Jhe Belfast giants recently celebrated their 22nd birthday and the party shows no signs of stopping. The Giants won the Challenge Cup last month, beating the Cardiff Devils in a sold-out final in front of 7,300 home fans, and they top the UK’s Elite Ice Hockey League with a few games to go. player. Winning the double would be a huge feat, but the Giants have been exceeding expectations for decades.
Belfast was a very different place when the Giants played their first game in December 2000. The Good Friday Agreement was only two years old and the city had been marred by a dispute that remained raw. Peace reigned in the streets, but it was fragile, and the sporting landscape was more rooted and traditional than ever.
Sports fans in Belfast largely lived on a limited diet of rugby, football and Gaelic games. The Ulster rugby team had just won the European Cup, but they played in a ramshackle, windswept mausoleum on a ground in east Belfast that was favored mainly by Protestant fans. The Antrim hurling team played in the heart of nationalist West Belfast at Casement Park, but their glory days were long gone. And the various Irish League teams across the city were linked to political tribes. Sectarian chants were common and made attending a game a rotten experience for anyone yearning for a brighter expression of local pride.
The city needed something new, but the foundations of professional ice hockey in Belfast were shaky at best. There was (and remains) only one ice rink in Ireland and the sport was barely known, let alone understood. Would thousands of fans pay to watch North American athletes practice a foreign sport in a new location? The Millennium Commission had paid £45m to build a gleaming arena in the shadow of the city’s dockyard, but the idea that an ice hockey team would bring in thousands of spectators still seemed over the top. These shipyards were famous for building the Titanic, after all, and it hadn’t lasted long.
There was a method behind the apparent madness, however. Ice hockey was so new and so bizarre that it carried none of the traditional barriers that plagued other sports. The team would represent the whole of Belfast. Giants fans are quick to tell you “in Giants country, everyone is equal” and, in a sport known for its brutal beatings, it has quickly established itself as one of the most family-friendly places in the city.
Robert Fitzpatrick, who grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and is now the CEO of the company that owns the Giants, says inclusiveness was key to their vision. “From the start, the Giants were a place where everyone was welcome. I mean everyone: Protestants, Catholics, the LGTB community, whatever. Everybody’s equal. Our color is teal and it plays an important role in our identity. There have never been football shirts allowed in the arena. If we see a young kid wearing a football jersey, we just give him a Giants t-shirt and he puts it on. We now see generations of families in this town who are fans.
The Canadians who signed for the Giants played a brand of ice hockey that thrilled the crowd. The rules still had to be explained regularly in the program notes, by the arena announcer or by the team mascot, Finn McCool, the legendary Irish giant. But the fan base grew every year, as did their knowledge of the game. The Giants now play to larger crowds than any football club in Northern Ireland.
Paddy Smyth was studying at Queen’s University Belfast when he attended the team’s first game against the Ayr Scottish Eagles in 2000. “I had grown up in West Belfast and had family in Detroit . I remember a family member visiting me in the 1990s and talking about the Red Wings. I vaguely followed the sport, then saw the Giants’ first game advertised for six pounds. I couldn’t say no. I went there and it stuck with me.
“You go to the games and feel this huge pride in your city. I love to sing: ‘Go Belfast.’ I support him. I grew up with Gaelic football and football, but there was not the same connection. Going to Giants games and making friends with people from all walks of life has left an impression on me. We are all bound by the support of the Giants and that is exactly what the sport should be about.
Paddy has made an unlikely friend through sports. “My friend Davy and I are really opposites. I am a Catholic of Republican origin; he is Protestant and Orangeman. Thanks to the Giants, we had a common interest and that’s all that ever mattered.
Davy says he started going to games with his wife. “I used to watch Glentoran play football in east Belfast, but she wanted to go somewhere covered, safe, with food and clean toilets. In Belfast, if you grow up in a certain area , it can be hard to know someone from outside your background.Even now I would be hard pressed to tell you that I have Catholic friends from Belfast outside of hockey.With Paddy we shared this love the Giants, have created a podcast together and it is a friendship that I continue to enjoy We are diametrically opposed politically but agree to disagree You will find Loyalists and Republicans sitting together at games It doesn’t matter and it never has.
Davy is convinced the strategists behind the Giants have missed an important selling point for the club. “One of the best recruiting tools the Giants have are the women of Belfast. There are so many former players who stayed in Northern Ireland after they finished. About 20 never left.
One of them is Giants coach Adam Keefe, who moved to Belfast from Ontario 11 years ago as a player, married a local and never left. “I was totally ignorant of the history of Belfast,” he says. “I remember a newspaper asked me for a quote and I said something like, ‘I can’t wait to bring the fighting Irish back to Ireland.’ It never made it to the paper and I couldn’t understand why. The great thing about the Giants is that they really spend time educating you about the city and your responsibility to play here. You only play not for a normal team – you have a responsibility to represent Belfast because we know what the Giants mean to the people here.
“When I signed up a friend asked me if Belfast was safe to visit. Now our players who come from Canada and the USA love it. They couldn’t be treated better. When I arrived I was surprised. I mean hockey in Ireland? Yet everyone who comes loves it. You don’t even have to sell the Belfast Giants. The players just want to come. I found out shortly after arriving I wanted to stay here my whole career and luckily I met my wife.
The team’s general manager, Steve Thornton, is another Canadian who arrived as a player and couldn’t leave. He returned to Canada to start a career in business when he retired, but his family missed Belfast so they returned. “I remember coming here 20 years ago and the name of the town was synonymous with what people in Canada heard about on the news. I loved it from the start. It was almost as if people were overcompensating in kindness. They really wanted you to enjoy their city. Hockey is now common in Belfast. We want the Northern Irish to have a team they can be proud of and we think that’s definitely been done.”
In the program notes for the Giants’ first home game in 2000, Belfast Telegraph journalist Stewart McKinlay wrote: “It will be a proud day when a Northern Irish player comes out as the Belfast Giant.” That ambition has become a reality, with nine players from Northern Ireland lacing up their skates to play for the Giants.
Keeper Andrew Dickson grew up in Ballymoney, an hour’s drive north of Belfast. “The first time I heard about ice hockey was from a friend who had just returned from a cross-community trip to Philadelphia. He had been to a Flyers game and kept saying how great it was. was amazing. We bought the video game, we couldn’t stop playing it, then at 17 we started playing roller hockey – first in the local Tesco car park, but eventually we created a league in the rec center. We kept getting hammered but I was in the net so I was practicing a lot and eventually got scouted to play against the Junior Giants.
Dickson has been training in Belfast all week – driving an hour starting at 10.15pm and returning at 1.30am – while studying at a technical college. There was no junior league in Northern Ireland, so he took the ferry to Scotland every weekend to compete. “There was a lot of hard work, and I guess an element of talent, and after three years I was lucky enough to be able to play for the Giants. I had no family history of ice hockey. C Funny, my dad didn’t follow everything. In fact, I remember telling him I was going to play my first game for the Giants and he said he was going to watch the Rangers instead. Now he loves it. He’s in every game and even knocks the neighbors down.
“I loved playing the sport from the start and I always had this fear of being discovered, but I’m still here. My real hope is to have inspired a child not just from Belfast but from elsewhere in the country, to go out and dream that he can play for the Giants.
The Giants are fighting to clinch the double, but their plans are more important than winning silverware. The club is pushing for a second ice rink to be built in Northern Ireland so that more children can enjoy the sport. The team inspired all sides of the Belfast community. Now they want their young fans to play the game. The odds are not in their favor, but they are used to overcoming them.
Jonathan Drennan is on Twitter and you can read his posts here.