GB fans get into the spirit of Friday's fancy dress evening at the 2017 IIHF World Championships Div IB in Belfast. Photo: Ian Offers, GBSC.
Div IB is a triumph in N. Ireland
There's been a party atmosphere at the SSE Arena this week as one of the world's newest hockey cities embraces the international game.
Great Britain is hosting its first World Championship competition for 25 years – and the event in Belfast has been a huge success.
Regardless of the final outcome on the ice, with GB hoping to secure promotion on Saturday evening with victory over Japan, the week has been a festival of hockey in Northern Ireland. More than 9,000 fans attended the first three days of action here – up 2,000 on the total attendance in each of the previous two competitions – and crowds have continued to grow as the tournament reaches its climax.
And it’s more than just numbers. There has been a carnival feel to the event, from local community groups invited along to experience the thrill of international competition, to the fancy dress evening organised by the GB Supporters Club on Friday. For a city that only got a pro team as recently as 2000, there's a sense that Belfast has arrived on the world hockey map.
For Steve Thornton, GM of the Belfast Giants and part of the driving force behind the whole event, it’s been a great experience – and one that can only help to promote the sport in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“We have our NCAA weekend, which we hope will be an annual thing for a very long time, and now we have this,” Thornton said. “It all helps us to grow the context for hockey, make it more relevant to people here. We want people to come and see what we have, we want them to experience this and come back. That’s why we try to get to the schools, to the community groups. If we can give people that chance we’ll always do it.
“In turn, it helps to promote the youth game, but that’s hard when there’s only one rink in Northern Ireland. The facility question is something we need to solve. We’d like to talk about staging international events with the Republic of Ireland, we’re all ears for any proposals, but we can’t really say much at the moment because it’s not clear whether it would be possible while there isn’t a rink in the south.”
The enthusiasm for working on both sides of the border is characteristic of the Giants’ inclusive ethos. The organisation was formed in 2000, at a time when the peace process was bringing stability to a region long blighted by conflict over Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom, governed from London, rather than part of the Republic of Ireland, governed by Dublin.
“It was the right time, the situation [in the late 1990s] was a perfect conduit for the Giants,” Thornton added. “We came in, we didn’t affiliate with religion, race, class, gender, anything like that, and people really grabbed onto that. It was one of the first events where people felt they could take their families and be safe, it didn’t matter where you came from. We have neutral colours, a neutral name, it’s all about fun, about a kind of circus atmosphere. Maybe people didn’t understand the sport – a lot of people still don’t necessarily understand it – but they know they will have a good night out and we continue to do that.”
Thornton, Ontario born but much travelled in a playing career that took in stints in Austria, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Switzerland as well as seasons in London, Cardiff and Basingstoke, is also full of praise for the city of Belfast. As well as a family home, it’s also a ‘hidden gem’ - and he’s keen to show it to the rest of the world.
“Events like this are a great way of spreading the word,” he added. “Once people come here and see it, get a feel of how hospitable it is, they go away as champions for Belfast. They tell other people, and that word of mouth is great marketing.
“When you bring up Belfast’s history there’s always a bit of intrigue, people wonder if it’s safe. Statistically it’s something like the second safest city in the world, and it might well be the friendliest. I’ve travelled a lot, chasing the hockey dream, but when we first came to Belfast in 2002 we felt at home.”
Since those early days with the Giants, hockey has also taken root here. Success at the top end of the British hockey system undoubtedly helps, but there’s a hugely committed junior hockey network alongside the Elite League operation. For Thornton, the local dedication to the game is unsurpassed.
“Our juniors guys are absolutely hardcore,” he said. “The distances they cover, going over to Scotland for games, is incredible. I’m from a hockey family, but we only lasted a couple of road trips. These families do it every week, despite the costs and the time. These kids are going 24 hours for one 50-minute game. It’s amazing.
“It shows how addictive this sport is, and it also shows where we can go if we get the facilities. We could invite teams over here, we could see rinks popping up all over Ireland, North and South.”