Peace breaks out, Belfast-style

SUN JOURNAL

Hockey: The novelty of a violent sport from Canada is bringing together all factions in Northern Ireland to cheer lustily for a team that is neither orange nor green.

January 17, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELFAST, Northern Ireland - It's hockey night in Belfast and Heather Scott can't stop cheering for the Giants.

The mother of four shouts through six goals, a bunch of body checks and one knock-down, drag-out fight that has sticks and gloves on the ice and 6,000 fans on their feet at the new Odyssey Arena.

"I've no voice left," Scott says afterward, dragging her husband and kids to a concession stand so they can pour sodas down their parched throats. "I like the violence. We don't understand that offsides thing, or that icing thing."

Belfast's fans may not understand all the rules, but they've caught hockey fever.

In a city once divided by religious conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics, the Belfast Giants are a certified hit, bringing together fans from all walks of life to experience the fast-skating, hard-hitting North American sport.

Who could have predicted that hockey, a game where violence is encouraged, would help a town heal from a 30-year terror war?

"Hockey isn't one-sided," Scott says. "It's not Catholic or Protestant. It's for everybody. It has no history and it has no prejudice."

Playing their inaugural season in Britain's Super League, an upscale hockey minor league based in blue-collar British towns like Newcastle and Manchester, the Giants are bringing a new nighttime spirit to Belfast.

The team is housed in the Odyssey Arena, a $150 million glass-and-steel complex set on the revived waterfront of this old port town where the Titanic was built. Besides the hockey arena, the entertainment complex will eventually include movie theaters, a hands-on science museum and restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe.

Among the initial guests at the arena was President Clinton, who arrived here last month for his farewell speech to Northern Ireland. Clinton even met the team, which had to give up a lucrative home date to make way for the presidential visit.

The Giants and the arena symbolize the better days that might lie ahead for Belfast.

In Northern Ireland, whom you cheer for marks who you are, and sectarian tension sometimes boils over in the stands and on the fields of play. Sports have been as divided as the society. Rugby and soccer are often considered sports of choice by Protestants, while Gaelic football and hurling are viewed by many as Catholic pursuits. Teams from the two communities will often meet on the field, especially in soccer.

Sporting equipment is associated with sinister activities. There may not be much baseball played in Northern Ireland, but baseball bats, often studded with nails, are used in so-called punishment beatings dished out by paramilitary groups.

The modern-day hockey Giants, owned, operated and staffed almost entirely by Canadians, have done a yeoman job to skirt the province's tortured history and come up with a night of sheer good entertainment.

From their name to their logo to their uniform colors, everything about the team is played straight down the middle so both communities are made comfortable.

The team is named after Giants Causeway, the natural rocky wonder on the province's north coast, and its logo features five colors and the cartoon-like image of Finn McCool, a mythical Irish hero that everyone can embrace. The team artfully avoided the emotive shades of orange for Protestants and green for Catholics.

"We introduced teal into Northern Ireland," says Bob Zeller, 58, the team's managing director.

A former racecar driver and sports writer, Zeller was attracted to Belfast by demographics - a young population with high disposable income - easy lifestyle and a hunch that the city was "starved for big-league entertainment."

Hockey had maintained a toehold in Northern Ireland since the 1930s, when the sport was brought over from Britain. A rink was built in the 1980s to bring the sport closer to kids, and a youth league took root.

Budgeting around $3 million for the start-up, Zeller is hopeful the team will be making a profit by the middle of the third season.

"It was a no-brainer to bring the team in," he says.

Zeller admits it was a little tougher to lure players.

"The perception of Northern Ireland was that the safest place was on the ice," he says.

The team's coach, 34-year-old Dave Whistle, worked the phones to assemble a team in time for the season. It didn't help that the annual marching season that divides Protestant and Catholics coincided with contract time. Whistle found that it's tough to persuade a kid from Moose Jaw, Canada, to come to Belfast while the world is watching video clips of cars being burned in Northern Ireland.

"There was a lot of convincing," Whistle says.

One of the first players to sign was Paxton Schulte, a brawny forward with two black eyes and a fist-sized bump on his head.

"Belfast is just like anywhere else," says Schulte, who was raised outside Edmonton, Canada, but has knocked around British hockey for the past few years. "It's a great city."

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