Known and loved by the team, the organisation and its fanbase as ‘Mr Belfast’, the former Belfast Giants owner is ultimately responsible for the world-famous sports franchise the Giants has grown to become today.
Having grown up in Belfast, Gillespie built his life and career in Houston Texas. On his frequent visits home, he discovered the Belfast Giants, and quickly became a passionate fan and advocate of the team, inspired by the inclusive and welcoming space the Giants were creating, and hockey’s ability to bring once divided communities together.
In 2002/3, at the demise of the then Superleague, the Giants were on the brink of collapse. Gillespie stepped in to save the franchise and his hugely generous philanthropic gesture leaves a lasting legacy today.
Under his ownership during the 10 years that followed, the Giants won two EIHL League Titles, two playoff titles, a Knock-Out Cup and a Challenge Cup, developing a large and loyal fanbase that has helped grow the game to become the largest indoor spectator sport in Northern Ireland.
He was made Honorary Life President of Belfast Giants in 2012 in recognition of his outstanding contribution to ice hockey in the city and was inducted into the British Ice Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013.
Speaking on his time with the Giants upon his induction to the British Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, Gillespie said: "I originally became involved with the Giants because I discovered they were making a difference. For the first time I saw a sports team breaking down the barriers that historically have marred spectator sport in Northern Ireland. On one of my visits home, I went to several games and was pleasantly surprised to see families from both sides of the divide sitting together enjoying the excitement of professional ice hockey. For someone who grew up in Northern Ireland this was such a heart-warmingly impressive thing to see, people coming together, having a great night out with their families and friends. I decided to get involved."
Mr Gillespie’s influence on the club in those formative years enhanced the Giants’ community outreach ethos, which lives on in the team’s mantra ‘in the land of the Giants, everyone is equal.’ In honour of his commitment to the team and the development of the sport of ice hockey in Northern Ireland, there is a special seat installed on the bridge overlooking the Giants’ home ice at The SSE Arena, Belfast, with a plaque bearing his name.
Robert Fitzpatrick, CEO, The Odyssey Trust said: “Jim Gillespie was a Giant of a man in every sense of the word. Without his generosity, vision and passion for this team, the Belfast Giants could not possibly have survived, never mind go on to become the global success story it is today. Our sincere sympathy and thanks go out to Jim’s wife Mitzi, their children, and the wider Gillespie family circle. Jim leaves a legacy that will live on in the hearts and minds of every Giants fan for a lifetime to come.”
Commenting on his impact, Odyssey Trust chairman Martin McDowell said: “Jim Gillespie was a Giant among men. His selfless gift to this team and this city paved the way for the growth and development of a sports franchise that has had significant and far-reaching impacts across Belfast and beyond. As an organisation, team, and city we can never repay the debt of gratitude we have to Jim and the wider Gillespie family. His loss will be felt by his Giants family here in Belfast and around the world.”
Steve Thornton, Head of Hockey Operations, The Belfast Giants said: “I had the privilege of coaching the Belfast Giants during Jim’s tenure; he was one of the nicest guys you could meet. If it were not for his kindness and commitment to this city and team, the Giants simply would not be here today, and ice hockey would not be the mainstream professional sport it has grown to become in Northern Ireland.
“He knew that this sport had the potential to unite people here, and our commitment to making a difference to local communities lives on today. It’s fitting that his niece Laura is helping to continue that vital work today, driving our outreach with schools and community groups, which is a true testament to his legacy.”
The Belfast Giants will open a book of condolence at the start of the forthcoming 2022/23 season.