Team that can unite all in a land of Giants

Belfast's ice hockey team reach out by appealing to families from all communities, writes Nick Harris
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The Independent Online

Think of a sports club which played in front of record crowds last year, made a handful of big-name summer signings and will pay wages of £400,000 this season. If you're thinking football, rugby or cricket, then think again.

Think of a sports club which played in front of record crowds last year, made a handful of big-name summer signings and will pay wages of £400,000 this season. If you're thinking football, rugby or cricket, then think again.

This club has an all-Canadian playing staff, the wages are the combined earnings of all the players for the year, and they're based in Northern Ireland. They are the Belfast Giants ice hockey team, they start the new Superleague season – their second – at home to the London Knights on Saturday, and theirs is one of the sporting success stories of the past few years.

"When you bear in mind that they didn't play their first game at their permanent home [Belfast's Odyssey Arena] until December and have sold out virtually every game since, you have to say the reaction's been amazing," Stuart McKinley, who covers ice hockey for the Belfast Telegraph, said yesterday.

"There may have been some novelty value to the whole thing last season," he added. And given that there is only one public ice rink in all of Ireland, at Dundonald seven miles south of Belfast, this is probably true. "But season-ticket sales are good for this season already and people are attracted by the new, comfortable arena. They go and watch as families, the atmosphere is friendly for everyone. There's already a decent hard core of support."

Crowds for Giants games in the Sekonda Superleague last season were the highest of the nine competing teams. They averaged 6,448, which put them ahead of the 5,920 for long-established Manchester Storm and the 5,750 for the grand slam-winning Sheffield Steelers. The Giants' figures were also higher than numerous Nationwide League football clubs and bettered the attendance figures at half of rugby union's Premiership sides.

Although professional ice hockey saw more than one million seats sold in the United Kingdom last season, not all Superleague's teams thrived. The Cardiff Devils went into liquidation after finding that surviving in a 2,000-seat arena was not possible in the long term. It means the league has only eight teams this season.

The Steelers, meanwhile, who were part of the sporting empire of the businessman and former Chesterfield FC owner, Darren Brown, also nearly went bust. They are now under new ownership, although only five of last season's players remain and a large rebuilding job faces Mike Blaisdell, their coach.

Why, then, have the Giants done so well? "Because there is no Premiership football to compete with us and because ice hockey is the only sport where a family can go and watch together," says Peter Collins, the club's communications director. "There is no baggage with ice hockey, no sectarian divide. We're generally perceived on both sides as a sport that unites."

The location of the arena, close to the Harland & Wolff shipyard and away from any housing area with sectarian affiliations, helps, McKinley says. As does the social awareness of the Giants' owners, the Canadian businessmen Bob Zeller and Albert Maasland. The pair consulted closely with the local community before deciding on the club's colours (white, teal and red), lest they offend in a province where colours are so significant. The club also tries not to play any home games on Sundays and has the motto: "In the land of the Giants, everyone is equal."

"We appeal to everyone," says Collins, who adds that the Giants are marketed to compete with other family entertainments, such as cinemas and leisure centres, as opposed to other sports. "This season should see an almost equal audience of men and women," he adds. "There's none of the dads and lads culture that pervades football."

There are also none of the headline-grabbing salary hikes that pervade football, despite the stature of some of the players, such as the Giants' new forward, Jason Ruff, who has American NHL experience. Each Superleague team has a £400,000 salary cap, which means that an average player will be earning £20,000-£30,000 for an eight-month season (plus accommodation and a car). Perhaps this is one reason why the Giants are hopeful of going into profit at the end of the season, as opposed to in two years' time, as first forecast. And why, with a fairly even playing field, on-ice performances could be more and more competitive.