With the NHL likely shut down for the season, many hockey leagues around the world are getting their moment in the spotlight. The Worldstars, a group of locked-out NHLers, played a seven-country tour starting in Latvia, then headed to Russia, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Poland. Even Thailand is seeing some on-ice action, with the proceeds of a charity game going to the Thai Red Cross' relief. It's a real Tropic of Hockey out there, so the Masochist decided to hunt down some ice-bound hijinks in an old stomping ground: Northern Ireland.
Lacking the budget to fly to the Emerald Isle to research this story, I had to rely on Maisonneuve correspondent Sam Campbell (former Tim Hortons employee and Kitchener homeless person, now safely back in his hometown of Ballycastle) for an Ulster-eye view on what they call "ice hockey."
"It is a genetic fact that all Irish men are short, have red hair, can't skate and run off every time someone steals their Lucky Charms."
The Belfast Giants are currently battling it out with the Cardiff Devils and the Coventry Blaze for supremacy in the British Elite League. The team has a storied, if short, history in UK hockey. "It only took them a year from their conception to become the dominant team in what was then the Superleague," Sam reports. The Giants were league champs in 2002 and playoff champs in 2003; now, although they are tied for first in the league with Coventry, three points ahead of Cardiff, the team's finances are in shambles. "Financially, the Giants are a joke; they have been running at a loss for so long, it's amazing they still exist," says Campbell, who has taken it upon himself to try to save the team by joining the player sponsorship program (front and centre on the Giants' website) at the Level One donation of £5. This provides a needy Giant with laces, tape or socks. The program extends all the way up to Level Four, where for £80 you can sponsor a player's stick. And £300 lets you sponsor a player's home jersey. Sam pondered these packages: "Makes you wonder what they would use if one of the players doesn't get sponsored-do they go out with gaffer tape round their skates and a branch pulled from one of the designer trees outside the arena?"
The Giants' financial troubles don't seem to be preventing the club from icing a competitive "side," as the British call a team, but the new policy of bringing in Northern Irish players seems likely to hurt the team's chances. "It is a genetic fact that all Irish men are short, have red hair, can't skate and run off every time someone steals their Lucky Charms," at least according to Sam, who is himself Irish, though quite tall (I've never had the courage to try to steal his breakfast cereal). Owen Nolan might beg to differ, though he's not playing in Europe this winter. In fact, only four NHLers have made their way to the British Elite League: Rob Davison of the San Jose Sharks is suiting up for the Cardiff Devils and the Toronto Maple Leafs' own Wade Belak (I love those fan pages) is lined up on the Coventry Blaze blue line. Eric Cairns of the Florida Panthers has found a home with the London Racers (yeah, baby-check out their logo) and Steve McKenna (no, I've never heard of him either, but apparently he played for the Pittsburgh Penguins) is skating for the Nottingham Panthers. (Inexplicably, the team is not called the "Hoods"-who does the marketing over there?)
Apparently, the Giants had a chance to make an NHL free-agent signing, but coach/player/leading scorer Tony "Red" Hand decided to forgo the foreign aid. Okay, "Red" is not his official nickname yet; the Giants probably don't want to undo all the good work they've done uniting Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics over the violent Canadian game. "I'm assuming they don't want to alienate half their fan base," Sam figures.
"The reason the league is divided up a bit like a soccer league is because that's what we know and understand. It's amazing that we have any sort of playoff system at all."
I was a bit confused when I looked at the standings, or tables, as they are set up like a soccer league. Separate tournaments are played during the regular season, and there's a bizarre Cross League in which the elite-league teams are pooled with other-one would assume non-elite-UK hockey teams. The Giants are running away with that one, but are having trouble with the Challenge Cup.
Sam explained it this way: "The reason the league is divided up a bit like a soccer league is because that's what we know and understand. It's amazing that we have any sort of playoff system at all-we've been reared to think it's unfair to make the team that had the best record throughout the season risk it all in a sudden-death, winner-takes-all lottery; hence the fact that fans (if not players) are as proud of their team if they finish the regular season on top as the ones who see their team lift the cup."
It certainly is a different game over there. Quick, who can name the winner of last year's Presidents' Trophy? Who knows what the Presidents' Trophy is? That's what I thought. The NHL only began awarding a trophy for best team in the league during the regular season in 1986, which shows that it's really the Stanley Cup we care about. The other games are mere trimmings.
To end, here is the Giants' motto, which speaks to the unique character of the Northern Irish people and emphasizes the non-sectarian values of the team: "In the land of the Giants, everyone is equal."
John Lofranco is a Montreal-based writer, teacher and distance runner. The Masochist appears every second Wednesday