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Michael Farber
March 21, 2011
In a city thoroughly divided by religion and politics, a fledgling hockey team called the Giants is attempting to redefine the parameters of sports
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March 21, 2011

Peace, Love And Hockey In Belfast

In a city thoroughly divided by religion and politics, a fledgling hockey team called the Giants is attempting to redefine the parameters of sports

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In 1948, 27 years after the partition of Ireland, Belfast Celtic met Linfield F.C. in their annual day-after-Christmas soccer match at Windsor Park, Linfield's stadium in Unionist south Belfast. Linfield was and is a Protestant club. Irish nationalists supported Belfast Celtic. According to an eyewitness, late in the game word spread that a Linfield player, the victim of a robust first-half tackle, had sustained a broken leg. The eyewitness says this news spurred Linfield fans to storm the pitch. Memories can be conflated, airbrushed, lost. Most historical accounts fail to mention an injured Linfield player, but they graphically describe what occurred after the final whistle of the 1--1 draw. Linfield supporters rushed the field and attacked Celtic players, including a forward named Jimmy Jones—a Protestant, incidentally. They threw him over a parapet, kicked him unconscious and left him with a broken leg, ending his career. An eye for an eye and, perhaps, a leg for a leg.

For most men, the golden age of sport is whatever happened when they were 12. This Boxing Day riot was one boy's blackest memory. Jim Gillespie would never forget "the mass hysteria, the fear" that he witnessed. A Catholic, the only thing he grew up loathing was intolerance.

Gillespie was educated in Belfast. He studied civil engineering. After he married he left the city for Holland in 1964. He missed the Troubles, a time when the white noise of ethno-sectarian tension became all too audible. He moved into the offshore pipeline engineering business—in 1984 he and several partners started INTEC Engineering—and ultimately settled in Houston, where he is now retired and lives eight months of the year. The other four he spends in Northern Ireland, watching his Giants.

Gillespie had never seen a hockey game until he was in his 60s. He wouldn't have known a 1--4 forecheck from a two-by-four plank. But on a visit to Belfast in 2002, his lawyer suggested he attend a game and watch the Giants attempt to redefine the parameters of sports in Northern Ireland. Seemingly all the games in the country were the cultural property of one community or the other, embedded in the network of urban geography and kinship. Irish sports, hurling and Gaelic football were Republican. Cricket and, to some degree, rugby were Loyalist. Soccer belonged to all, albeit separately: Of the five professional teams located in Belfast, three are considered Protestant, two Catholic. Now came hockey, which was ... well, Canadian. Nothing indigenous. Nothing bred to the bone.

There is only one public rink in Northern Ireland (and none currently operational in the Republic of Ireland). Although hockey in Belfast dates to the 1930s, it disappeared before the start of the Troubles in the 1960s when the British Army commandeered the King's Hall rink for use as a barracks. Bob Zeller, a Canadian businessman with a vision and a conscience, saw the opportunity for a nonsectarian team in the U.K.'s 11th-largest urban area, one ripe with economic possibility considering it would not have to compete against an English Premier League soccer team. Thus—for a £2 million (about $3.2 million) initial investment that he put up with Albert Maasland, his London-based partner—were born the Belfast Giants, who appropriated their name from the mythic (and pan-Irish) Finn McCool, the colossus who, according to legend, built the stunning basalt column formations on the nearby North Atlantic coast known as the Giant's Causeway.

The Odyssey opened in 2000—the same year Zeller's Giants joined the British Superleague—on the site of an old railway station, close to the common ground of the city center. In their first two heady seasons, the Giants often drew capacity crowds of 7,200. "The place itself was not associated with one side or the other, so that was powerful enough to attract people," says Donnan, the Queen's professor. "New things were happening in this city. The Giants were a part of it. A lot of people wanted to see for themselves. But after a couple of ice hockey games, they didn't necessarily go back." The fan base eroded in lockstep with the novelty. Gillespie, who had purchased 10% of the team just a few weeks after going to that first game, was obliged to step up his commitment in 2003 when the Giants, and the then five-team Superleague, teetered on the brink of collapse. Gillespie paid 20 pence on the pound to buy the team outright. He currently owns 90%.

"I was glad I wasn't there for the Troubles," says Gillespie, 74, who studied at Queen's. "I feel I might have got involved. I can see rights and wrongs in both sides, and I was glad I wasn't there to see that. Now that I'm involved in the Belfast Giants, this is my payback. I love Northern Ireland, what it did for me—the education it gave me, the friends it gave me. I'm not a philanthropist, but it ended up this way to keep the team going."

Gillespie has spent £1.75 million—about $2.81 million—since 2003 and has not seen a penny in return although the Giants might finally break even this season, aided by the sold-out exhibition against Boston on Oct. 2. The economics are daunting for a team whose budget is only about $1.8 million. A weekly salary cap of £10,000—about $16,000—binds EIHL teams, which generally carry 11 imports and six or seven British players. Theo Fleury, who had been out of the NHL for two years when he arrived in October 2005 to play for the Giants, recalls earning $750 tax-free per week. "I was newly sober when I arrived and this was, well, Ireland, but I always liked a challenge," says Fleury, who won the EIHL scoring championship in his only season, recording 22 goals, 74 points and an astounding 270 penalty minutes in 34 games. "Loved it there. Felt a connection. One of the reasons they liked me and my story is that for hundreds of years people there have had their own battles.... But it wound up costing money to play." The Giants' players are not the only ones who feel the pinch. In the second week of January, the team was under the salary cap by a spare £25 ($40). On the afternoon of the Panthers game, Giants general manager Todd Kelman frets that five extra photocopies will consume too much ink.

Kelman, an ex--Bowling Green defenseman who had played in England in the Superleague, joined the Giants in the summer of 2000. Before he left his hometown of Calgary he received a gag going-away gift from his shinny pals: a hockey stick with a mirror attached to the blade.

"What's that?"

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