As you may already know, I'm Irish, living in Ireland. Around here, ice-hockey is a non-factor as far as sports go. The pecking-order goes something like this: Soccer, Hurling, Gaelic Football, Rugby, Golf, Horse Racing, Field Hockey, Darts, Basketball, American Football, literally anything else that could be considered a sport, and then Ice-Hockey. In the Republic Of Ireland (where I live) ice-hockey facilities are practically non-existent outside of the Dublin (capital city) area. Amazingly, there is actually an Irish national team and an Irish league too.
[Map Of Ireland]
In Northern Ireland. ice-hockey is a popular and thriving sport, thanks to the Belfast Giants who play in the Elite Ice Hockey League, which is a professional league that features teams from across the UK (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). The success of the Giants is remarkable and has a lot to do with what the team represents to the people of Belfast. The city has a long and bloody history based around sectarianism which, to this day, affects all sports teams and clubs in the area, so the Giants have made a point not to attach themselves to a particular faith or community, instead being a team that represents the entire city of Belfast. As a result, fans can attend games without any worries about what it represents politically and thus, the team thrives and has an extremely large and loyal fanbase to match their on-ice success.
I had been planning on making the trip to Belfast to see a game since the EIHL season started in late August because I wanted a chance to finally sample the arena-experience of a live ice hockey game. It may not be the NHL, but it's better than nothing, and I probably won't be making my way to Minnesota for a game until late 2014 at the earliest. I decided to go to the Friday night game between the Giants and the Dundee Stars, from Scotland, and to bring my girlfriend, Emma, along for the trip. The tickets were very cheap, costing £10 (Pounds-British currency), which converts to €11.94 (Euros-Currency of Ireland and the rest of the EU, except for the UK and Denmark), which converts to $16.14. I wanted to get front row seats, as close to the middle of the ice as possible. I managed to get the 2nd row, just to the left of the benches and the players tunnel, which was okay.
I'm not sure how good your knowledge of Irish geography is, but, basically, Limerick to Belfast is a really, really long way away. This was how the travel broke-down:
-Bus from the University Of Limerick to Westmoreland Street, Dublin (2 hours, 30 minutes).
-10 minute walk from Westmoreland Street to O'Connell Street.
-Bus from O'Connell Street, Dublin to Europa Bus Centre, Belfast (2 hours, 30 minutes)
-10 minute cab ride to the Odyssey Arena.
To make life more interesting, I had an appointment with my asthma doctor (that I had been trying to get for around 6 months) scheduled at the hospital for the morning of the game. It was at 9.15 AM so it should've been no sweat, but, unfortunately, I had to wait for over an hour before the doctor would see me, and then they proceeded to keep me around for as long as possible. This resulted in us getting the latest possible bus which meant that we had to hop straight into a cab in Belfast and go to the game with our luggage because we didn't have time to drop-off our bags at the hotel.
The Odyssey Areana is an awesome place. It's used for a lot of different events aside from ice-hockey, but the Giants are the life and soul of the place, and right after we entered we saw the new sports bar in the arena, which had it's windows decorated with pictures of sporting legends. It was quite strange to see Irish rugby and soccer heroes (such as the great George Best) sharing a window with Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and John Elway, but it was cool all the same. My favourite portrait was the one of, former Giants hero, and a man you should all know well; Theo Fleury.
When we got our tickets scanned and made our way to the actual hockey rink part of the building, we were met by a sea of fans wearing all different kinds of jerseys. Obviously there were a ton of Giants sweaters (which look awesome, by the way) around, but I also spotted some people wearing the colours of the Bruins, Canucks, Rangers, Red Wings, Oilers, Avalanche and some others that I can't remember. No Wild fans around, unfortunately. We made our way to our seats and took-in the warm ups. Our view was decent, though there were some members of staff milling about in the players tunnel who kind of obscured our view of the far-side of the ice, though I could see it if I stood up so it was okay. The facilities in the arena were really fast, plentiful and efficient. I could leave my seat, use the bathroom, buy some snacks and a couple of beers, and be back sitting down in under 5 minutes. I didn't have to queue once all night. Good job, Odyssey Arena!
There was a reasonably good crowd in for this game, though definitely nowhere near a full house. Apparently the Friday evening games tend to be quieter, while the Saturday games generally fill the place. There was still a good atmosphere around the arena, with a lot of singing and drumming from the spectators. A group of Dundee fans had made the trip over to support their team, so credit to them for their dedication. The Stars came into this game unbeaten and top of the league, thus full of confidence. The Giants, normally a dominant team, were coming off the back of a 5-0 hammering at home by the Coventry Blaze, so they were hurt and looking to restore their pride.
[The Odyssey Arena]
The first period started-out with the puck going from end-to-end at a frantic speed. Neither team was particularly settled so for a while there was a succession of high-speed attacks by both sides, and both goalies did a good job to keep it scoreless. The Giants were starting to look more dominant, and the goal had a feeling of inevitability about it. The Stars were hemmed in their own zone and Giants players seemingly were queuing up to shoot. Eventually, captain and star player, Adam Keefe, buried the puck into the net and it was 1-0 to the Giants. The Giants seemed to be in control, but they gave-up the lead with a minute to go in the 1st period via a powerplay goal.
Okay, I need to comment on the Giants' goal song real quick. It was so bad that I actually almost missed the Wild's one. It begins with this garbage by awful, cheesy Irish folk group "The Irish Rovers", and then segues into Song #2 by Blur. Truly. truly terrible.
[Shots From The Game]
During the 1st intermission we were treated to some insane on-ice entertainment in the form of some kind of thing that involved two guys dressed in ponchos and sombreros running around the ice filling over-size, fake burritos with various "fillings" and racing to see who could finish first, while being chased by a man in a luchador costume. Yep.
The Giants completely dominated the second period and could've scored numerous times. They eventually did score, on the powerplay, via Kevin "Sauce" Saurette, who then proceeded to score another powerplay goal a few minutes later. The period finished 3-1 to the Giants and they looked to be in complete control. There was more on-ice entertainment during the 2nd intermission, and Emma and myself got talking to the folks in the row in front of us, who were some really hardcore fans and did some of the game photography for the team. One of them was even nice enough to give us a game puck because it was our first time there.
The 3rd period was more 5v5 dominance for the Giants, with Adam Keefe scoring after a couple of minutes on a beautiful wrap-around goal. Things were going smoothly until an incident at the far side of the rink changed the game dramatically. A seemingly innocuous battle for the puck in the corner resulted in a couple of Stars players falling down and a scrum kicking-off. After a lot of pushing and shoving, eventually, Giants captain, Adam Keefe dropped the gloves and beat the snot out of a Stars player. After he was led to the box, there was a delay. Then the announcement came over the intercom that Keefe was to be ejected from the game for an illegal check to the head, and the Stars would get a 2-minute powerplay. There was a lot of confusion in the crowd as it seemed as if nothing major had occurred. I didn't get a great view of the incident.
[Aftermath Of The Adam Keefe Hit]
After that the Giants lost their composure completely and began a procession to the penalty box. They were shorthanded for something like 8 minutes consecutively, featuring a couple of 5-on-3s. It's no surprise that the Stars capitalised on this and scored twice, bringing the score to 4-3. They only needed 1 more and pressed the Giants hard. Giants goalie, Stephen Murphy, had to make some smart saves in traffic and cover-up the puck while being crowded by players to keep the Giants in front. The game was put beyond doubt in the dying minutes when the Stars gave-up a penalty, and Kevin Saurette scored to complete his hat-trick. Game over, final score: 5-3 to the Giants.
I couldn't have asked for more from the game as a spectacle. It was extremely exciting right to the end with a ton of drama and talking points. When it was over, we got to see the players form the famous handshake lines and then the Stars players skated around the rink to much applause from the home fans, before stopping in front of the section of travelling Stars supporters, where the players proceeded to applaud and thank them. I thought that was pretty cool of them.
Overall, I enjoyed the hell out of the game. Watching hockey on TV is great, but seeing it happen right in front of you is on a different level. During the first two periods I was watching it like how I would watch it on TV; just following the puck and the puck carrier. But in the 3rd period I started focusing on analysing individual players and what guys were doing off the puck. it was all extremely interesting.
Obviously this level is way below the NHL or even the AHL, but what I liked about the Giants is that they are clearly very well coached. They played a dominant puck possession game, rarely dumping the puck in. While they obviously aren't elite players, they played a high-tempo system, which resulted in some turnovers through mis-controlled pucks or bad passes, but meant that they usually tore through the Stars defence and hemmed them in their own zone constantly. The only time the Giants looked vulnerable was when they were shorthanded. At even-strength, the Stars never had a chance.
[A Lucky Fan Presents Kevin Saurette With The Player Of The Game Award]
Adam Keefe, who is the team's talisman, stood-out from the crowd with his skill and athletic ability at RW. He's an ex-AHLer, playing a lot of games for the Grand Rapids Griffens and the San Antonio Rampage before coming to Belfast in 2011. Another guy who looked great was defenceman David Phillips. He's English, but has played in the AHL for the Lake Erie Monsters, Chicago Wolves and Rockford Ice Hogs. He stood-out due to his towering height and strong build. He was able to out-muscle the opposition forwards, but also skated very smoothly. The hat-trick hero, Kevin Saurette, was on fire that night and really impressed me, even before he scored his first goal. He has previously played for the Binghampton Senators in the AHL. Another couple of guys who looked good were Noah Clarke (who has scored in the NHL for the LA Kings and New Jersey Devils) and Chris Higgins (not the Canuck) who has previously played in the NCAA and ECHL.
I had a hell of a time at this game, and I really thought about sticking around for the game against Braehead Clan the following night (which turned-out to be a thriller that the Giants won with a tying goal inside the last minute and a game-winner with 6 seconds remaining) but unfortunately, my funds would not stretch that far. It's a real shame that Belfast is so far away from me, because if I lived anywhere near it, I would definitely buy a Giants season ticket. It's a fun, cheap way to get a regular fix of hockey and the people up there are extremely lucky to have it.
I'm sure I'll be going up for another game in the near future, but right now, my main aim is to find a way to get over to St.Paul so I can take-in a Wild game and get the real NHL experience. Watch this space.
[Emma & Me After The Game]
Apologies for clogging-up your news-feeds with content that is in no way related to the Wild, but I thought some of you might find this story interesting. I'm sure that living in the State Of Hockey, it's hard to imagine being in a place where interest in the sport is almost non-existent, but it's a grim reality over here. Luckily, the passion of the small group of fans is keeping the sport alive here in some form, whether it be the Giants, or the Irish league, or Team Ireland. Hopefully more rinks get built around the country in the near future and more Irish kids will get a chance to learn how to skate and hopefully develop an interest in hockey.
Here are the highlights from the Giants game. I recommend you watch these and give your own take on the quality of play and also on the Keefe hit (which, after watching this video looks pretty bad, and probably warranted the 3-game suspension he received):
That's all from me for now. I'll be back tomorrow with the Noon Number. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter and/or leave your views and opinions in the comments section right here.