on to win the Superleague crown.

Over 1,000 people greeted the victorious team when they arrived back at Belfast City Airport as champions in January 2002 after winning the title in Bracknell.

That great high was followed by a major low.

Nine months later two teams – Manchester Storm and the Scottish Eagles – went to the wall. The league was on its knees and although the Giants won the Play-off title they almost became the third team to collapse.

Coach Dave Whistle had already moved to Germany before reports came out in the summer of 2003 that the club was in debt to the tune of over £600,000.

Office staff were laid off, a winding up order was lodged and those naysayers looked like they were going to be right before creditors agreed to accept a compromise deal.

A knight in shining armour arrived in the shape of a wealthy USA-based Ulster-born businessman, namely Jim Gillespie.

He liked the Giants story of bringing the communities in Northern Ireland together and was willing to provide the cash injection that the club desperately needed.

Still, budgets were slashed across the league and Whistle's successful team broke up.

No longer was UK ice hockey seen as a final stop for ageing former NHL stars and the quality on the ice diminished.

New coach Rob Stewart had to pick up the pieces as the game of survival began, with the priority being to get as many paying punters into the arena as possible

The team finished fourth in the league and Stewart was sacked! Given the circumstances he should have been given a medal.

John Elliott, who founded the Clement's Coffee chain in 1999, had been brought in to run the club and guide it through the storm.

He appointed Tony Hand, the UK's most famous ice hockey player, as the new coach and under him the Giants finished second to Coventry Blaze in 2005 – despite losing all eight Play-off matches there was something to build on.

The continuity that the club craved as it tried to get back on its feet wasn't there though as Hand left after a single season.

Still, he did recommend his close friend and former team-mate Ed Courtenay as his successor and a year later the team won the league, with NHL icon and former Olympic champion Theo Fleury leading the title charge.

His signing was a major coup and was down to Canadian businessman Jim Yaworski. At least he delivered on one thing because not one penny of a £650,000 investment he promised was ever seen.

The Giants odyssey is a story of bouncing back from major adversity though and while Courtenay had two further seasons without success, the club was on a much more stable footing when he left in 2008.

By that time Kelman had stepped in to run the show and off the ice things were going very well. On the ice Steve Thornton became the first coach to win two trophies in one season as the Giants lifted the Challenge Cup and British Knockout Cup.

A year later they were within a point of winning another league title, with the blow softened by a thrilling Play-off final penalty shoot-out victory over the Cardiff Devils.

That brought about the end of an era with Thornton quitting and Shane Johnson, the last of the original Giants, retiring from the game.

Under Doug Christiansen the Giants were again second by just a single point in 2011 before laying their league title ghost to rest a year later.

That should have been the catalyst for a really bright future, but this time last year, when Gillespie decided to sell his stake, it emerged that the man buying the club, Christopher Knight, was on a sex offenders register in the USA.

The issue affected the players and the title challenge crumbled. Christiansen left to join the Sheffield Steelers and the future was anything but certain.

Those in charge at the Arena knew that they needed the Giants every bit as much as the team needed them and threw out a lifeline, taking over ownership of the club.

So far it's a match made in heaven. The mutual benefit is that both grow stronger together and with the Giants now Elite League champions in Paul Adey's first season in charge, this time the future looks bright.

The club's junior programme is thriving now too, the fans are flowing into the Arena and the target for the players is to make this the most successful season in Giants history by adding the Challenge Cup and Play-off title to the league crown.

Now that's what you call an odyssey.

Belfast Telegraph


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