Icy days, hockey nights


BACKSTAGE PASS:Tara Brady goes backstage with the Belfast Giants, who want to be more than just an ice hockey team

THE EMPTY 7,100-SEATER venue would be completely silent if it weren’t for the low electrical hum and the echo of ricocheting pucks. It’s 9am at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena and last year’s Elite Ice Hockey League Playoff champions are already out on the ice practising. No amount of calculation can help decipher the physics of the spectacle. How can anyone move so fast and so flawlessly in all that hefty protective gear while hammering at small objects with sticks?

In a few hours our hosts, the Aer Lingus Belfast Giants, will face stiff competition from league rivals the Nottingham Panthers. A second match against the visitors, who are battling their way back from a string of defeats, is scheduled for tomorrow. Bruises are very much expected. “As sports go, it’s very fast and pretty violent,” says Giants coach Doug Christiansen. “There’s a macho element to it; players are taught to play through pain. Scars are prized; they make for a good story. I think that’s what separates ice hockey from other sports. In hockey just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you’re injured.”

In 2010, on the back of an extraordinary run with the Edinburgh Capitals, the British Ice Hockey Writers’ Association named Christiansen Coach of the Year. The 31-year-old from Milwaukee, Wisconsin has been with the Giants since last April. “It’s definitely a step up in terms of the opportunity,” he says. “This is a great organisation. We’ve got the cup. We win championships year in and year out. The facilities are fantastic. We’ve got a great group of guys. Everything you want as a coach is here.”

For all his enthusiasm, coaching in Ulster was not, Christiansen admits, high on his list of boyhood aspirations. “It didn’t happen by design, that’s true. I was playing in North America and was considering law school or something front of house. I asked my agent to put the feelers out for coaching opportunities and he quickly came back with Edinburgh.

“I’m very, very happy to have ended up here. I’m still quite young, so I’m still learning and evolving on the job. And it’s a great spot because the expectations are high and no one has higher expectations for the team than me.”

Eleven years ago the Belfast Giants seemed little more than an eccentric news item. Sceptics were quick to point out the complete lack of indigenous talent. Others wondered when the novelty would wear off. It didn’t. A consistent top-flight club, the Giants continue to attract full houses in an arena that would otherwise be reserved for Fleetwood Mac and Beyoncé.

The sporting occasions here are not just games; they are events replete with cheerleaders and competitions and a cannon that shoots Subway sandwiches. And the love doesn’t stop with baguettes. Behind the scenes, general manager Todd Kelman and community foundation co-ordinator Louise Little toil on a range of cross-community initiatives. Under the Giants’ umbrella you’ll currently find Junior Giants, campaigns for fitness and literacy, cross-border summer camps and school visits.

“It’s an opportunity to give something back to the community,” says Christiansen. “But it’s also a way to grow the game, get more kids playing, get more people coming along. We’re just starting to see kids from Belfast, who took it up 10 years ago, coming through the ranks.

“It takes a long time to build up the skill set required for a hockey player, so the longer the Giants are out there the more kids we’ll get coming along to games and saying ‘mom, dad, I want to do that’.”

Just as the players do more than skate, the Giants stand for something more than hockey. Born out of a very millennial moment, nothing articulates post-peace process prosperity quite like a strip of white, red and teal. No flags or shirts indicating sectarian allegiances are permitted at the home grounds and no national anthem is played.

“Jim Gillespie has a very strong sense of why he’s the owner of the Giants,” says Christiansen. “He’s not the owner of the Giants because he loves hockey, though he does. He’s the owner because he wants the Giants to be more than a team.

“It’s amazing how many people come up to you here and say, ‘this is the only place we can take our mother’ or ‘this is the first place I took my girlfriend, who is now my wife’. For some couples from different sides of the community, the Giants offered somewhere they could go together. We want to be the best-run hockey organisation, not just in this league but in Europe. But we also need to be a symbol of something better.” It’s a noble aspiration but, sadly, not even the Giants can please all of the people all of the time. “You go along to a game and you see these amazing looking athletes doing amazing looking things,” one disgruntled ticketholder tells me later. “But then you have to go home to your husband.”

Belfast Giants play Coventry Blaze tonight at the Odyssey Arena, Belfast. belfastgiants.com.