Rioting fans, hooliganism and remote and sometimes ugly multi-millionaires have given sports a bad name in recent times.
But every now and then, the world of fun and games provides an uplifting story, like the one unfolding in Belfast, where a team of American and Canadian hockey players is being heralded for improving relations between Protestants and Catholics.
At first blush, it’s hard to imagine how a game played on the edges of violence is contributing to public calm. But even the august Christian Science Monitor concluded recently that the Belfast Giants “are doing their part to break the ice in Catholic-Protestant relations.”
Hockey, “a particularly pugnacious pursuit,” the Monitor noted, “is now being played for peaceful purposes – to heal a society divided by more than 30 years of sectarian violence.”
Jerry Keefe, a 25-year-old center from Massachusetts, is delighted by the response to the team. “It’s just tremendous. I knew when I arrived here it would be big, but I had no idea it would be this big.”
Keefe, who played at Providence College and for Cincinnati’s Mighty Ducks, says fans stop him and thank him for bringing the game to Belfast. “They all say it’s nice to have a team that everybody can cheer for.”
Giants’ defense man Jason Bowen, whose off-season home is in Washington, D.C., concurs: “It’s great to be part of it. You hear fans saying, `Who would have thought I’d be drinking beer with a Protestant and finding it a great experience?'”
Until the Giants began playing at the new Odyssey Centre last December, sports affiliations were divided along traditional lines. A game of soccer, for instance, could become a point of bitter contention when a team from a Protestant area played one from a Catholic district.
But the Giants, a non-denominational team, are being held up as an example of the new Belfast: A new team in a new sport, serving a young audience anxious to rid itself of centuries-old conflict.
The team was the first tenants of the Odyssey Complex, a $200-million center that will include a science and technology theme park, an IMAX theater, shops, restaurants and bars. Together with the three-year-old Waterfront Centre and new Hilton hotel, the complex is part of a rejuvenated waterfront area on the River Lagan.
The hockey team also represents Belfast reaching out to the world after decades of bitter internal wrangling.
“Hockey and the Giants have made a real impact on attitudes in the city,” says Belfast councillor Robert Stoker. “The time was right for a sport that all people can go to see without being identified as being on one side or the other.”
The British national-anthem, “God Save the Queen,” is not played before the game, and the team mascot, the mythical Finn McCool, who allegedly vanquished a Scottish giant on Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coast, is a folk-hero shared by both traditions.
Moreover, the team colors are not the Irish green or the orange of the Protestant Lodge, but red and aqua.
The Giants play in the Ice Hockey Super League, which has teams in England, Scotland and Wales, but may also be a common denominator for an association of maritime cities including Boston, Glasgow and Halifax. “We have talked about being the host for a hockey tournament involving those cities,” says Stoker.
It is no accident that 7,300 newly-minted hockey fans sell out the arena for each home game. Team owners Robert Zeller and Robert Maasland, both with Canadian backgrounds, carefully researched the market before launching the team.
Zeller, who ran a hockey team in England before starting the Giants, says that he found in Belfast a large number of young families with high disposable incomes.
“Housing costs are lower here so people have more money to spend. Unemployment is down to eight percent and people are looking for family entertainment.” They have found it in hockey.
In contrast, soccer stadiums are filled almost exclusively by males aged 16 and over. Rugby is a guy thing, and cricket is of limited interest.
Sam Robinson, who takes his wife and four children to the Giants games, identified the attraction this way: “Religious tensions are part and parcel of the local football league. The games draw very rough crowds and during the big games, when a Protestant team would play a Catholic team, there was sure to be trouble. I think the younger generation, my kids, are going to stay interested in ice hockey.”
The Giants’ management are busy cultivating the ranks of youth, making school visits and providing weekly on-ice training sessions. They have also started a developmental squad of local players.
“The kids here just love hockey players,” says Bowen. “They go crazy when we visit. They love the speed of the game and the hits.”
Fans are still learning the rules but what they lack in understanding they make up for in enthusiasm. “They cheer from the start of the game to the end,” Bowen continues.
Bowen, Keefe and their teammates have given them plenty to cheer about. The Giants won nine consecutive home games and, after a sputtering start to the season, made the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup, a competition within the regular season.
The Super League was so taken with the response to the team that the Challenge Cup final was assigned to Belfast. And fans snapped up the 7,300 tickets in 90 minutes.
“People in Northern Ireland have often seen themselves as second-class citizens compared to the rest of the U.K. Now that they have a team of their own they can cheer against London or Manchester or Cardiff,” says Zeller.
Among the early misconceptions about the game was that the fights, like pro wrestling, were staged. Zeller explains how a local dignitary learned the reality of the game.
“A government official from County Down, my guest at a game, suggested that the fights must be fake. We had seats behind the penalty box and early in the game Jason Bowen was in a fight. When he sat down in the box we were looking right over his shoulder, and as we watched, he took a flap of skin from the back of his hand and put it back in place. The gentleman understood then.”
Bowen, who played 77 games in the NHL, says the calibre of play is better than he anticipated.
“It’s pretty much getting up to the American Hockey League standard but it’s played on international-sized ice. There’s not as much contact because of that, but there is still hitting and action along the boards.”
For Bowen and Keefe, their experience in Ireland has deepened their appreciation of their heritage. Bowen, whose great-grandfather emigrated to Canada from Ireland, has enjoyed himself so much that he is looking at signing on again for next season and giving North American hockey a pass.
Keefe, whose grandparents hail from Counties Cork and Clare, recently had his parents over for a visit.
Last December, the team moved a game date so that President Clinton could address the citizens of Belfast, and Keefe, who was chosen to present him with a Giants jersey, recalls, “It was a moment I’ll never forget. I remember he had big hands and he asked me about Boston.”
The visit spurred a run on Giants jerseys as Christmas gifts, necessitating an urgent 1,000-unit delivery from Toronto. ♦