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"To help you check for car bombs."
The laughter stopped on Kelman's first night in Northern Ireland, when he and his new teammates went to a bar near their apartments in Bangor, a half hour northeast of Belfast. (The team used to house players in Bangor because it felt the town was safer than the city.) The next morning Kelman learned the bouncer at the bar had lost his legs when a car bomb exploded after the players had left.
He stayed anyway. Seven-plus years on the blue line. Now almost four in the front office. Kelman is not a G.M. in the NHL sense. He does everything from negotiating players' contracts and recruiting sponsors to serving as arena announcer on game night. With only two other full-time front-office employees, he depends on a coterie of volunteers who believe in the mission as much as the game. They are people like Deborah Maguire, a Belfast choreographer. She coaches the cheerleaders—both Protestant and Catholic, naturally, because in the Land of the Giants even the cheerleaders are equal—and is the woman who orchestrated the Giants' holiday video, a rousing lip-synch dance number set to Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas Is You. At 3 a.m. on the day of the Bruins' arrival, Maguire and Kelman's wife, Shauna, were scrubbing the showers in what would be the Boston dressing room. Shauna also headed the catering team that took care of the Bruins' list of culinary requests. You think it's easy rounding up 80 organic blueberry muffins in Belfast?
"When we went to the NHL to talk about the Bruins [in December 2009], they were laughing at us [because they thought the trip would be a security nightmare]," Kelman says. " 'We're not going to Belfast.' When they came with their security to check it out, they're like, 'This is a joke. This'll be our easiest trip to Europe.' ... The whole reason we brought the Bruins here is we wanted to show the world that Belfast is not a s---hole. The problem in Northern Ireland is people are always talking about the past. Maybe 90 percent want to move forward, but the other 10 percent never shuts up about the past. This is a great city, great atmosphere, but you still have to convince guys to come to Belfast."
Kelman and Christiansen, a Milwaukee native who doubles as the club's director of hockey operations, have done a worthy job, bolstered by a tie-in with the University of Ulster, which offers five annual scholarships to Giants players who want to earn a master's degree in sports business management. The lure of a free education can compensate for the quality of play in the EIHL, which is 20,000 leagues under the NHL. Belfast is not the end of the hockey world. But a nifty left wing like Colin Hemingway, a suburban Vancouver native who in 2005--06 played almost 22 minutes for the St. Louis Blues—"I was in the starting lineup my first game on a line with Mike Sillinger and Petr Cajanek"—can see it from here.
"I know my NHL time has come and gone; I'm O.K. with that," says the 30-year-old Hemingway. "But I'll try to push and play for another five years. Hockey gave me a chance to go to Europe. I played in Germany and didn't like it. Here they speak English." Pause. Smile. "Somewhat."
Hemingway is the most conspicuously talented of the Giants, but he is not the most popular. That honor goes to Hoffman. In his first shift for Belfast, the hulking defenseman figured he might as well set the tone for the season so he initiated a fight. A week later, he scored a goal in his first home game and was named "man of the match"—he was presented with a 12-pack of Carlsberg pilsner in an on-ice ceremony. The 30-year-old Hoffman is the elf in the Giants' Christmas video. He is a surprisingly fluid skater with some touch around the net, but he has been pigeonholed as a heavyweight, not unfairly given his 92 regular-season fights in the AHL and ECHL. Hoffman could have slogged through another season in the minors, but a torn labrum limited him to 19 games last season and there were no offers in North America to rival £400 ($644) a week tax-free and a chance at a master's degree. He views Belfast not as a step back but as a deep breath, a city where he can grow and learn. (First lesson: Don't wear your Notre Dame T-shirt with FIGHTING IRISH down one sleeve when you're out around town. He says, "It's been in the bottom of the hamper for months now.")
"You step on the ice for one second, you've made the Show," Hoffman says of the NHL, over a beer the night after the Nottingham game. "I put education and life ahead of hockey this year, but I really, really hate the thought of being one of those guys who say, 'Ah, I blew out my knee, I blew out my shoulder, I woulda made it.' That's what's grinding in my head right now because I don't want to be him. Do I think I still have a shot at the NHL? Yeah. I know I could play a grinding role like [the Penguins'] Mike Rupp. But it's about luck right now. Getting the right team. The right tryout."
Louise Little folds easily into her compact Renault. In the thin January sunlight of a Belfast Monday morning, she is navigating the Shankill Road, a main thoroughfare that starts near the city center and dips west through a working-class Protestant neighborhood. Just on the other side of the peace wall, maybe 300 yards from the Shankill Road, is the Falls Road, where some storefronts are Kelly green, street signs have Gaelic lettering and neighborhood murals celebrate an alternate version of Belfast's story. ("You look at these murals and see a guy who's shot many, many people, and they think he's a god," Hemingway says. "Other people think he's a murderer.") The 32-year-old Little, who bristles with purpose, works and drives both sides of every sectarian street. She is the Giants' community foundation coordinator. She is also part of a city's conscience.
When the players arrive in Belfast each season—and imports turn over almost every year—Little takes them, in groups of two or three, around the city. Some come knowing a little about the city's background; others are a blank slate. "Nobody knew what an Irish car bomb was until we got here," says winger Dan Welch, who played at the University of Minnesota. "We all assumed it was a drink."