Jim Gillespie owned Belfast Giants for ten years during which time the team won two Elite League titles, two Play-off trophies, a Knock-Out Cup and a Challenge Cup. He was considered to be the saviour of the club.
After qualifying from the city’s Queen’s University as a civil engineer, he gained experience designing major oil and gas projects in Europe and America before moving to Houston, Texas in 1979. There, along with three partners, he founded his own design consultancy.
On his frequent visits back to Northern Ireland he became interested in the Giants, largely because of their unique cross-community appeal. He had horrific memories of a serious sectarian incident when he was young. Abhorring intolerance, he saw the new and baggage-less sport as a potential healer.
“I went to several games in the Odyssey,” he explained, “and was pleasantly surprised to learn that families from both sides of the divide sit together enjoying the excitement. For someone who grew up in Northern Ireland this was such a heart-warming thing to know and I decided to get involved.”
His timing was perfect as the club was on the verge of extinction. The demise of the Superleague at the end of 2002-03 had been a huge financial blow. Gillespie’s philanthropic gesture enabled the Giants to thrive and eventually become one of the cornerstones of the Elite League.
He was keen on developing local players and among those who suited up for the senior team were Mark Morrison, Graeme Walton and Gareth Roberts. He also encouraged the club to support a ‘farm team’ in the Scottish League, along with junior and women’s sides.
Under his guidance, the Giants established community schemes for healthy living and worked with at-risk youths and disadvantaged children through a literacy programme, all administered by volunteers and the players. Every Giant had a ‘Jim clause’ in his contract stipulating that he must do at least two community sessions a week.
“The principle behind what we do is Jim Gillespie’s vision,” said general manager Todd Kelman. “Each year, we tell our players this will be the most important team they will play on, not just because of what we achieve on the ice, but what we are committed to achieving off the ice. We get better people on our team because of this.”
James Gillespie was born on 2 July 1936 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, moving to Bangor in the early 1950s. He was made Honorary Life President of Belfast Giants in 2012 in recognition of his outstanding contribution to ice hockey in the city. He retired to Spring, a small town on the outskirts of Houston, although he returns to Bangor as often as his health allows. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.