In a city thoroughly divided by religion and politics, a fledgling hockey team called the Giants is attempting to redefine the parameters of sports
This is an article from the March 21, 2011 issue
On Hockey Night in Belfast, the team with the social conscience and the well-designed face-off plays works a backdoor for a tap-in goal, scores on a shorthanded two-on-one and so utterly treats its bitter rival like a chew toy that after the fifth goal Nottingham goaltender Craig Kowalski makes an executive decision to pull himself, bolting from his crease like a man who suddenly has realized he has to pick up his daughter from soccer practice. Two fights erupt in an ill-tempered third period, fistic footnotes that enchant the crowd of 4,612 even more than right wing Simon Lambert's three goals.
This is something on which all Belfast—be they Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist or Catholic-Nationalist-Republican—can agree: Nothing is quite so universally appreciated as a socially acceptable punch on the nose.
The Belfast Giants win 7--2, and afterward, coach Doug Christiansen instructs his players to head to Rockies, a sports bar adjacent to the Odyssey Arena, and remain a minimum of 30 minutes to drink and mingle with fans. In the 136-year history of organized indoor hockey—ice hockey, as it is called in Northern Ireland—this is a milestone. Innumerable coaches have banned players from saloons. Christiansen might be the first to order a team to go.
But this team marches to a different drum, and not the grab-the-Tylenol bass that the home fans in the northwest end of the arena beat incessantly during games. The Giants are on a mission, fueled by something more profound than testosterone and power plays. Since they were founded more than 10 years ago, they have been guided by the audacious conceit that their inherently violent game can, in some tangible way, be part of the peace process.
The Giants might as well be shoveling out the Augean stables with a teaspoon. There is a lot of muck, even 13 years since the formal end of the Troubles, the three decades of strife that cost 3,526 lives and turned this city into Europe's Beirut. Murals remain in honor of the various paramilitary organizations that were active during the conflict—IRA, UVF, INLA and UDA, among others; it's a wonder that when Belfast toddlers learn the alphabet, it actually starts with ABC. There are nearly 15 miles of what, with an Orwellian irony, are known as peace lines, walls as high as 25 feet, which separate communities in Belfast. Closed-circuit television cameras still monitor so-called "interface areas"—spots where segregated Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods meet. "Collectively there's greater residential segregation than 10 years ago," says Hastings Donnan, a professor of social anthropology at Queen's University Belfast. "And there's even more peace walls than 10 years ago. The walls are longer, and they're higher."
The Giants are not going to mend the social fabric of a city in which the designations Protestant and Catholic have become shorthand for a centuries-old division that is as political and ideological as religious. Hockey already has used its miracle on ice. But the Giants think they serve a civic purpose because they really do stand for tolerance and unity—albeit not for the national anthem.
There is no anthem at Belfast games, making the Giants the only franchise among the 10 in the United Kingdom's Elite Ice Hockey League that skips it. This policy was tested in October before the Boston Bruins arrived for an exhibition game. A steering committee, which included club officials, as well as representatives from both the national and city governments, debated the delicate issue. It began with the premise that The Star-Spangled Banner was a must in a city that warmly welcomes guests. Then someone suggested Francis Scott Key be twinned with Danny Boy because the song is unabashedly Irish, and really, who doesn't tear up at the lilting melody of Danny Boy? Actually, some Protestants don't. (God Save the Queen, the U.K. anthem, is always a nonstarter because of the Nationalists among the Giants' fan base.) Because it seemed odd to play only the American anthem, the idea of O Canada was floated until someone observed they might as well fire up the Slovak anthem in honor of Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. The meeting adjourned without a decision on the matter. As he was leaving the conference room, a Sport Northern Ireland executive remarked, "Whatever song you play is the wrong song." The committee ultimately asked the NHL for guidance. A league representative recommended that the Giants treat the exhibition like a regular home game, even if that meant omitting The Star-Spangled Banner. Problem solved.
"People go out of their way in this country to be upset," David Straine, a 35-year-old taxi driver, said as he drove to the Giants' practice rink on Jan. 18. "People get annoyed by things that wouldn't annoy anyone else anywhere else in the world."
If there is no note-perfect music, there must be a proper tone every day of a season that stretches from September to April. The Giants' slogans are Game for All—Game for Everyone as well as In the Land of the Giants, Everyone Is Equal. The home jersey is white with teal and pale red, colors that have no association with the Union Jack or the orange and green on the flag of the Republic of Ireland. The only jerseys permitted inside the arena are those for hockey; the team expressly forbids the wearing of "football colours," replica soccer jerseys, which might stir sectarian resentment. The Giants are neutral ice, the only team in the city where a fan can simply be a fan. For 2½ hours, competing against other teams stocked with former players from the American and East Coast Hockey leagues, along with the best of Britain, the Giants offer supporters the ecumenical blessing of shared values and shared expectations. It is for these unspoken principles, and not faith or politics, that Mike Hoffman, Belfast's 6' 5", 248-pound defenseman from the Massachusetts town of Scituate—where almost half the population is of Irish descent—unconsciously drops his gloves.
Hockey is religion in Montreal. It can't be religion in Belfast.
In 1948, 27 years after the partition of Ireland, Belfast Celtic met Linfield F.C. in their annual day-after-Christmas soccer match at Windsor Park, Linfield's stadium in Unionist south Belfast. Linfield was and is a Protestant club. Irish nationalists supported Belfast Celtic. According to an eyewitness, late in the game word spread that a Linfield player, the victim of a robust first-half tackle, had sustained a broken leg. The eyewitness says this news spurred Linfield fans to storm the pitch. Memories can be conflated, airbrushed, lost. Most historical accounts fail to mention an injured Linfield player, but they graphically describe what occurred after the final whistle of the 1--1 draw. Linfield supporters rushed the field and attacked Celtic players, including a forward named Jimmy Jones—a Protestant, incidentally. They threw him over a parapet, kicked him unconscious and left him with a broken leg, ending his career. An eye for an eye and, perhaps, a leg for a leg.
For most men, the golden age of sport is whatever happened when they were 12. This Boxing Day riot was one boy's blackest memory. Jim Gillespie would never forget "the mass hysteria, the fear" that he witnessed. A Catholic, the only thing he grew up loathing was intolerance.
Gillespie was educated in Belfast. He studied civil engineering. After he married he left the city for Holland in 1964. He missed the Troubles, a time when the white noise of ethno-sectarian tension became all too audible. He moved into the offshore pipeline engineering business—in 1984 he and several partners started INTEC Engineering—and ultimately settled in Houston, where he is now retired and lives eight months of the year. The other four he spends in Northern Ireland, watching his Giants.
Gillespie had never seen a hockey game until he was in his 60s. He wouldn't have known a 1--4 forecheck from a two-by-four plank. But on a visit to Belfast in 2002, his lawyer suggested he attend a game and watch the Giants attempt to redefine the parameters of sports in Northern Ireland. Seemingly all the games in the country were the cultural property of one community or the other, embedded in the network of urban geography and kinship. Irish sports, hurling and Gaelic football were Republican. Cricket and, to some degree, rugby were Loyalist. Soccer belonged to all, albeit separately: Of the five professional teams located in Belfast, three are considered Protestant, two Catholic. Now came hockey, which was ... well, Canadian. Nothing indigenous. Nothing bred to the bone.
There is only one public rink in Northern Ireland (and none currently operational in the Republic of Ireland). Although hockey in Belfast dates to the 1930s, it disappeared before the start of the Troubles in the 1960s when the British Army commandeered the King's Hall rink for use as a barracks. Bob Zeller, a Canadian businessman with a vision and a conscience, saw the opportunity for a nonsectarian team in the U.K.'s 11th-largest urban area, one ripe with economic possibility considering it would not have to compete against an English Premier League soccer team. Thus—for a ¬£2 million (about $3.2 million) initial investment that he put up with Albert Maasland, his London-based partner—were born the Belfast Giants, who appropriated their name from the mythic (and pan-Irish) Finn McCool, the colossus who, according to legend, built the stunning basalt column formations on the nearby North Atlantic coast known as the Giant's Causeway.
The Odyssey opened in 2000—the same year Zeller's Giants joined the British Superleague—on the site of an old railway station, close to the common ground of the city center. In their first two heady seasons, the Giants often drew capacity crowds of 7,200. "The place itself was not associated with one side or the other, so that was powerful enough to attract people," says Donnan, the Queen's professor. "New things were happening in this city. The Giants were a part of it. A lot of people wanted to see for themselves. But after a couple of ice hockey games, they didn't necessarily go back." The fan base eroded in lockstep with the novelty. Gillespie, who had purchased 10% of the team just a few weeks after going to that first game, was obliged to step up his commitment in 2003 when the Giants, and the then five-team Superleague, teetered on the brink of collapse. Gillespie paid 20 pence on the pound to buy the team outright. He currently owns 90%.
"I was glad I wasn't there for the Troubles," says Gillespie, 74, who studied at Queen's. "I feel I might have got involved. I can see rights and wrongs in both sides, and I was glad I wasn't there to see that. Now that I'm involved in the Belfast Giants, this is my payback. I love Northern Ireland, what it did for me—the education it gave me, the friends it gave me. I'm not a philanthropist, but it ended up this way to keep the team going."
Gillespie has spent ¬£1.75 million—about $2.81 million—since 2003 and has not seen a penny in return although the Giants might finally break even this season, aided by the sold-out exhibition against Boston on Oct. 2. The economics are daunting for a team whose budget is only about $1.8 million. A weekly salary cap of ¬£10,000—about $16,000—binds EIHL teams, which generally carry 11 imports and six or seven British players. Theo Fleury, who had been out of the NHL for two years when he arrived in October 2005 to play for the Giants, recalls earning $750 tax-free per week. "I was newly sober when I arrived and this was, well, Ireland, but I always liked a challenge," says Fleury, who won the EIHL scoring championship in his only season, recording 22 goals, 74 points and an astounding 270 penalty minutes in 34 games. "Loved it there. Felt a connection. One of the reasons they liked me and my story is that for hundreds of years people there have had their own battles.... But it wound up costing money to play." The Giants' players are not the only ones who feel the pinch. In the second week of January, the team was under the salary cap by a spare ¬£25 ($40). On the afternoon of the Panthers game, Giants general manager Todd Kelman frets that five extra photocopies will consume too much ink.
Kelman, an ex--Bowling Green defenseman who had played in England in the Superleague, joined the Giants in the summer of 2000. Before he left his hometown of Calgary he received a gag going-away gift from his shinny pals: a hockey stick with a mirror attached to the blade.
"To help you check for car bombs."
The laughter stopped on Kelman's first night in Northern Ireland, when he and his new teammates went to a bar near their apartments in Bangor, a half hour northeast of Belfast. (The team used to house players in Bangor because it felt the town was safer than the city.) The next morning Kelman learned the bouncer at the bar had lost his legs when a car bomb exploded after the players had left.
He stayed anyway. Seven-plus years on the blue line. Now almost four in the front office. Kelman is not a G.M. in the NHL sense. He does everything from negotiating players' contracts and recruiting sponsors to serving as arena announcer on game night. With only two other full-time front-office employees, he depends on a coterie of volunteers who believe in the mission as much as the game. They are people like Deborah Maguire, a Belfast choreographer. She coaches the cheerleaders—both Protestant and Catholic, naturally, because in the Land of the Giants even the cheerleaders are equal—and is the woman who orchestrated the Giants' holiday video, a rousing lip-synch dance number set to Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas Is You. At 3 a.m. on the day of the Bruins' arrival, Maguire and Kelman's wife, Shauna, were scrubbing the showers in what would be the Boston dressing room. Shauna also headed the catering team that took care of the Bruins' list of culinary requests. You think it's easy rounding up 80 organic blueberry muffins in Belfast?
"When we went to the NHL to talk about the Bruins [in December 2009], they were laughing at us [because they thought the trip would be a security nightmare]," Kelman says. " 'We're not going to Belfast.' When they came with their security to check it out, they're like, 'This is a joke. This'll be our easiest trip to Europe.' ... The whole reason we brought the Bruins here is we wanted to show the world that Belfast is not a s---hole. The problem in Northern Ireland is people are always talking about the past. Maybe 90 percent want to move forward, but the other 10 percent never shuts up about the past. This is a great city, great atmosphere, but you still have to convince guys to come to Belfast."
Kelman and Christiansen, a Milwaukee native who doubles as the club's director of hockey operations, have done a worthy job, bolstered by a tie-in with the University of Ulster, which offers five annual scholarships to Giants players who want to earn a master's degree in sports business management. The lure of a free education can compensate for the quality of play in the EIHL, which is 20,000 leagues under the NHL. Belfast is not the end of the hockey world. But a nifty left wing like Colin Hemingway, a suburban Vancouver native who in 2005--06 played almost 22 minutes for the St. Louis Blues—"I was in the starting lineup my first game on a line with Mike Sillinger and Petr Cajanek"—can see it from here.
"I know my NHL time has come and gone; I'm O.K. with that," says the 30-year-old Hemingway. "But I'll try to push and play for another five years. Hockey gave me a chance to go to Europe. I played in Germany and didn't like it. Here they speak English." Pause. Smile. "Somewhat."
Hemingway is the most conspicuously talented of the Giants, but he is not the most popular. That honor goes to Hoffman. In his first shift for Belfast, the hulking defenseman figured he might as well set the tone for the season so he initiated a fight. A week later, he scored a goal in his first home game and was named "man of the match"—he was presented with a 12-pack of Carlsberg pilsner in an on-ice ceremony. The 30-year-old Hoffman is the elf in the Giants' Christmas video. He is a surprisingly fluid skater with some touch around the net, but he has been pigeonholed as a heavyweight, not unfairly given his 92 regular-season fights in the AHL and ECHL. Hoffman could have slogged through another season in the minors, but a torn labrum limited him to 19 games last season and there were no offers in North America to rival ¬£400 ($644) a week tax-free and a chance at a master's degree. He views Belfast not as a step back but as a deep breath, a city where he can grow and learn. (First lesson: Don't wear your Notre Dame T-shirt with FIGHTING IRISH down one sleeve when you're out around town. He says, "It's been in the bottom of the hamper for months now.")
"You step on the ice for one second, you've made the Show," Hoffman says of the NHL, over a beer the night after the Nottingham game. "I put education and life ahead of hockey this year, but I really, really hate the thought of being one of those guys who say, 'Ah, I blew out my knee, I blew out my shoulder, I woulda made it.' That's what's grinding in my head right now because I don't want to be him. Do I think I still have a shot at the NHL? Yeah. I know I could play a grinding role like [the Penguins'] Mike Rupp. But it's about luck right now. Getting the right team. The right tryout."
Louise Little folds easily into her compact Renault. In the thin January sunlight of a Belfast Monday morning, she is navigating the Shankill Road, a main thoroughfare that starts near the city center and dips west through a working-class Protestant neighborhood. Just on the other side of the peace wall, maybe 300 yards from the Shankill Road, is the Falls Road, where some storefronts are Kelly green, street signs have Gaelic lettering and neighborhood murals celebrate an alternate version of Belfast's story. ("You look at these murals and see a guy who's shot many, many people, and they think he's a god," Hemingway says. "Other people think he's a murderer.") The 32-year-old Little, who bristles with purpose, works and drives both sides of every sectarian street. She is the Giants' community foundation coordinator. She is also part of a city's conscience.
When the players arrive in Belfast each season—and imports turn over almost every year—Little takes them, in groups of two or three, around the city. Some come knowing a little about the city's background; others are a blank slate. "Nobody knew what an Irish car bomb was until we got here," says winger Dan Welch, who played at the University of Minnesota. "We all assumed it was a drink."
This is what Little does for the players. In return, this is what they do for Belfast: The Giants work with at-risk boys on a health and diversity program. These intensive weekly sessions last 2½ hours and stretch over a month. "We've had some very good players who say I'm not going to do that, that's not what you're paying me for," says Gillespie, the owner. "So we don't hire them." The community sessions are a lesson in humanity for the children on both sides of the chasm, a lesson in humility for the players.
"The wee group we had up from Portadown on Saturday? Their perception was [that the Shankill Road and the Falls Road] were miles apart and there was constant trouble in the area," Little says of the 12 boys who came to have an on-ice session with a couple of players, participate in a discussion group and attend the Jan. 15 game against Nottingham. "They base that on never having been on a tour of these areas or having left the city center. That's why whenever we have them here we take the opportunity to expose them to the two roads so they can have some of their myths challenged."
"These kids feel that this all happened to them, because it happened to someone they know," says defenseman Rich Seeley, a sixth-round pick of the Kings in the 1997 NHL draft, who worked with the Portadown teenagers. "And Louise will say to them, 'What do you remember?' They might have been two years old or four years old when it happened. She sees if they can [absorb the lesson that they have no firsthand memory of the Troubles]."
One former Irish National Liberation Army combatant together with one ex--Ulster Volunteer Force combatant, fast friends now committed to healing the wounds and addressing the human consequences of the conflict, spoke to the teenagers at the Odyssey and accompanied them on their tour. The former UVF man was Alistair Little, who in 1975, when he was 17, shot and killed a 19-year-old Catholic who he had heard had been threatening Protestant factory workers in the town of Lurgan. There is a 2009 movie about Little, Five Minutes of Heaven, which stars Liam Neeson. Louise met Alistair Little after he had served 12 years in the notorious Maze prison. She is his wife.
Rewriting the genetic code of a country can be taxing, even for someone like Graeme Walton. Walton is a stay-at-home defenseman. He actually stays at home, in the Castlereagh section of east Belfast, while he plays for the Giants, the only regular from the city.
Walton is 29. He says he doubts there was a single Catholic family living within five miles of his house when he was growing up. Walton is an anomaly. He probably would have had as good a chance of becoming a professional hockey player if he had been raised in Buenos Aires. He didn't start skating until he was eight, didn't put on a pair of hockey skates until he was 10. He practiced for just 90 minutes a week. For years his nearest home games were four hours away, including a 3½-hour ferry ride to Scotland. When the Giants signed Walton for ¬£50 a week in 2003, he was driving a floor vacuum at the Dundonald Ice Bowl, the team practice facility.
"When I got back for that season, I get to the rink and he's like, 'Have a good summer, Todd?'" Kelman, who was then still a player, recalls. "And I'm like, 'Yeah.' And we're chatting away, walking and talking, and he's wearing his Dundonald Ice Bowl uniform. And he follows me into the dressing room. So I say to [the equipment manager], "What the hell is the kid who works in the rink doing in the dressing room?" And he says, "That's your new D partner." Walton stills works there 20 hours a week, supplementing his ¬£300 ($480) Giants salary.
"The first couple of years, I was lost," Walton says. "Really, no clue. The coach would be at the whiteboard talking about the weak side, and I didn't know what the weak side was."
Now Walton is the Bobby Orr of Belfast, the best player in the history of Northern Ireland. (The club has added another Belfast native, seldom-used forward Gareth Roberts, who began the season driving the Zamboni at The Odyssey.) After twice declining offers to play for the Irish national team—he has been to Dublin, 100 miles away, only four times—in 2007 he became the first Ulsterman to play for Team Great Britain in the IIHF world championship B pool. The U.K. is Walton's country, which is why teammates like to wind him up with gifts like an oversized leprechaun hat and the Irish tricolor boxer shorts he received in the club's Secret Santa gift exchange. Now Walton wears a shamrock on his jersey because Aer Lingus, the Irish airline that began flying into Northern Ireland only three years ago, is the Giants' 2010--11 title sponsor. "I suppose you look at it and think to yourself, Geez, a shamrock? On my sweater?" Walton said. "But you know at the end of the day it's just a sponsor."
Kelman says he has received not one e-mail or telephone call about the shamrock. "I don't think that would have been the case 10 years ago," he says. "That's progress."
My uncle was shot dead in 1974 for no other reason than he was a Protestant," says David Straine, the taxi driver. "Jackie Murdock. Not part of any paramilitary organization. Coming out of pub, walking along the Shore Road, a car pulls up and [they] shot him. You didn't have to be involved in anything. It was just the hatred that was about then. There's hundreds of stories like that. On both sides."
So in a city still coming to terms with the bloody contours of its history, can a low-level professional hockey team really matter? An SRO Giants crowd represents about 1% of Belfast's population. They cheer the goals and the fights and vanish back to their communities. Professor Donnan says studies show that when people return from a shared training session or public event there is scant long-term effect on attitudes. "I don't think the Giants necessarily are beating their heads against the wall," he says. "Maybe they're containing things."
"The story is we've been here for 10 years and we're still at it," Kelman says. "I can't tell you how many people have come up and told me, 'You guys saved our family. You guys gave us something to do together. If not for the Giants, we wouldn't have known that Catholics were nice people,' or 'We wouldn't have known that Protestants were nice people.' Coming from Canada, your first thought is that's the dumbest thing you've ever heard, but you have to respect their experience."
Placed in that context, they must all be Giants.