It was a special moment for him and also the fans. On a Canadian-dominated roster, Shields was the only domestic player to score.
The Scotsman with an experience of 16 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship tournaments for the Great Britain men’s national team is the team’s most famous player from the United Kingdom on the roster and won two national championships with the Giants during the past ten seasons with the team. However, the start of the season was anything but lucky for him.
“I missed most of the season with an injury. It was only my third game back. It was nice to get back on the board. I was fortunate to find the bottom corner. It’s good to be back with my teammates again and be able to play,” he said after starting with a goal and win.
The season was just a few games old when the Belfast Giants hosted two games against the Milton Keynes Lightning. During the first one on 5th October Shields got a stick in his eye and was unable to see properly. In the meantime his vision is back. “It’s not healed 100 per cent but enough to be back to play. It’s just good to be back,” he said.
The Glasgow native grew up as a son of an ice hockey player and a figure skater. His cousin Stephen Murphy made the step across the North Channel as well. After his parents stopped he wasn’t involved until he started ice hockey again as a 9-year-old. “I’ve been at the rink ever since and my cousin Stephen Murphy is one of our goaltenders as well. I’ve been fortunate enough to play with him the last ten years here,” he said.
He has been living as a Scotsman in Belfast for many years with interruptions playing in North America in the ECHL, in France and one year in Nottingham. Sometimes the games take him back to Scotland. The Belfast Giants travel across the Channel by ferry having ferry operator StenaLine as a sponsor while going by plane for the games further away in England and Wales. They are the only team of the United Kingdom’s Elite Ice Hockey League on the island of Ireland although there have been discussions and dreams about a team in Dublin.
“It’s great. I’ve been here since 2005. I love it here. I’m married to a Northern Irish girl and hope to start a family one day soon. It’s a great place to live and to play. We have an awesome arena, awesome fans and great ownership. It’s a special place,” he said.
In the land of the Giants, everyone is equalBelfast has not always been a go-to place in the UK. Until the ‘90s the capital of Northern Ireland, where people of British and Irish decent, Catholics and Protestants often live together and segregated at the same time, many people lost their lives in decades of unrest during the period of “The Troubles” that ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The city has changed a lot since then.
The Belfast Giants that were founded in 2000 are a counterweight to the troubled times and segregation happening in other sports by nationality and religious sects. Since the founding the club’s motto has been clear: “In the land of the Giants, everyone is equal”. And the club makes sure that the motto is not just the beginning of a fairy tale. The club selected rather unusual colours to make sure there’s no connection to national symbols or religious colours, it played the IIHF anthem instead of a national anthem after its win on Friday night, there are no national flags and even the beer sold at the arena is neutral.
“You can really see it when you come to the rink. No one is asking what side of the town you come from, what religion you are. It’s a relief for people. They don’t have to worry, it’s safe. It’s safe most of the places now but compared to 20, 30 years ago it has come a long way,” said Shields and praises the overall entertainment – an aspect he has experienced more often during the months he was injured and not able to train properly.
“It’s great for us to offer entertainment for the people. They can come and see a different sport and feel safe. You see the smiles on the kids’ faces and the excitement when they watch the games, catch Subway sandwiches during the intermission. They make a great job doing a full entertainment package. I’m fortunate to play here.”
The Belfast Giants won their preliminary-round Continental Cup tournament and brought the final to the UK for the first time. The start couldn’t have been better for Shields with the 5-0 win over HK Gomel and scoring a goal.
“It was a team we didn’t know much about. We did a bit of research, had scouting reports but it’s a team from a country we’re not too familiar with even from the World Championship,” Shields said after the game. “We didn’t really know what to expect and did a good job of controlling the play and that we took care of our own game and we were fortunate enough to get a goal and another goal and the lead and built on it.”
The next opponent will be better known. The Giants face GKS Katowice from Poland in the preliminary round. The Giants won that tournament after two of three games but lost the last game to Katowice, 4-2.
“I was on the bench helping out coaching when we played them last time. They’re a fast team, they were in desperation to qualify last time. Hopefully we have a different game [today]. We know what to expect from them,” he said.
For Shields it’s an exciting season. The Giants are not only battling for the Continental Cup but are just one point behind the Cardiff Devils in the Elite Ice Hockey League standings. In the UK the regular-season winner becomes the national champion and that’s another goal of the Giants. That’s also another way than winning the Continental Cup to gain entry to the Champions Hockey League for next season. The only EIHL team that has won the Continental Cup so far were the Nottingham Panthers two years ago.
Working on nomination for WorldsShields also has a big season in national team play. Great Britain with Shields as one of the most renowned players won the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest and will play at the top-level Worlds in May in Slovakia for the first time since 1994.
“It’s still kind of surreal. I hoped to make the team last year. We went into the tournament as a team that could be relegated after winning (Division IB) gold before. We had some guys step up, we had a great tournament,” Shields said.
Looking back there were many great memories during two decades of World Championship play and yet his biggest tournament is ahead of him if he makes the team after starting the season late.
“2001 was my first one, it’s a long time with lots of good memories and I saw a lot of great places. Hopefully being back on the ice gives me a good opportunity to be back this year, it’s pretty exciting to have the opportunity to play in the top division against these great teams,” Shields said.
Canada, the United States, Finland, Germany, Slovakia, Denmark and France will be Team GB’s opponents in Kosice. It will be an exciting event in a hockey festival atmosphere in eastern Slovakia. But for now Shields will enjoy the atmosphere at The SSE Arena Belfast. A win against GKS Katowice would bring the Giants one step closer to the Continental Cup’s winners’ plate.