Westgarth fondly recalls his Belfast experience

"Kevin Westgarth" by Wikimedia is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In college, Kevin Westgarth earned a degree from Princeton, an Ivy League school. As an NHLer, he won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2011-12. His wife Meghan is the daughter of NFL Hall of Famer Bill Cowher, head coach of the Super Bowl 40 champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

Today, he serves as the NHL’s Vice President of Business Development and Strategic Collaboration, helping to guide the future development of hockey around the globe. For all the perspective he’s gained in his new role, Westgarth still holds his first international hockey experience close to his heart.

After his NHL playing days concluded, he spent the 2014-15 season skating for the Belfast Stena Line Giants of the EIHL. For that one season, this Stanley Cup champion was a giant among the Giants.

Embracing the Cause

It was the message of the Giants that drew Westgarth to come to play in Belfast. Established in 2000, the Giants opted to take on the giant task of breaking down Northern Ireland’s century-old sectarian barriers.

The team is owned by a charitable trust, the Odyssey Trust. The objective of the Giants is to provide both Catholics and Protestants a sport where they can bond together and support the same club.

“The team really focuses on cross-community involvement,” Westgarth told Postmedia. “Education is a big part of it. We were very interested at getting into helping with the education portion of it, wanting to kind of broaden our involvement.”

Since hockey is not a traditional sport in Northern Ireland, no sectarian splits are attached such as those that impact teams in the more popular sports in the country such as football, rugby and Gaelic events. The Giants were determined to keep it that way.

Any clothing that displays a person’s political or religious affiliation is not permitted at games. All flags are banned. The national anthem is never played prior to games. Theirs is the only arena in the league where this is the case.

The Giants’ colours of teal, red and white were deliberately chosen because they were not associated with either religion.

The club’s slogan emphasizes their objective – In the land of the Giants, everyone is equal. 

During his time living in Belfast, Westgarth was able to gain first-hand knowledge that the idea of bringing people from both religions together for the same cause was in fact working.

“They have a big Christmas market there and there was a young man who came up to me,” Westgarth recalled. “He was a fan of the team and just said how happy he was that I came over.

“He ended up saying, ‘It’s really important for our community to have a place where anybody can go, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Catholic or Protestant. Everybody can cheer for the same team in the same place and that’s really important.’

“He was kind of showing me how meaningful it is to be a part of the team, to be a part of the organization.

“You could see the growth that they have made.”

International Man Of History

Wesgarth moved into his new role in the NHL office in 2016. He’d impressed the league’s brass while working across the table from them for the NHLPA during labour negotiations.

“I’d seen the writing on the wall, heading over to Northern Ireland,” Westgarth told the Los Angeles Times. “I started talking to some people and I realized the job search was going to have to come sooner than later. 

“The NHL was a phenomenal opportunity to work in an industry I’ve been passionate about my entire life.”

Just as he saw the intrinsic value in what the Giants are growing in Belfast, Westgarth thrives on the notion of enabling hockey to blossom in new markets around the globe. 

“There’s so much that we can do around the rest of the world in helping countries grow the game,” Westgarth said. “We’re officially an international company but we haven’t played a game outside of North America since [2011].”

He’s traveled extensively throughout Europe and is well-versed on the hockey market in emerging nations.

“Why I was excited to join the league was, moving forward I think there’s such an opportunity to grow the game and my title is particularly in international development,” Westgarth told the Hockey News.

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