Belfast Telegraph

Prepared Pelech has big expectations for Giants

 

Giant signing: New Belfast defenceman Matt Pelech in his NHL days with the San Jose Sharks
Giant signing: New Belfast defenceman Matt Pelech in his NHL days with the San Jose Sharks
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

Not too many players have ever fought their head coach before but, then again, not too many players are Matt Pelech.

In 2011, the Belfast Giants' new defensive recruit dropped the gloves with a then fresh-faced Adam Keefe in an AHL game for the Abbotsford Heat, the two warriors battling to a ferocious stalemate on the ice.

In two weeks, the 31-year-old Canadian will lace up the skates and take to the ice for training camp with Keefe barking the orders as his new head coach.

So, was that fight brought up when Keefe made the sales pitch to bring Pelech to Belfast?

"Jokingly!" laughs the d-man. "Me and him were similar players, we were hard-nosed guys and playing against him I had nothing but respect for him. If you play the way that both of us play then you'll eventually get into it.

"There's a lot of guys I've fought who have become team-mates but this will be the first that I've played for - obviously I have a tremendous amount of respect for how he played, and I've heard he brings the same style to coaching so it's something I'm really looking to be a part of."

It's been a helter-skelter career for Pelech, who has joined the Giants for the new season as they look to defend their Elite League and Challenge Cup crowns they won last season, while also putting up a fight in their debut Champions Hockey League bow.

A former NHL Entry Draft first-round pick of the Calgary Flames, the imposing blue-liner only suited 13 times in the big leagues and instead forged a successful AHL career before stints in Germany and Austria.

At 6ft 4in and 203lb, the former Flames and San Jose Sharks enforcer is a big presence at the back for the Giants and will bring plenty of ballast and edge to their defensive corps.

As well as continuing his career with the Giants, Pelech is also getting his degree with the club's connection with the Ulster University, with this a move that was a few years in the making.

"There was some interest from Belfast over the last couple of years, I spoke with Keefer a little bit in summers past, and something that always appealed to me was getting my education and play hockey at the same time," reveals Pelech.

"I always knew there'd be a transition at some point, figuring out what happened next - I want to play for as long as I can, but you do need to think about what happens next.

"This is something important for me in the long-term but it also satisfies short-term goals: I get to keep playing and play for a great organisation in a great city in front of some great fans."

But that wasn't the only reason Pelech decided that Belfast was the place he wanted to continue his career, with the defenceman admitting he did his homework on where he was wanting to play.

"I called as many people as I could that have played in Belfast, had experience in Belfast; I called a lot of people who played with Keefer and everything was positive," says the Toronto native.

"I got positive reviews about Belfast from players who didn't necessarily work out in Belfast, and I think that's the biggest credit you can get - for a player who didn't work out at a team to say such great things about an organisation and the city.

"It got to the point that I was calling players and their response was immediately 'go there, you'll love it'. Belfast and the Giants have a big reputation to live up to in my eyes!"

The team reconvene for pre-season training camp in a couple of weeks and Pelech, with his vast experience, figures to be in contention for a prominent role on defence this season.

With a hard-nosed style that sees him unafraid to drop the gloves with opponents, his penalty minutes are on the high side, but that's the risk when it comes to someone who enjoys the physical side of the game.

That suits Pelech though. He wants to be the man that has opposition skaters quaking when they step onto the ice.

"My biggest asset is my size and strength, and I try to play mean and I try to make everything difficult, especially zeroing in on opponents' best players," he grins.

"I tend to get a lot of calls because I am a bit bigger than most of the guys out there and I do play with an edge.

"If you build a reputation as a player where opponents look at the line-up and say, 'ah s**t, we have to deal with this guy all night', then that's great, but the refs know what's going on too.

"I'll get minutes from fighting, hitting and playing physical, but you have to walk a fine line and not leave your team shorthanded too often."

Until he moves to Belfast, there's no off-season for Pelech, particularly with two brothers driving him on who are just as mad about hockey as he is.

The oldest of three, Matt is brother to Michael, who plays for the Greenville Swamp Rabbits in the ECHL, and New York Islanders defenceman Adam, all three following in the footsteps of uncles Paul and Mike, who were both NHLers as well.

In such a sport-mad house, with dad Bo a former Canadian basketball player, you wouldn't blame there being some competition between them, but Matt says that's not the case at all.

"It's nice we have a little training group. We have a skating coach that we work with, so we're just getting ready for our seasons," he says.

"It's actually perfect because when you're training every day, in the gym every day, some days you're a little more tired, but there's always at least one of us that's really going to push the pace. We're competitive in a way that we push each other every day when we're tired.

"We're really, really close, the three of us, and we don't get to see each other much during the winter. We just try to make up for lost time, we talk a lot during the season and we're lucky enough we all do the same thing for a living."

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