Plucky Irish set to skate on thin ice in Europe

 

If only they could have stolen a snapshot of the future, those movie fans who frequented Phibsboro's State cinema in the late 1970s. An ice storm swirling where the cheap seats used to be, a hockey puck slamming against the wall where the sunny features of Robert Redford and Julie Christie were once projected.

On a traffic-clogged Friday in Phibsboro, this is the scene in the Silver Skate ice rink, gangly Irish lads with the gear and sticks, running hockey stop drills and leathering pucks at goal. Although they don't really know it, the tenuous welfare of Irish ice hockey (okay, so it has an incongruous ring) rests upon their padded shoulders.

All 20 of them travel to Sofia, Bulgaria, at the end of the month to participate in the under-18 European championships. Two wins are a must if they are to guarantee themselves re-entry. Always ailing, the sport has been resuscitated here by a few lone fanatics still driven by the memory of the short-lived north-south rivalry which flared in the city back when everyone followed Heffernan's Dubs.

"There's been ice hockey here since the first rink opened in Dolphin's Barn about 25 years ago," says Cliff Saunders, a devotee of the game and president of the association in Ireland. "Just a few of us went along with sticks and I suppose it was lunatic really, what we were at. No helmets, no pads but full contact. But we were young and the thrill was well worth the scars you'd pick up."

After the State cinema closed, the old place was re-invented as a skating rink and a gang from Phibsboro set up a hockey club with the same harum-scarum enthusiasm as had precipitated the establishment of the Dolphin's Barn club. What better way to spend a weekend than tying up the skates and lashing into a bunch of pretenders from the far side of town? "The games were bloody competitive, but it was always going to be a temporary thing. It was the same teams playing each other, the same people. But you got a feel for the game and it really is a tremendously exciting sport."

The Dolphin's Barn facility gradually fell into disrepair, its environs undermined by the city's burgeoning drug problem. After it closed, ice hockey saw the light of day only intermittently. About four years ago, those still determined to ensure that what remained of the game's life blood should keep flowing established an under-age club in Phibsboro. Those kids who turned up have evolved from graceless novices into genuine athletes on the ice, assured and serious about their sport. For the past two years, they have been coached by Pete Lawlor, a Massachusetts hockey player who arrived in Ireland to study surgery after a brief stint following the pro-rink circuit in Holland.

"I never expected to find any kind of ice hockey here," Lawlor says. "I came across this just through a notice that was posted at the Royal College of Surgeons and I'm delighted to be helping out."

Though the lack of facilities has hampered the progress of the group - the Phibsboro rink is about a third the size of a regular hockey rink - Lawlor says he is genuinely impressed by the underage standard here.

"These kids have really surprised. In comparison to American standards, they are comparable to a good under-16 high school team in terms of technique and skill. It's the old story of grounding which applies in every sport. At home, kids are given a hockey stick at seven and the basics are drilled into them - footwork, keeping the stick on the ground, keeping the puck low. These guys started later and so they are still a little behind in terms of basics. But I can say, hand on heart, that there is potential here."

Since successfully seeking international recognition, the Irish Ice Hockey Association has received huge encouragement from the American NHL, which, like virtually every other Stateside organisation, has its share of Irish expatriates.

"We have met various Government figures here and it's like hitting a blank canvas," explains Cliff Saunders. "Like all minority sports, we are struggling to establish a foothold. But the attitude abroad, particularly in the States has been extremely positive. "There are people there who are incredibly keen that ice hockey survives at some sort of level here and they are prepared to substantiate their support through financial aid for building a proper facility."

Ireland is the only member of the official international ice hockey association without a full-size rink. Saunders is adamant that location remains the sole obstacle in the realisation of such a facility, which could cost up to £5 million.

"I think it will happen eventually. Finance surprisingly enough, isn't the real problem, there are enough people ready to make the investment. It's really a matter of finding a suitable site. Building a rink for the sake of it in an isolated spot just won't work, it needs to be central and accessible. Acquiring a suitable site is the most challenging aspect."

Yet if ice hockey is to become sustainable here, younger players are going to need an adequate facility.

"Everyone involved with hockey here is really grateful to have the Phibsboro rink. You can take things to a certain level here, you can certainly teach the fundamentals. But the kids suffer when it comes to imparting offensive or defensive strategy purely because it's difficult to relate to the sheer size of a full-size rink. They are really dependent on the occasions that we travel to the north or to England."

That lack of rink experience could well prove fatal for the national side's hopes of progressing in Sofia. "It's going to be difficult but we feel we have the fitness and the technical savvy to survive at this level now," says Ross Killeen, a co-captain on the Irish team. Killeen first pulled on skates during the final days in Dolphin's Barn and was instantly hooked on the speed of it.

"I heard there was hockey going on in Phibsboro and came over straight away. Initially, it gave me a chance to put whatever skating skills I had acquired into practice. Once I began, the game itself just blew me away. I'd seen it a bit on TV and thought it looked like good craic. Just the speed and the contact is hard to beat. Even if someone clatters into you, it's still a bit of a buzz."

He is awe-struck at the prospect of the European championships, visibly brimming with pride at the mere mention of the competition.

"I can't really explain what it means to me or any of the others here. I know this is probably looked upon as a curiosity by a lot of people, but for us, we are pulling on our national jersey to represent our country at what we love doing. It just means everything."

Ideally, the team will travel to Bulgaria and carve out two unlikely wins, thereby establishing at least the bones of a reputation at under-age level. More likely though, it will be a struggle, befitting the history of the sport here.,

"It's going to be hard all right," nods Killeen. "But we have been committed to this for two years now, training three times a week. Hardly anyone knows we do it, no one comes to watch, but the belief and interest here is incredible. And when you have a coach like Pete, well you just want to try and repay the work and time he gives you."

On the ice, Pete Lawlor is doing just that; working the puck, demonstrating a drill with wonderfully economic skating strides, his no-nonsense Bostonian drawl echoing around the frosty, dimly lit cavern. Maybe someday he'll get to coach on a genuine rink, but either way things have never looked so good.

For a fast game, it's still got to rank among Ireland's slowest-growing sports - there are around 80 youngsters affiliated to the Phibsboro club - but at least there are genuine contenders to whom the torch might be passed. Never has there been such underage interest and more kids keep appearing at the midweek training sessions. Sunday nights, though, are reserved for the seniors, the gnarled survivors from the gory days. The hits still rain down hard and often, but, in truth, it's all gone soft now. Face guards, padding, even fancy sticks. They hardly know themselves.