The Belfast Giants have now recuited 200 players in their history, and 18 years on from a time when people claimed “It’ll never last”, we contacted a player who crossed two eras of the club, Rob Sandrock, and asked him a simple question.
In your opinion, after 18 years, why has hockey been so successful in Belfast?
“The success of any sports team, or business for that matter, is people. I don’t know if there is something in the water in Belfast, but something is a little different there!! When I say people, there are an enormous amount of different groups of people, I will try to break them down.
“In North America, whether it be junior teams or professional expansion teams, much like Belfast back in 2000, there is a honeymoon period of about three years. This is the time where it’s still new and a novelty. After three years unsuccessful teams usually start to drop in attendance and with that their on ice performance drops as well due to less revenue, more budget cuts which you know how it works.
“But for Belfast, they made it through the next couple years and as those around at that time know, it wasn’t an easy battle. Here is where one man comes into play, Jim Gillespie. I was fortunate enough to play while he still owned the team, I remember Killer telling me how much money he had lost over the years but his belief in what the team was doing for the community outweighed his personal financial losses. Without a doubt in my mind, without Jim, there wouldn’t be a team in Belfast right now.
“From my first go around in Belfast, you could suggest the Giants were mismanaged, I suppose!! But in hindsight it might have been a blessing in disguise. Whis was brought in as coach, who in turn brought in his core group of guys. This was the blessing as that core became the face of the franchise for the first 3-5 years and a few of them could be argued are still at the forefront (Rob Stewart, Jason Bowen, Shane Johnson, and Killer to an extent, even though he’s a Devil now).
“It’s these core groups which allow fans to get to know players on a personal level. You have teams in the UK who blow up their roster every summer, bringing in 10-15 new players every year. Fans like consistency, players they get to know. The Giants keep their core players around longer than most teams. You look back at the rosters year on year and you will be able to watch the core be created, then adapted and shifted to a new core of players.
“Then it stays that way for 3-5 years, then adapts and changes again. My first year it was the likes of Stewy, Packer, Wardy, Killer, Johnny, Louis, Bowen (Curtis). My second go around it had just changed to Keefer, Lloydy, Peaks, Gars, Murph (had been there a while). Looking at the roster the past couple of years, it’s almost as if they can’t quite find that core group. Yes, there have been stand out players, but without Sheds, that core is kind of missing. Murph and Gars have been hurt, the best players are young and are looking to move on to higher leagues and more money. I guess it’s a fine line between age (too old or too young). I also think Belfast the city itself has been a huge part of being able to retain players and create a core group for the team to succeed.
“As you guys know, having spent hours travelling, interviewing, podcasting, shouting profanities, losing sleep and I’m sure at this point, thousands of pounds yourseleves. Without volunteers, the Giants wouldn’t be around. They are all worth their weight in gold and they really don’t get the recognition they deserve, from management, players and the fans. They really are the cogs that make the machine run!
“I’m not sure there is a more passionate group that I’ve played in front of, they might not be the loudest but don’t mistake noise for passion. In a city where 18 years ago 95% of the population would probably say “What’s Ice Hockey?” to now where you go walk into a pub and its just like the movie Slapshot. You have people coming up giving you pointers on the power play or asking why you didn’t pass to the guy open back door!! I’m not saying every fan is an expert now, but each and every fan (not including the casual 1 or 2 game a year) is passionate and loves the sport and shells out an awful lot of money every year.
“I really think Killer gave the organization a great foundation and he definitely deserves to be mentioned and get credit on why the Giants have been successful.
“From a player’s standpoint, the Giants are one of, if not the most professional organization I played for in Europe. This goes a long way for players. Players talk and everyone knows someone who has either played in the UK or knows someone who knows someone that has.
“The Giants probably lead all European teams when it comes to players that have been fired. By leading I mean have fired the least out of any team. Too many teams blame players, when in actuality it should be management that is to blame as they did the recruiting. You put a decent contract in front of anyone in any line of work they aren’t going to say “no, I don’t deserve that”.
“The Giants have consistently recruited good people first good hockey players second. When you recruit good people that are good hockey players, it’s awfully hard to blame them. Too many teams in UK fire players when it should be the recruiter that loses a chunk of pay!! And for that reason, Belfast sells itself well, it’s not hard to recruit to Belfast. I’d say Belfast probably lies between 4th-6th in terms of top wages in the league and players take a discount to play there, ask just about any player that has played there and they will say they could have made more elsewhere.
“As a former player I say thank you to you guys and to every other die-hard fan.
“Without you and all the supporting staff, volunteers and fans, I’d bet that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come back to Belfast and have the three most enjoyable years of my career.”