BELFAST – Playing hockey in Belfast demands dedication. While the Giants, one of the top teams in Britain’s Elite League, make great strides in promoting the pro game, geography can make life tough for junior players.
For girls, especially, opportunities to play for a local club are limited: with 17 youngsters registered in Northern Ireland, it’s difficult to put a team together. Progress means joining a team on the British mainland and a time-consuming journey to Dumfries, Scotland, where the Solway Sharks Ladies have welcomed several Belfast-based players.
That’s why members of the Junior Giants are working hard to get more girls involved and – ultimately – get a team of their own on the ice right here in Belfast. Taking part in the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend is another important step towards that goal.
Kate Morrison is part of a hockey family. She played the game herself and met husband Mark during his seven-year spell with the Giants. Now their children are also taking up the game, while Kate was involved in setting up the Girls’ Weekend with the Junior Giants.
“It was the first time we’d done this and it was a real step forward for girls’ hockey in Belfast,” she said. “We didn’t quite know what to expect – we just tried to promote it on our social media pages and we got about 30 girls to come along. That’s double what we usually have.”
Ages ranged from four to 35, proving that it’s neither too early nor too late to take up the sport. A team of six coaches helped out on the ice at the SSE Arena, including Rob Stewart, assistant coach with the Giants’ senior team and chairman of the Junior Giants, and two level-two coaches, Caris McKnight and Claire Adams. They helped to introduce the new recruits to the game during a three-hour session prior to the Giants’ Elite League game against Coventry Blaze and gave the girls an appetite for more.
They were also the star guests in front of a packed house at the SSE Arena on Saturday evening, taking part in an exhibition game during one of the intermissions and joining the traditional ‘puck chuck’ during the other break.
Now the emphasis is on reaching out to Saturday’s rookies and welcoming them into the club on a regular basis, encouraging the girls to get along to the regular Monday evening training sessions and build up the numbers from there.
“Hockey has really been thriving here over the past two or three years and we really want to progress from that,” said Morrison. “We’ve had three girls making the Scottish national team already this year and they went down to play with the Scottish girls at the British Friendship Cup in Swindon in July.
“Now, hopefully, we’re planning to get a Northern Ireland team. At the moment our girls are playing for Solway in the North of England league against Kingston and Sheffield. We’d love to get the Junior Giants into that league as well and we hope that could be possible next year or the year after.”
With support from the Belfast Giants and the success of the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend in introducing more people to the game, there’s every prospect of that hope coming true.