Belfast Telegraph

Matt Pelech: It will be an honour to lead Belfast Giants into Europe

 

Big impact: Belfast Giants’ Matt Pelech scoring against Mora IK in pre-season
Big impact: Belfast Giants’ Matt Pelech scoring against Mora IK in pre-season
Ben Lake
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

Lining the walls of the home tunnel at the SSE Arena are pictures of Giants captains down the years with the honours they've won.

Now head coach Adam Keefe is there from his playing days. So are franchise legends George Awada and Shane Johnson. Jim Vandermeer and Patrick Dwyer were added over the summer from last season's successes.

As the latest player to adorn the 'C' for the Giants, Matt Pelech hopes he will join them soon.

"It's a great honour, especially when you look at the pictures on the wall of who's been there before when you're walking to the locker room, and especially after the bar being set so high after last season," said the 31-year-old, the 10th player to captain the franchise.

There were always questions over who would captain the team this season given the seemingly never-ending list of possibilities. Liam Reddox, with his four years of experience as a captain in Vaxjo, seemed like a prime candidate, while Curtis Leonard was a potential to step up after being an alternate last season.

Both, however, will provide support as alternates to Pelech instead, the former first-round NHL Draft pick having impressed both in the locker room and outside it. He leads by example on the ice with a no-holds-barred approach, while he's one of the most vocal and upbeat guys off it.

At morning practice, Pelech's voice is usually the first that you can hear, and he's just as likely to be one of the first to be cracking jokes as he is to be lining up a bone-shattering hit when an unsuspecting forward gets in the wrong position.

That ability to mix and match the serious side of the game and keeping it light will no doubt have factored into Keefe's decision as to who would succeed Blair Riley as captain this season. In Pelech, he's found someone that mirrors how he himself performed as skipper.

"For me, whether I was assistant, captain or nothing at all, it's not going to change the way I come to the rink every day. I'm going to keep it loose and lead by example," insisted Pelech.

"Hockey is a fun game. To be able to do this for a living is incredible. You just have to have fun, and if you're playing well and winning things then it's fun.

"The locker room is the most fun place on earth, when guys retire they say that's the thing they miss the most. The locker room is where the fun is. Being on the ice is probably the second most fun place in the world, but for me, being loud and being vocal makes it fun and it helps your team win."

Whether his style of leadership would have differed with or without a letter on his jersey no longer matters. Pelech is now the leader of this team, one that has settled in remarkably quickly for the new season having won all four of their pre-season exhibition games.

Not that that's surprised the new skipper. As they barrel towards the real action, the competitive games at the start of the season that will define the direction of this team, he's relaxed.

When asked about the dynamic in the locker room and how it looks like his team have settled in so well right from the start, the defenceman sits back and smiles.

"It was something that was easy to see from the minute you walked in there," he claimed. "We have some strong personalities in there but they're great people and good team-mates, which was the most important thing.

"We gelled really quickly, and when the guys are having fun together and the locker room is loud and lively like that, it kick-starts the chemistry you see on the ice.

"With the experience we have in that room, you could air drop these guys on any team and they'd be fine."

There's no time to sit back and let the news sink in, though. Pelech's first assignment as captain comes tonight as he leads the team into their first ever Champions League match against Czech side Bili Tygri Liberec at the SSE Arena (face-off 7.30pm).

It's one of the most eagerly anticipated Giants matches in recent memory, and will be one of the toughest too against one of Europe's superstar teams, with the hosts needing big games from all their top stars, the likes of netminder Shane Owen and top pre-season scorer Ben Lake, if they're to stand any chance of causing an upset.

But there's confidence in the Giants' locker room, led by their new captain, and he's not backing down from the challenge.

"I know we can play with Liberec. I think everyone in our locker room knows we can play with them. I don't know if they know we can play with them, but this is our building. We want to set the tone from the first shift that this isn't going to be an easy night," said a defiant Pelech.

"If they want to score a goal, they're going to have to work for it and make some plays because we are not going to make it easy on them. We're going to play defence first and play fast.

"The guys are so excited for the Champions League, us coming out with a good pace is not going to be a problem.

"The guys in there are really excited and ready to go."

Belfast Giants

Bili Tygri Liberec

Champions League

SSE Arena, Tonight, 7.30pm

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