Paul Rouse: How the sport of ice hockey brought a warm glow to Belfast

Paul Rouse: How the sport of ice hockey brought a warm glow to Belfast
Belfast Giants’ Steve Saviano scores past Edinburgh Capitals’ netminder Kevin Forshall. Picture: Inpho/Presseye/William Cherry

This year marks a landmark year in the history of ice hockey in Ireland.

It is now 20 years since professional ice hockey arrived in Belfast with the formation of the Belfast Giants.

This arrival was cast as offering a new form of sport — something that would reside outside the old sectarian and identity divides that were apparent in the major sports of soccer, rugby, and GAA in the city and its hinterland.

The rhetoric was that in the post-Good Friday Agreement atmosphere, there was a chance for a new beginning. Basically, ice hockey fitted the new political dispensation, in that this was a sport that was not identified with the identity politics of one community or the other.

The truth, naturally, was a little more complex than that. Ice hockey had actually thrived in Belfast in the 1930s and 1940s.

Indeed, its games drew large crowds to the King’s Hall as four local teams competed in a league.

These teams were rooted in the heavy shipbuilding and aircraft manufacturing industries of the city.

The fact that the King’s Hall venue was commandeered by the British army as the Troubles flared saw the league collapse.

But, even during the Troubles ice hockey reasserted itself in the city; the old clubs reformed in the 1980s and in the 1990s a combined Belfast team entered the Scottish ice hockey league.

There is no doubt that the position of ice hockey was transformed by the new politics on the island after 1998. In this context the development of the docklands area as a new cultural space – eventually expanding to include the Titanic Exhibition, cinemas, bowling lanes, and much else — was vital. Particularly important was the building of what is now known as the SSE Airtricity Arena (initially called the Odyssey Arena).

Eventually, in 2000, two Canadian businessmen funded the making of a team drawn exclusively from Canadian-born players and entered the elite British hockey league which was then seeking to expand.

So successful was the foray in sporting terms that within two years, the Belfast Giants had won the Superleague Championship.

There were financial difficulties to overcome, but what has endured is the success of the Giants in tapping into a decades-long local interest in ice hockey and placing that interest into the context of a non-politically divisive space.

As Prof. David Hassan wrote: “in a classic example of glocalization, a team comprised exclusively of foreign nationals, chose to adopt the name ‘Giants’, a suitably neutral descriptor that suggests something of Ireland’s mythical past.

Perhaps more significantly, there is little evidence of any underlying nationalistic tendencies, endemic with other sports in Northern Ireland, associated with the Giants.

The current roster of the team now includes a local born player, but is mainly home to players from America, Canada, Scotland, England, and Scandinavia.

It continues to be something very different on the island. And a key indicator of this is the attraction of a much greater number of women and of families to the games.

And all the predictions that the Belfast Giants would collapse after the initial fascination had worn off have proven to be entirely wrong.

That the club is still in existence and now competing at the highest level of ice hockey on these islands is testament to its success.

After all, attempts to achieve something similar in Dublin have floundered. That being said, when you go to a game, the demands of raising money to sustain the organisation are everywhere apparent. It must be a relentless task.

The Giants are officially ‘The Stena Line Belfast Giants’. They compete in the professional Elite League, against teams from across Britain.

The costs of maintaining the team are extensive. To meet those costs demands repeated innovation.

The use of almost every space and piece of equipment for advertising is striking. Like all modern sports, the perimeter is ringed by boards advertising various companies and products.

In this instance, there are boards that advertise car dealerships and hotels and beer companies and media organisations. The machines that smooth the ice when the players are off the rink on breaks are sponsored by Harry Corry and FonaCab and Heineken.

There are a ring of corporate boxes that are sponsored by national and international companies.

Best of all is the Sin Bin for the players who are sent from the rink for periods of town for one misdemeanour or another. It is sponsored by Johns Elliot Solicitors and bears the legend: “Get that man a lawyer!”

During the evening there is what is basically a raffle — albeit run by electronic means – which raises a few thousand pounds. And there is also a competition where you buy an imitation puck for a pound and try to be the one who throws it closest to the centre-point of the rink at the appropriate time.

Amid the blizzard of pucks that rain down on the rink, it is clear that another few hundred pounds have been raised.

The concession stands are busy all evening selling all the things that you would expect to find.

There is a brisk trade. People are eating and drinking away — and it’s not cheap. And when it comes down to it, the way that a new neutral space was created in the city of Belfast was to import the full American sporting experience.

But at the heart of the whole thing is the game. And what a game.

To appreciate the greatness of ice hockey as a sport you have to see it in the flesh. From the rawness of the physicality to the skillful excellence of the players, no television screen can entirely capture the glory of the sport.

The players in Belfast are not quite good enough to be in the National Hockey League (NHL) in North America — they would not choose to perform off Broadway if the main stage were to be available.

But such is the quality of the play here that it underlines just how extraordinarily talented the stars of the NHL must be.

This match is between the Sheffield Steelers and the Giants. It is a top-of-the-table clash between two teams who are evenly matched.

The game shoots from end to end. Some of the hits are savage, but it is the skill of the players that dazzles the most.

For much of the game, the attention of the crowd is undoubtedly held by the action.

There is good-natured cheering of their own and taunting of the others, but there’s no sense of antagonism.

When a goal is scored, the PA system pumps out:

“She is handsome, she is pretty

She is the belle of Belfast city,

She is courting, one two three

Please won’t you tell me who is she?”

Everyone gets up and joins in — a cynic might dismiss this as lurching into the realm of compulsory fun, but that would be unfair.

It’s just fun.

None of this is to suggest that the game doesn’t really matter to the supporters.

This is emphatically not the case. As the last minutes ebbed away and the Belfast Giants closed in on a vital victory, leading 3-2, pure excitement and nervousness gripped the arena.

And when the last play of note saw the Giants break the siege around their goal and escape to net a breakaway goal, there was a raucousness to the celebrations that cannot be faked.

It remains to be seen if this particular incarnation of the Giants will be good enough to win the league as predecessors managed to do.

This matters, of course, and it would be entirely wrong to imagine that the club does not crave success and fight for it just as any team should.

But it is not all that matters, or indeed what matters to the bigger picture.

The key point here is that that the club offers something that is worth promoting. The game they play is a brilliant one and the meaning of that game in the context of the divides of Irish history — as repeatedly witnessed in its sports — is that of a space where religion and nationality are essentially irrelevant.

As the legend around the team merchandising reads: ‘In the Land of the Giants, Everyone is Equal.’

- Paul Rouse is professor of history at UCD.

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