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Irish ice

They’re smilin’ in Belfast, in anticipation of the Bruins’ visit

Odyssey Arena holds about 5,500 for hockey, and the Bruins should draw quite a crowd for their exhibition game Saturday. Odyssey Arena holds about 5,500 for hockey, and the Bruins should draw quite a crowd for their exhibition game Saturday. (Michael Cooper for The Globe)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / September 30, 2010

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The Olympics are the Tournament of Five Rings, but all of Ireland is the land of three rinks. When the Bruins suit up Saturday in Belfast to face off against a collection of United Kingdom all-stars in an exhibition game, they’ll be skating on one-third of the Emerald Island’s frozen ponds.

For a land of some 6.2 million people (Ireland and Northern Ireland combined), ice skating and ice hockey make for a bit of a niche business.

“True story — three rinks, total,’’ confirmed former Harvard hockey standout Scott Fusco, who just a few years ago was an assistant coach with the Irish national hockey team. “And the Irish love public skating.

“I went once, and I’ll bet they had 1,400 people out there over the course of 2-3 hours. That’s a lot of people. It’s very crowded, and it can get a little dicey because, frankly, they’re not very good skaters.’’

Belfast, the capital of Northern Island, is a tuneup stop for the Bruins before they move on to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, where they will face the Phoenix Coyotes next weekend in a pair of official NHL regular-season games. The tour is part of the league’s continuing initiative to shop its game and build its brand worldwide.

So why Belfast? And why the Bruins?

Well, not simply for Claude Julien’s Causeway Street charges to skate on that wee bit of Irish frozen tundra. It’s mainly because the Bruins are from Boston, and the Hub for centuries has been an oasis to scores of Ireland’s immigrant sons and daughters. All the better, felt Todd Kelman, that some of them still have family back in the old country.

Kelman, the general manager of Belfast’s pro hockey team, went to the NHL last year to pitch the idea of bringing a game to Northern Ireland. He felt Boston, with its heritage of sticks and pucks, as well as its love of corned beef and cabbage, would be the perfect fit.

“To be honest, I pitched Chicago and New York to the NHL, too, because of their Irish heritage,’’ Kelman acknowledged recently in a phone interview. “But Boston was No. 1 from the start. We’re thrilled to have the Bruins coming here. The whole city’s excited.’’

Interest is so high, said Kelman, that he has had to find polite ways of turning down the myriad requests he has received for Bruins personnel to make personal appearances in and around the city. The Bruins flew out of Logan late last night and were due to land in Belfast around lunch time today. They’ll have time to squeeze in a practice or two, play the game Saturday, and then are scheduled to fly to Prague early Sunday.

“Just to give you an idea,’’ mused the 35-year-old Kelman. “One guy here asked, ‘Do you think we could have that tall gentleman come talk to our church group?’ ’’

Kelman had to explain that Boston’s captain, 6-foot-9-inch Zdeno Chara, would be otherwise occupied while in town.

Excitement is brewin’
As in Boston, hockey is not the center of Belfast’s athletic universe. In fact, Manchester United, England’s world-famous soccer team, remains the No. 1 sports interest of most fans in the Northern Ireland city of approximately 270,000.

Amateur rugby, Gaelic football, and soccer are much more rooted in the culture and consciousness than the Giants, the city’s pro hockey team, which would be on par with a minor league East Coast Hockey League team in North America.

“Maybe between the ECHL and the American Hockey League,’’ said Mike Hoffman, a 1999 graduate of Scituate High School and one of the “import’’ players on the Giants roster. “Teams in the UK, the first two lines are about AHL level, and maybe the first defensive pairing. Then it drops off.’’

The all-star team the Bruins will play in Belfast comprises the 20 best players, roughly half of them North Americans, from the 10 teams that make up the UK Elite Ice Hockey League. The Elite League’s teams are in England, Scotland, Wales, and Belfast, the only pro hockey team on the Emerald Isle. To the south, there once was a pro team in Dundalk, Ireland, but it folded.

The 30-year-old Hoffman played seven seasons in the AHL and signed on with Belfast this year in part, he said, to earn a master’s degree in sports management at the University of Ulster. Five players on the Giants, all recruited from North America, are earning advanced degrees this season at no charge, part of a sponsorship and marketing collaboration between the Belfast school and the hockey team. Two other Bay Staters, Josh Prudden (Andover) and Jeff Mason (Easthampton), also play for the Giants.

“There’s a lot of buzz about the game,’’ said Hoffman, who also was attracted to Ireland because of his love of golf (when on our side of the Atlantic, he is a member of Scituate Country Club). “There’s billboards all over about the Bruins coming here. People are psyched.

“I walk around, and people here ask where I’m from, and I’d have to say that Boston is the No. 1 US city in Irish life, at least here in Belfast.’’

Walking along Belfast streets, said Hoffman, he sometimes will see hockey fans wearing NHL ball caps or T-shirts. As of last week, though, he hadn’t seen anyone sporting a Bruins jersey. (“But I have seen people wearing some Celtics stuff,’’ he said.)

The Odyssey Arena, its capacity for hockey some 5,500, still had approximately 500 seats for sale yesterday, according to Kelman, a Canadian who grew up in Calgary, Alberta, and played college hockey at Bowling Green.

Printed on every ticket to a Giants games, said Kelman, is a request that attendees wear “hockey colors only.’’ In a region where the color of clothing can signify one’s religious and/or political beliefs, and therefore spark controversy and/or violence, the Giants and their arena have always offered somewhat of a safe haven to the sports consumer.

Game is catching on
According to Kelman, hockey attracts more of a family crowd than most sporting events, which lends itself to allowing beer sales in the arena. Other sporting events in Belfast, said Kelman, prefer either to limit or exclude alcohol sales.

“Shocking,’’ he said, “how much people like to drink beer here.’’

Only on rare occasions, said Kelman, must Odyssey Arena personnel confront patrons who do not adhere to the “hockey colors only’’ standard. When they do, usually a gentle reminder has them pulling on a jacket or sweater to cover what some might consider an offensive jersey.

“I think it’s ingrained in everyone’s mind by now,’’ he said. “If people call the box office for phone orders, we remind them about it. And it’s important because, if you’re a hockey fan, you don’t come to the game unless you’re wearing a jersey.

“The diehard fans all wear them. They don’t have to wear Giants colors — teal and crimson. It’s mostly about just keeping it family-oriented, and not having it break across or introduce Catholic and Protestant lines. The fans get it. They appreciate it.’’

Over time, said Kelman, Belfast has caught on to hockey. For example, when icing is called, the public address announcer is no longer compelled to provide a 15-second “explainer’’ on the infraction. Although, said Kelman, in casual conversation around town, he still must specify that the Giants play “ice hockey’’ to distinguish it from field hockey or hurling.

Even when publicizing the Bruins game, Kelman found himself correcting some local media members that there are three periods in a hockey game and not two halves.

Small stuff, really, especially compared with those first Giants games a decade ago when fans streamed into the rink early, filling the stands to capacity for warm-ups, which traditionally begin some 30-40 minutes prior to faceoff.

“Most of them had never seen a hockey game,’’ explained Kelman. “The doors would open 60 or 90 minutes before game time and they’d race to their seats. When warm-ups began, every seat in the place would be full, and they’d be cheering warm-ups. Heck, you’d have a guy shooting on his own goalie, the puck would go in the net, and they’d cheer that!’’

In the days leading up to the Bruins visit, Kelman repeatedly has had to assure some skeptical fans that, yes, the Bruins are truly bringing their full squad to Belfast, not what the locals would refer to as maybe a lesser squad of “seconds’’ or even lesser “thirds.’’

These will be the real Boston Bruins, with “that tall gentleman’’ on their blue line and everyone wearing the Spoked-B on their chests.

“Our fans, I think they’re like everywhere when it comes to hockey,’’ said Kelman. “It takes them two or three games in the building and they get addicted to it. Once you get them here, they’re hooked. And if it’s their first game, you hope for a 5-1 win and a fight in the last five minutes.’’

Ah, the universal language of hockey. On Saturday, Belfast sees the game with a Boston accent.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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