This is what Little does for the players. In return, this is what they do for Belfast: The Giants work with at-risk boys on a health and diversity program. These intensive weekly sessions last 2½ hours and stretch over a month. "We've had some very good players who say I'm not going to do that, that's not what you're paying me for," says Gillespie, the owner. "So we don't hire them." The community sessions are a lesson in humanity for the children on both sides of the chasm, a lesson in humility for the players.
"The wee group we had up from Portadown on Saturday? Their perception was [that the Shankill Road and the Falls Road] were miles apart and there was constant trouble in the area," Little says of the 12 boys who came to have an on-ice session with a couple of players, participate in a discussion group and attend the Jan. 15 game against Nottingham. "They base that on never having been on a tour of these areas or having left the city center. That's why whenever we have them here we take the opportunity to expose them to the two roads so they can have some of their myths challenged."
"These kids feel that this all happened to them, because it happened to someone they know," says defenseman Rich Seeley, a sixth-round pick of the Kings in the 1997 NHL draft, who worked with the Portadown teenagers. "And Louise will say to them, 'What do you remember?' They might have been two years old or four years old when it happened. She sees if they can [absorb the lesson that they have no firsthand memory of the Troubles]."
One former Irish National Liberation Army combatant together with one ex--Ulster Volunteer Force combatant, fast friends now committed to healing the wounds and addressing the human consequences of the conflict, spoke to the teenagers at the Odyssey and accompanied them on their tour. The former UVF man was Alistair Little, who in 1975, when he was 17, shot and killed a 19-year-old Catholic who he had heard had been threatening Protestant factory workers in the town of Lurgan. There is a 2009 movie about Little, Five Minutes of Heaven, which stars Liam Neeson. Louise met Alistair Little after he had served 12 years in the notorious Maze prison. She is his wife.
Rewriting the genetic code of a country can be taxing, even for someone like Graeme Walton. Walton is a stay-at-home defenseman. He actually stays at home, in the Castlereagh section of east Belfast, while he plays for the Giants, the only regular from the city.
Walton is 29. He says he doubts there was a single Catholic family living within five miles of his house when he was growing up. Walton is an anomaly. He probably would have had as good a chance of becoming a professional hockey player if he had been raised in Buenos Aires. He didn't start skating until he was eight, didn't put on a pair of hockey skates until he was 10. He practiced for just 90 minutes a week. For years his nearest home games were four hours away, including a 3½-hour ferry ride to Scotland. When the Giants signed Walton for £50 a week in 2003, he was driving a floor vacuum at the Dundonald Ice Bowl, the team practice facility.
"When I got back for that season, I get to the rink and he's like, 'Have a good summer, Todd?'" Kelman, who was then still a player, recalls. "And I'm like, 'Yeah.' And we're chatting away, walking and talking, and he's wearing his Dundonald Ice Bowl uniform. And he follows me into the dressing room. So I say to [the equipment manager], "What the hell is the kid who works in the rink doing in the dressing room?" And he says, "That's your new D partner." Walton stills works there 20 hours a week, supplementing his £300 ($480) Giants salary.
"The first couple of years, I was lost," Walton says. "Really, no clue. The coach would be at the whiteboard talking about the weak side, and I didn't know what the weak side was."
Now Walton is the Bobby Orr of Belfast, the best player in the history of Northern Ireland. (The club has added another Belfast native, seldom-used forward Gareth Roberts, who began the season driving the Zamboni at The Odyssey.) After twice declining offers to play for the Irish national team—he has been to Dublin, 100 miles away, only four times—in 2007 he became the first Ulsterman to play for Team Great Britain in the IIHF world championship B pool. The U.K. is Walton's country, which is why teammates like to wind him up with gifts like an oversized leprechaun hat and the Irish tricolor boxer shorts he received in the club's Secret Santa gift exchange. Now Walton wears a shamrock on his jersey because Aer Lingus, the Irish airline that began flying into Northern Ireland only three years ago, is the Giants' 2010--11 title sponsor. "I suppose you look at it and think to yourself, Geez, a shamrock? On my sweater?" Walton said. "But you know at the end of the day it's just a sponsor."
Kelman says he has received not one e-mail or telephone call about the shamrock. "I don't think that would have been the case 10 years ago," he says. "That's progress."