TThe Belfast Giants celebrated their 22nd birthday recently and the party shows no sign of stopping. The Giants won the Challenge Cup last month, beating the Cardiff Devils in a sold-out final in front of 7,300 home fans, and they are at the top of the British elite ice hockey league with a few games to play. Winning the double would be a huge achievement, but the Giants have exceeded expectations for decades.
Belfast was a very different place when the Giants played their first game in December 2000. The Good Friday deal was only two years old and the city had been scarred by a conflict that remained raw. There was peace on the streets, but it was fragile and the sporting landscape was as entrenched and traditional as ever.
Sports fans in Belfast lived on a limited diet of rugby, football and Gaelic games. The Ulster rugby team had just won the Europa Cup, but they played in a shaky, windswept mausoleum on a site in eastern Belfast, which was mostly favored by Protestant fans. The Antrim sling team played in the heart of nationalist West Belfast in Casement Park, but their heyday was long gone. And the various sides of the Irish league across the city were tied to political tribes. Sectarian singing was common and made attending a game a rotten experience for anyone longing for a brighter expression of local pride.
The city needed something new, but the foundation for professional ice hockey in Belfast was flimsy at best. There was (and still is) only one ice rink in Ireland and the sport was barely known, never anything to understand. Would thousands of fans pay to see North American athletes play a foreign sport in a new location? The Millennium Commission had squandered £ 45m to build a shiny arena in the shadow of the city’s shipyard, but the idea that an ice hockey team would pick up thousands of spectators still felt far out. After all, these shipyards were famous for building the Titanic, and it had not been long.
However, there was a method behind the apparent madness. Ice hockey was so new and so bizarre that it did not carry any of the traditional barriers that weighed on other sports. The team would represent the whole of Belfast. Giants fans are quick to tell you “in the land of the Giants, everyone is equal”, and in a sport known for its brutal hits, it quickly established itself as one of the most family-friendly places in town.
Robert Fitzpatrick, who grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and is now the CEO of the company that owns the Giants, says inclusivity was crucial to their vision. “Right from the start, the Giants were a place where everyone was welcome. I mean everyone: Protestants, Catholics, the LGBT community, it does not matter. All are equal. Our color is blue-green, and it plays a strong role in our identity. Football jerseys have never been allowed in the arena. If we see a young child in a football shirt, we just give them a Giants T-shirt and they put it on. We now see generations of families in this city who are fans. ”
The Canadians, who signed for the Giants, played ice hockey that thrilled audiences. The rules still had to be explained regularly in the program notes, by the arena announcer or even by the team mascot, Finn McCool, the mythical Irish giant. But the fan base grew every year, and so did their knowledge of the game. The Giants now play for a larger audience than any of Northern Ireland’s football clubs.
Paddy Smyth studied at Queen’s University in Belfast when he participated in the team’s first match against Ayr Scottish Eagles in 2000. “I grew up in western Belfast and had family from Detroit. I remember one of my relatives visiting in the 1990s and talked about the Red Wings.I watched closely with the sport and then saw the first Giants game announced for six quid.I could not say no.I went and it stuck in me.
“You go to the Games and feel this immense pride in your city. I love to sing, ‘Come on Belfast.’ go to Giants games and make friends with people from all walks of life stuck with me. We’re all bound to support the Giants and that’s exactly what sport should be. “
Paddy made an unlikely friend through the sport. “My friend Davy and I are really opposites. I’m a Catholic with a Republican background; he’s a Protestant and an Orange man. Through the Giants, we had a common interest, and that’s all that has ever mattered.”
Davy says he started going to games with his wife. “I used to watch Glentoran play football in East Belfast, but she wanted to go to a place that was under cover, safe and had food and clean toilets. In Belfast, if you grow up in a certain area, it can be hard to know someone outside of your background.Even now I would fight to tell you Catholic friends I have from Belfast outside of hockey.With Paddy we shared this love for the Giants, got started on a podcast, and it’s a friendship I continue “We are diametrically opposed to politics, but we agree to disagree. You will find loyalists and Republicans sitting together at games. It does not matter and has never done so.”
Davy is convinced that the strategists behind the Giants missed out on an important selling point for the club. “One of the biggest recruiting tools the Giants have is the women of Belfast. There are so many former players who have stayed in Northern Ireland after they graduate. About 20 have never traveled.”
One of them is the Giants’ coach, Adam Keefe, who moved to Belfast from Ontario 11 years ago as a player, married a local and never traveled. “I was completely unaware of Belfast’s history,” he says. “I remember a newspaper asking me for a quote and I said something along the lines of, ‘I can not wait to bring the fighting Irish back to Ireland.’ It was never in the newspaper and I did not understand why.The great thing about the Giants is that they really spend time educating you about the city and your responsibility to play here.You do not play for a normal team – you have a responsibility to to represent Belfast as we know what the Giants mean to the people here.
“When I signed up, a friend asked me if Belfast was safe to visit. Now our players, who come from Canada and the states, absolutely love it. They could not be treated better. When I first arrived, I was surprised. I mean hockey in Ireland? But everyone who comes absolutely loves it. You do not even have to sell the Belfast Giants. Players just want to come. I found out shortly after I arrived. I would stay here my whole career, and fortunately I met my wife. ”
The team’s general manager, Steve Thornton, is another Canadian who arrived as a player and has not been able to leave. He returned to Canada to start a business career when he retired, but his family missed Belfast, so they returned. “I remember coming here 20 years ago and the city’s name was synonymous with what people in Canada had heard about in the news. I loved it right from the start. It was almost like people overcompensated in kindness. They were “Eager to make sure you enjoyed their city. Hockey is mainstream in Belfast now. We want the Northerners to have a team they can be proud of and we certainly believe it has been achieved.”
In the program notes for the Giants’ first home game in 2000, Belfast Telegraph journalist Stewart McKinlay wrote: “It will be a proud day when a Northern Irish player steps out as a Belfast Giant.” That ambition has come true, with nine players from Northern Ireland lacing their skates to play for the Giants.
Goalkeeper Andrew Dickson grew up in Ballymoney, an hour’s drive north of Belfast. “The first time I heard about ice hockey was from a friend who had returned from a trip across the community to Philadelphia. He had been to a Flyers game and could not stop talking about how amazing it was. We bought the video game, could not stop playing it, and as a 17-year-old we started playing inline hockey – first at the local Tesco car park, but eventually we set up a league in the leisure center. We kept getting hammered, but I was in the net, so I got a lot of training and was eventually seen playing against the Junior Giants. “
Dickson trained in Belfast through the week – drove an hour to start at. 22.15 and reached back at. 01.30 – while studying at a technical school. There was no junior league in Northern Ireland, so he took the ferry to Scotland every weekend to compete. “There was a lot of hard work and I suspect an element of some talent, and after three years I was lucky enough to get to play for the Giants. I had no family background in ice hockey. It’s funny, my dad did not follow it. in fact.I actually remember I told him I would play my first game for the Giants and he said he would see Rangers instead.Now he absolutely loves it.He is for every game and even beats the neighbors down.
“I just loved playing this sport from the start and always had the fear that I would eventually find out, but I’m still here. “My real hope is that I have inspired a child, not just from Belfast, but from another part of the country to come out and dream that they can play for the Giants.”
The Giants are fighting to win the double, but their plans are bigger than winning silverware. The club is working to build another ice rink in Northern Ireland so more children can play the sport. The team has inspired all aspects of Belfast’s community. Now they want their young fans to play the game. The odds are not in their favor, but they have a habit of overcoming them.
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