On Hockey Night in Belfast, the team with the social conscience and the well-designed face-off plays works a backdoor for a tap-in goal, scores on a shorthanded two-on-one and so utterly treats its bitter rival like a chew toy that after the fifth goal Nottingham goaltender Craig Kowalski makes an executive decision to pull himself, bolting from his crease like a man who suddenly has realized he has to pick up his daughter from soccer practice. Two fights erupt in an ill-tempered third period, fistic footnotes that enchant the crowd of 4,612 even more than right wing Simon Lambert's three goals.
This is something on which all Belfast—be they Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist or Catholic-Nationalist-Republican—can agree: Nothing is quite so universally appreciated as a socially acceptable punch on the nose.
The Belfast Giants win 7--2, and afterward, coach Doug Christiansen instructs his players to head to Rockies, a sports bar adjacent to the Odyssey Arena, and remain a minimum of 30 minutes to drink and mingle with fans. In the 136-year history of organized indoor hockey—ice hockey, as it is called in Northern Ireland—this is a milestone. Innumerable coaches have banned players from saloons. Christiansen might be the first to order a team to go.
But this team marches to a different drum, and not the grab-the-Tylenol bass that the home fans in the northwest end of the arena beat incessantly during games. The Giants are on a mission, fueled by something more profound than testosterone and power plays. Since they were founded more than 10 years ago, they have been guided by the audacious conceit that their inherently violent game can, in some tangible way, be part of the peace process.
The Giants might as well be shoveling out the Augean stables with a teaspoon. There is a lot of muck, even 13 years since the formal end of the Troubles, the three decades of strife that cost 3,526 lives and turned this city into Europe's Beirut. Murals remain in honor of the various paramilitary organizations that were active during the conflict—IRA, UVF, INLA and UDA, among others; it's a wonder that when Belfast toddlers learn the alphabet, it actually starts with ABC. There are nearly 15 miles of what, with an Orwellian irony, are known as peace lines, walls as high as 25 feet, which separate communities in Belfast. Closed-circuit television cameras still monitor so-called "interface areas"—spots where segregated Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods meet. "Collectively there's greater residential segregation than 10 years ago," says Hastings Donnan, a professor of social anthropology at Queen's University Belfast. "And there's even more peace walls than 10 years ago. The walls are longer, and they're higher."
The Giants are not going to mend the social fabric of a city in which the designations Protestant and Catholic have become shorthand for a centuries-old division that is as political and ideological as religious. Hockey already has used its miracle on ice. But the Giants think they serve a civic purpose because they really do stand for tolerance and unity—albeit not for the national anthem.
There is no anthem at Belfast games, making the Giants the only franchise among the 10 in the United Kingdom's Elite Ice Hockey League that skips it. This policy was tested in October before the Boston Bruins arrived for an exhibition game. A steering committee, which included club officials, as well as representatives from both the national and city governments, debated the delicate issue. It began with the premise that The Star-Spangled Banner was a must in a city that warmly welcomes guests. Then someone suggested Francis Scott Key be twinned with Danny Boy because the song is unabashedly Irish, and really, who doesn't tear up at the lilting melody of Danny Boy? Actually, some Protestants don't. (God Save the Queen, the U.K. anthem, is always a nonstarter because of the Nationalists among the Giants' fan base.) Because it seemed odd to play only the American anthem, the idea of O Canada was floated until someone observed they might as well fire up the Slovak anthem in honor of Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. The meeting adjourned without a decision on the matter. As he was leaving the conference room, a Sport Northern Ireland executive remarked, "Whatever song you play is the wrong song." The committee ultimately asked the NHL for guidance. A league representative recommended that the Giants treat the exhibition like a regular home game, even if that meant omitting The Star-Spangled Banner. Problem solved.
"People go out of their way in this country to be upset," David Straine, a 35-year-old taxi driver, said as he drove to the Giants' practice rink on Jan. 18. "People get annoyed by things that wouldn't annoy anyone else anywhere else in the world."
If there is no note-perfect music, there must be a proper tone every day of a season that stretches from September to April. The Giants' slogans are Game for All—Game for Everyone as well as In the Land of the Giants, Everyone Is Equal. The home jersey is white with teal and pale red, colors that have no association with the Union Jack or the orange and green on the flag of the Republic of Ireland. The only jerseys permitted inside the arena are those for hockey; the team expressly forbids the wearing of "football colours," replica soccer jerseys, which might stir sectarian resentment. The Giants are neutral ice, the only team in the city where a fan can simply be a fan. For 2½ hours, competing against other teams stocked with former players from the American and East Coast Hockey leagues, along with the best of Britain, the Giants offer supporters the ecumenical blessing of shared values and shared expectations. It is for these unspoken principles, and not faith or politics, that Mike Hoffman, Belfast's 6' 5", 248-pound defenseman from the Massachusetts town of Scituate—where almost half the population is of Irish descent—unconsciously drops his gloves.
Hockey is religion in Montreal. It can't be religion in Belfast.