BELFAST, Northern Ireland – This weekend will go down in the history books in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as the NHL comes to the Emerald Isle for the first time. The NHL’s most “Irish” team – the Boston Bruins – were the obvious choice for this unique occasion.
Never has an NHL team stepped on the Irish island, until now as the famous five-time Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins will take on a Belfast Giants Select outfit, comprised of the top players of UK’s Elite Ice Hockey League at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland. This will also be the first time an NHL team plays against a squad from the British league.
Hockey fever has gripped the growing hockey nation as the excitement reached fever pitch after the Bruins arrived on the island on Thursday. The only topic of discussion of fans from both North and South of the Irish border is ‘Wow, the NHL is coming to Ireland’.
The host city, Belfast in Northern Ireland, has seen its troubles in the past, many memories of which people would like to forget. The religious divide between the Catholics and Protestants began ripping Belfast apart more than 50 years ago has now been at its lowest ever.
There are precious few things in Belfast that have not been impacted by the divide between Catholics, Protestants, and pro-British and pro-Irish political views. The Giants, however, have avoided falling into that category since they came into existence just over a decade ago. From the beginning, when the Giants took to a sold out Odyssey Arena, the Giants and ice hockey have appealed to all segments of society in Northern Ireland.
The hockey family in Belfast is in peaceful co-operation with Ice Hockey UK, which governs hockey in Northern Ireland, and the Irish Ice Hockey Association (IIHA) that governs hockey in the Republic of Ireland, the bigger part of the island. While the Giants are the only professional team and play in the British Elite Ice Hockey League, there’s a common understanding that it’s better for amateur teams in Northern Ireland to play on the island by leagues run by the IIHA than in Great Britain and vice versa for professional teams.
This NHL exhibition game will bring together all sections of the community – as all will cheer on their hockey heroes. Belfast Giants General Manager Todd Kelman says: “I played hockey in a lot of places, but it has been humbling to play hockey in Belfast. This, more than any place, is where you feel you have made a difference in the community by playing hockey.”
The Giants have rules to restrict wearing jerseys that broadcast religious or political affiliation through colour schemes or messages. Flags are not allowed in the stands and the club does not play the United Kingdom national anthem, “God Save the Queen”, which is a staple in other Elite League arenas.
That’s why unlike any other sport in the country, ice hockey unites fans.
Energetic members of the Irish Ice Hockey Association also cannot wait to witness the NHL experience in their own backyard. IIHA President, William Fay, whose Irish national team captured an historic gold medal at the IIHF World Championship Division III in Luxembourg, is excited about welcoming the Bruins.
“I and the IIHA fully support the Bruins’ visit to Ireland,” said Fay. “It was a great achievement by Kelman to bring the Bruins to Ireland and provide excellent recognition for the sport on the island of Ireland.”
People may ask ‘Why the Boston Bruins?’ Kelman says: “Everyone here in Ireland dreams of three cities – New York, Boston and Chicago. Everyone here, it seems, wants to go to America and live in Boston.”
Boston has always been the most “Irish” of all NHL franchises with a long-standing tradition of players named O’Donnell, O’Reilly, O’Leary and Fitzgerald.
And on the current Bruins roster, you don’t have to look too far for the answer. Toronto-born Shawn Thornton, is the most current player with Northern Ireland blood.
Undoubtedly, Thornton is one of the most popular modern day Bruins and at the age of the thirty-three Shawn will finally get the opportunity to visit the city where his mom, Christine, grew up.
Thornton says: “I’ve never been to Belfast before, but I’m very much looking forward to getting over there. My grandmother’s two sisters Muriel and Frances still live over there and because of that I have a number of second cousins.” Thornton is one of many NHL players that have Irish blood.
The Bruins most-notable player ever, Bobby Orr, has Irish roots as well. His father, Robert, was a professional football (soccer) player from Ballymena prior to immigrating to Parry Sound, Ontario. Many believe that Orr was the one of the world’s greatest hockey players.
One of the best power-forwards in the NHL of the last decade is Belfast-born Owen Nolan, who won Olympic gold in Salt Lake City 2002.
The exhibition match, which is expected to be a sell out, first came about as a dream to Kelman that his club would take on an NHL team to display hockey’s ability to heal even the deepest wounds.
However, it will be a tough game for the home team. While NHL teams usually play clubs from top-division countries such as the Czech Republic, Finland or Russia in their exhibition games, Great Britain, where the Belfast Giants play, is ranked 23rd in the IIHF World Ranking.
To make it a less lopsided encounter, the Bruins’ challenger, the Belfast Giants Select, will be kind of an All-Star Team of the British Elite Ice Hockey League that includes eight players from the Belfast Giants and 15 from other teams in the league. Most of them are either British or from North America.
Coventry Blaze and Great Britain national team coach, Paul Thompson, and Cardiff Devils coach Gerad Adams, will join up with the Belfast Giants coach, Doug Christiansen, to take on the Bruins squad.
The roster combines an experience of 136 NHL games. American centre Ben Simon spent nine professional years in North America before joining the Sheffield Steelers this year and played 81 NHL games for Atlanta and Columbus. Rob Globke is another American forward who joined the Steelers recently after a year with Krefeld in Germany. The second-round pick played 46 NHL games for Florida while Coventry’s Owen Fussey had four games with Washington and Belfast’s Colin Hemingway three games in the St. Louis jersey.
Also on display will be officiating of NHL officials. Even Irish and British referees and linesmen have something to look forward to as they can witness at first hand the standard of NHL officiating.
Never before has media interest been this high for hockey on the island. Boston media, along with Irish press, have all taken a keen interest to the Bruins visit and a large number of journalists are expected to attend.
The arrival of the Bruins is much like having football champion Manchester United or the New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby club visiting. Fans know that this will be “The Bruins” and not a selection of draft picks or farm-team players. The players coming over are still looking to secure their spot on the Boston roster ahead of their season opener against Phoenix in Prague, Czech Republic, on 9th October.
Kelman hopes that this game could open many doors for the future. He said: “If this goes well, I would hope the NHL put us on the radar for hosting a season opener like Prague is doing this year, but we won’t worry about that for a couple years, we just want to give them a good show this time around and make sure they enjoy themselves.”
With the friendly atmosphere and the ‘Cead Mille Failte’ (Irish phrase meaning ‘A hundred million welcomes’) the Irish people will definitely not disappoint Kelman.
“This is as big a game as Ireland will ever see,” said Kelman. “The Boston Bruins are one of the best teams in the world, and are filled with top athletes. This is our chance to show the world that we can host major events like this and that we can make them a success.”
All there is left to say is – May the best team win and may the Irish enjoy the NHL experience, the experience that so many Americans and Canadians take for granted.
More information can be found at www.belfastgiants.comBelfast Giants Select roster
Goalkeepers: Kowalski (Nottingham Panthers), Stephen Murphy (Belfast Giants), Craig Ervins Mustukovs (Sheffield Steelers).
Defencemen: Tim Cook (Belfast Giants), Jeramie Domish (Sheffield Steelers), Jon Gleed (Belfast Giants), Corey Neilson (Nottingham Panthers), Rich Seeley (Belfast Giants), Jonathan Weaver (Coventry Blaze), Jonathan Zion (Nottingham Panthers).
Forwards: David Beauregard (Nottingham Panthers), Dan Carlson (Coventry Blaze), Luke Fulgham (Coventry Blaze), Owen Fussey (Coventry Blaze), Jade Galbraith (Nottingham Panthers), Rob Globke (Sheffield Steelers), Colin Hemingway (Belfast Giants), Mike Hoffman (Belfast Giants), Scott Matzka (Cardiff Devils), Josh Prudden (Belfast Giants), Colin Shields (Belfast Giants), Ben Simon (Sheffield Steelers), Ashley Tait (Sheffield Steelers).The Odyssey Arena is expected to be sold out on Saturday.