Belfast Giants: 20 seasons of Clinton, Keefe and title winners

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Archive: Belfast Giants play first home match

From Bill Clinton to Adam Keefe, the Belfast Giants have moved from a North American novelty to an integral part of the Northern Irish sporting landscape.

In December 2000, the Giants took to the ice in Belfast for the first time as they made history in the UK Ice Hockey Superleague and local sporting culture.

Despite some scepticism at the beginning, the Giants have become a mainstay of Northern Irish sport while helping to bring ice hockey to an entirely new audience.

No segregation, no anthems, no colours. The Giants really were, and still are to this day, a team for all under the teal, white and red banner.

Now as popular as ever, it's time to look back at five of the Giants' most integral seasons as the Belfast outfit prepare to celebrate their 20th anniversary.

Birth of a Giant (2000/01)

Paxton Schulte
Giants legend Paxton Schulte in action in the Giants' first home game against Ayr

2 December 2000, a date that will live long in the memory of any Belfast Giants fan.

A sold-out Odyssey Arena watched a defeat against Ayr Scottish Eagles, but were hooked after their first taste of ice hockey in the city. For the fans, and the team, it was the beginning of a sporting revolution.

Under the guidance of Dave Whistle, the Giants rallied after a poor start to their maiden campaign to finish in eighth place in the Superleague.

The Giants also became involved in a significant political moment when Bill Clinton visited Northern Ireland for the final time as President of the United States.

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President Clinton's Belfast visit scuppered previous Giants game

Clinton officially opened the Odyssey Arena on his first visit since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement two year earlier, joking that he could put on a teal jersey after he left office.

The Giants players were invited guests to the address as Clinton's visit pushed back a scheduled fixture, however the endorsement from the President gave Whistle's team a global seal of approval.

"A new team, a new sport, a new facility, a new Northern Ireland," said Clinton, which nicely summed up the inclusive philosophy behind the Giants.

Naturally, the Giants couldn't let the outgoing President leave Belfast without a 'Clinton #1' jersey.

First league success (2001/02)

Belfast Giants celebrate winning the UK Ice Hockey Superleague
The Giants claimed the UK Ice Hockey Superleague in only their second season together

After a promising first season, even if the results perhaps didn't entirely back it up, the Giants claimed their first Superleague title in 2002 after a dominant display.

Whistle's side won the title as early as February, a record which still stands today, and romped the seven-team league in some style.

With interest in the sport continuing to grow, suddenly players such as Paxton Schutle, Colin Ward, Todd Kelman and Jason Ruff were household names across the country.

The Giants failed to reach the play-off finals weekend and lost out in the Challenge Cup decider as their form tailed off after securing the league so early, and although the defeats slightly dampened the end-of-season celebrations, the Belfast franchise still sent out a statement in only their second season in operation.

One of the greatest-ever Giants teams.

Elite performance (2005/06)

Graeme Walton and Theo Fleury
Graeme Walton and Theo Fleury both starred as the Giants won their first Elite League title

One name - Theo Fleury.

The demise of the Superleague in 2004 was nearly followed by the fall of the Giants, who were forced to restructure after financial struggles and new regulations surrounding domestic players.

After surviving possible liquidation, a couple of dry years followed in the newly formed Elite League as the team adjusted to a fresh start, but it wasn't long before they made the breakthrough.

Ed Courtenay was the man drafted in to revive the struggling franchise in a player-coach capacity, and his cause was certainly helped by the recruitment of former Stanley Cup-winning NHL forward Fleury.

Three goals, four assists and a fight on his debut against the Edinburgh Capitals was just a taste of the excitement that Fleury was to offer the Belfast crowd.

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Archive: Courtenay loses his cool against Cardiff

Fleury, who scored over 1000 points in his NHL career, only played one season in Belfast but arguably made as big an impact as any player to pull on the jersey.

A decision to opt out of the Challenge Cup paid dividends for the Giants, who were able to open up an unassailable lead at the top of the standings and take their maiden Elite League crown.

The Giants eased to league glory in a season full of memorable moments, none more so than Courtenay's dramatic outburst at an officiating decision against the Cardiff Devils, which saw sticks, water bottles and helmets flung onto the ice in an iconic meltdown.

Despite Courtenay's strop, it was a happy ending for Belfast as they tasted league success and the players wrote themselves into Giants folklore.

Boston come to town (2010/11)

Stephen Murphy in goal impressed against the Boston Bruins
Stephen Murphy impressed in the Giants' 5-1 defeat at the hands of the Boston Bruins and made 40 saves against the NHL side

The Giants may have ended the year without any silverware to their name, but had the privilege of Ice Hockey royalty coming to the Odyssey Arena.

The Boston Bruins, one of the iconic names in the NHL, came to Belfast in October 2010 before the start of their domestic campaign, and put Northern Ireland firmly on the global ice hockey map.

Jade Galbraith's opener for the Giants Select side briefly lifted the roof off the Odyssey, but despite the best efforts of Stephen Murphy in goal, the American side's class showed through in a comfortable 5-1 win.

The tactic of coming to Belfast clearly worked, as the Bruins went on to win their first Stanley Cup in 39 years at the end of the 2010/11 campaign.

It is still the only time a NHL team has visited Northern Ireland, and Boston haven't won the Stanley Cup since. Coincidence? Possibly not.

Best season yet (2018/19)

Blair Riley lifts the Elite League Championship
Blair Riley lifts the Elite League Championship in front of the Giants' home crowd in the SSE Arena

Two Elite League titles and a Challenge Cup followed for the Giants, but it wasn't until the 2018/19 season that the Belfast side nearly dominated the domestic game.

Under the guidance of former enforcer Adam Keefe, the Giants staged a remarkable late charge to steal the championship off the Cardiff Devils on the final day of the season.

Keefe's outfit had already successfully defended their Challenge Cup crown, with Tyler Beskorowany, Pat Dwyer and Dustin Johner starring for an exciting Giants side.

A play-off final loss denied the Giants the treble, and dreams of a quadruple were ended after a heart-breaking penalty shootout loss in front of their home crowd in the final of the Continental Cup.

Several leading players said farewell after the Giants' most successful campaign, including top scorer Colin Shields, captain Blair Riley, Jim Vandermeer and David Rutherford.

However, it was still the most successful season in the Giants' history, and Keefe will be hoping that form can continue in their 20th anniversary year.

No matter what happens from here on in, the Giants are here to stay.

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