DUNDALK, Ireland – At its very best, the sport of ice hockey brings people together and forms camaraderie while at the same time creating more healthy forms of rivalry and competition. Irish ice hockey has succeeded in doing something that generations of politicians have tried and failed to do: unite all Irish people behind a common goal.
The Irish Ice Hockey Association has successfully utilised an all-island approach to create the first national Irish league (the Irish Ice Hockey League or IIHL) and build a national team that incorporates players from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland on a single squad (providing the players hold a valid Irish passport). Political affiliations and religious beliefs mean nothing. All that matters is whether the players can play the game and dedicate themselves to the team. The athletes have blended together just fine as team-mates and the hockey program has established a deeper talent pool.
Although ice hockey in the Emerald Isle may not have nearly as long a history as in other lands, it has grown steadily over the last 25 years. In particular, the sport has made huge strides in the last year with the establishment and soon-to-be-completed first season of the IIHL and the promotion of the national team from the Division III level to Division II.
Irish Ice Hockey League gets off the ground
The new Irish Ice Hockey League consists of five teams: the Dundalk Bulls, Flyers I.H.C., Dublin Rams, Belfast Bruins and Latvian Hawks. The inclusion of the latter two clubs is particularly significant in this often strife-torn part of the world.
The Belfast Bruins' participation represents the inclusion of Northern Ireland in all hockey-building ventures undertaken by the IIHA. Likewise, the Latvian Hawks represent the significant numbers of Latvian expatriates (many of whom are hockey fanatics) who have settled in Ireland.
"The Hawks are drawn almost exclusively from the Latvian community here although they have integrated a couple of Irish players recently," said IIHL league chairman Mick Higgins. "The Bulls and the Rams also have a majority of their players coming from countries with longer hockey traditions than ours. The teams presently in third and fourth place are almost exclusively domestic and have turned their more experienced rivals over on occasion."
As of Feb. 26, Dundalk occupied first place with 36 points, followed by Dublin (31 points), the Flyers (23 points), Belfast (12 points), and the Hawks (3 points). The playoffs are scheduled for March 8th and 9th. All league games are played at the Ice Dome in Dundalk, site of the 2007 Division III World Championships. Each team plays each other four times over the course of the regular season, with two "home" and two "away" matches against each opponent.
"Having only a single rink available to us right now is a challenge," Higgins said. "In some ways, we are victims of our own success as training slots are hard to obtain when divided between all those teams and players."
For a first-year league in a land trying to further establish its hockey program, the calibre of play in the IIHL has been encouraging, particularly among the top squads. While continued improvement is necessary, the circuit is off to a good start.
"This season, the rink's hometown team (Dundalk) enjoyed clear supremacy over the other teams early on. But the chasing pack has brought Dundalk closer to their sights now that they know what is required," said Higgins. "In terms of the standard of play, I believe no one could have envisioned that IIHL games would be regularly reaching the levels that we saw ten months ago from the top national teams at the World Championship Division III, which was Ireland's first taste of international hockey on our home ice."
As one key means of raising the calibre of play and cultivating the Irish talent pool, the IIHL also operates a developmental division, consisting of eight men's teams and one women's squad.
"Our leagues draw on approximately 350 registered players from all corners of the island. From a standing start, we've built two levels of competitive hockey," said Higgins.
The developmental league features "B" teams representing the Dundalk Bulls, Dublin Rams and Latvian Rams. Another team, the Dublin Wolves, features players affiliated with either the Rams or the Flyers. The other men's teams are the Kilkenny City Storm, Belfast Eagles, Blackrock Whalers, and DKIT Ravens. The women's team is the Dundalk Lady Bulls.
In addition to continuing to grow and refine the pool of Irish players, the new league has taken on the crucial but thankless task of trying to bring its officiating standards up to par to establish a higher degree of uniformity and consistency. The IIHL has appointed a referee-in-chief, William Fay, to oversee this aspect of operations.
"It's a huge task when you consider there was not a single qualified referee available to us, and we have had to do an awful lot of on-the-job training," Higgins said. "The referees-in-chief in the UK, Latvia and Denmark have been very helpful to us in this endeavour."
Going forward, the IIHL hopes to broaden the league's exposure. Obtaining higher-level sponsorships will be critical to the circuit's long-term ability to remain viable.
"At present, the players themselves carry the huge financial burden of paying for their game time, practice time, equipment and insurance. Sponsors and ticket sales are not yet making any major contribution to the finances of most clubs," said Higgins. "This will not change until there are more viable and available hockey rinks in Ireland, which will provide branding opportunities, and a chance for teams to develop local support."
As the IIHL's first off-season approaches, league officials are already hard at work trying to convince people that hockey rinks in general and ice hockey team sponsorships provide viable business opportunities.
"Going forward, we hope to add a couple of teams to our top league, to raise the standard of our on-ice officials, and show the entire Irish public just what they have been missing with all the games centred in Dundalk," said Higgins.
Getting ready for Romania
Last year, the Irish played host to the World Championship Division III. The event in Dundalk was a smashing success. Wildly enthusiastic crowds jammed the Dundalk Ice Dome to root on the national team, which won the silver medal and earned a promotion to the Division II Group A in Miercurea Ciuc, Romania.
Team Ireland benefited greatly by hiring a pair of experienced American-born coaches: head coach Jim Tibbets (formerly the head coach of Team France) and U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and former Olympian Scott Fusco as an assistant. The squad came in well-prepared and focused on the task at hand. It avoided many of the distractions that can befall teams playing on home ice.
During the course of the tournament, Ireland crushed first time tournament entrant Mongolia by an 11-0 margin, dropped a hard-fought 4-2 game to New Zealand after taking a 2-1 lead into the third period, and outlasted South Africa in a 3-1 decision. In their final match, the Irish rallied from behind against Luxembourg to force overtime and then win in a shootout, 4-3.
The tournament brought widespread exposure to the sport within Ireland. Two of Team Ireland's tournament games were televised live, including the deciding one against Luxembourg. When the game went to overtime and a shootout, the television network broadcasting the game decided to stay with the hockey telecast until the game was over rather than switching to a live Irish international rugby game.
Tibbets realises that while the success of the 2007 tournament was a boon to Irish hockey, the squad faces a stiff challenge at the Division II level this year. Many recently promoted teams struggle to avoid relegation the next year.
"Just moving up was fantastic for our players and our program. I have experienced it on several occasions with the French national teams moving to a higher division, and it was a real eye-opener," the national team head coach says. "It's not easy to adjust, because it is a very tough situation to face a significantly higher grade of competition than you're used to seeing."
To get ready for the 2008 tournament in Romania, which starts on April 7th and runs until the 14th, the Irish team will be playing a couple of preparatory games against players from the Irish league.
"Our final roster will be decided very close to our departure date, just like the past few years. That will help us get a look at the shape of the players we are counting on and give a chance to any new players," said Tibbets.
Asked what he hopes to see from his team in Romania, Tibbets minced no words. He's not counting on any miracles, but expects to see an all-out commitment from his team to avoiding relegation in a tournament that features Israel, Belgium, Bulgaria and Serbia in addition to the host country.
"This is what our goal will be this year: Stay focused and play disciplined to stay in each game and hopefully create a surprise to stay in Division II next year," he said.