Belfast Telegraph

Paxton Schulte: To be acknowledged by Belfast Giants fans and have people keen for their children to meet me, it is a great feeling'

Giants hero Paxton Schulte on establishing an ice hockey team in NI and emotional return to Belfast

Getting shirty: Former Belfast Giants ace Paxton Schulte is presented with his famous No.27 jersey by Kendall McFaull on a recent trip back to Belfast
Getting shirty: Former Belfast Giants ace Paxton Schulte is presented with his famous No.27 jersey by Kendall McFaull on a recent trip back to Belfast
Paxton Schulte dropping the gloves during his playing heyday
Paxton Schulte

By Stuart McKinley

Turning your back on any remaining hope of a career in the NHL and heading across the Atlantic to a small town in Berkshire may not be considered a great move, but anyone who knows Paxton Schulte also knows that he never does things in a conventional way.

Making a living as a sportsman who punches opponents isn't exactly the norm either.

Ice hockey's equivalent to football's Premier League, La Liga or Serie A offers glitz and glamour - not to mention the big crowds and the big salary that goes hand-in-hand with that. It wasn't, however, giving Schulte the kind of satisfaction he was looking for. Eighteen months after playing alongside Theo Fleury for the Calgary Flames, he gave up that particular fight.

When you chip away the tough guy exterior, however, there is much more to Schulte. Indeed, when he left the Belfast Giants in 2004, he did so as the club's all-time leading goalscorer.

A fighter during his ice hockey career, he only ever wanted to be loved off the ice.

In Belfast, he found that love.

Not, however, before heartbreak when that switch to Bracknell, while working out on the ice as the Bees won the Superleague in 2000, failed to have the effect he'd hoped for on a personal level.

"Originally I left North America thinking that I could save my first marriage," said Schulte.

"I left for the right reasons - a shorter season, I would be at home more and therefore hopefully have more quality time. As it turned out it didn't work, but I think I had just had enough in North America."

What Schulte did find in Bracknell was a close player-coach relationship with Dave Whistle. When Belfast Giants founder Bob Zeller was putting his plans together to put a team on the ice here in Northern Ireland, he head-hunted title-winning coach Whistle.

Heavily criticised by his old club for taking seven of that Bracknell squad with him, the truth was that the situation was the opposite way around as almost immediately Whistle found Schulte knocking on his door saying he wanted to be a Giant too.

"When Dave Whistle came to Belfast I went to him after hearing the opportunity that he had. I had imagined that Rob Stewart would follow him and I went to him and asked that he take me too if he wanted me - and he did," said Schulte, who is now aged 46 and working in a sports equipment store back in his native Canada.

"I made that move myself. I was very happy with Whis and felt very comfortable with him as a coach that I had liked. I had gained an enormous amount of respect for him and a friendship too.

"To come over here to what has become a great thing, which I didn't know at the time, but I was happy to be part of a new opportunity."

It was perfect timing for all involved. At the turn of the millennium, when Northern Ireland was looking for a new generation of sporting heroes, along came the Belfast Giants to offer something that had never been seen here before.

An indoor sport in a shiny new building, a family atmosphere, a club that put community engagement high on its priority list and - probably more important than any of that - no baggage from a troubled past.

"There were people who gave us a year and yet here we are, 20 years next year," said Schulte.

Typical of Belfast people though, they took the guy who did the fighting to their hearts above the rest of his team-mates.

"I think the way I was raised by my parents and knowing about giving and coming from a small community helped me in Belfast," said Schulte (right).

"I like to think that just being me was what happened and just an extension of my parents' love and hard work and community service.

"I was lucky enough to be a hockey player and do something that I love. It's nice having those records that nobody can take away - first professional goal, first goal at the Odyssey, first player to be kicked out of the match! It is special. By no means was it just me, but I think I did my best to make the most of the opportunity that was given to me.

"Like anywhere, it's not so much the people but the politicians that make things look worse than they are.

"The real people of Belfast are all real giving, loyal people no matter what their background is. I think that has shown in the support and love for the Giants.

"The biggest thing was the welcome of the people and to be loved and to feel loved.

"The passion that the people have for the club, the loyalty for the team, friendships or family restores your faith in humanity, when lots of times people just see the pounds and how much money they can make instead of the worth of the individual and putting that above dollar signs."

Belfast Giants fans still wear their jerseys with Schulte's name and No.27 on the back.

He was back on the ice at the SSE Arena last month to play in a testimonial for long-serving goaltender Stephen Murphy. The pair never actually played together, but when a team of Belfast Giants heroes is being put together the name Paxton Schulte will always figure high on the list.

"When I landed here people asked what it's like to be back and it's a really nice feeling," said Schulte.

"It was a nice gesture to be invited back. I dropped the puck and got a wave and a standing ovation. I tried to make it quick so that I didn't get teary-eyed because I'm a big cry baby that way.

"To be acknowledged by fans and be spoken to by lots of people who came and said they wanted their son or daughter to meet me because they had talked so much about me and the years when I had been here, it is a good feeling.

"You want to stay grounded, as I tell my son, but in the same sense it is nice to be appreciated.

"The only time I get asked for my autograph back home is when I am signing for a mortgage or a loan."

That No.27 also hangs from the rafters at the SSE Arena. Having your number retired is the ultimate honour in ice hockey and a tribute to Schulte for the impact he made in a four-year spell.

This season, however, 27 is being worn by Kendall McFaull in memory of his close friend Troy Gasper, who died in a crash in Canada.

Schulte was asked to give his blessing for another player to don his old number - a question that was met with an immediate 'yes'.

"It is an awesome tribute by Kendall to his friends and his friend's family. It's something good out of a very tragic incident," said Schulte.

"I don't see why anybody should ever have to think about something like that or even be asked. It was nice that they did but it was an easy decision to make.

"Not only was it the right thing to do, but it becomes your extended family.

"It was nice to meet Kendall. I spent a couple of hours with him and I really enjoyed that."

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