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Irish eye continued growth of domestic hockey

Monday, 07.09.2007 / 8:51 AM / Features
By Bill Meltzer  - NHL.com correspondent
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Irish eye continued growth of domestic hockey
The Irish Ice Hockey Association announced the launch of the country's first all-island domestic hockey league -- a five-team circuit that will play each Saturday from Sept. 15 until next April.
Organized ice hockey in the Republic of Ireland may not have a long history relative to other nations, but the sport has grown at a steady pace over the last quarter century. This year marks three important milestones on the growth of hockey in the Emerald Isle.

Earlier this year, the IIHF Division III World Championships were played in Dundalk in front of substantial, wildly enthusiastic crowds at the Dundalk Ice Dome. The Irish national team gave the home folks plenty to cheer about, taking the silver medal and earning a promotion to the Division II level for next year -- the first time Ireland has advanced to a higher level of international hockey competition.

Recently, the Irish Ice Hockey Association announced the launch of the country’s first all-island domestic hockey league -- a five-team circuit that will play each Saturday from Sept. 15 until next April. Given the success of the Division III Worlds and the enthusiastic support that a Northern Irish club -- the Belfast Giants -- has received from fans on both sides of the political divide, the Irish Ice Hockey League stands a good chance to succeed, given proper planning and organization.

“Our relations with Ice Hockey United Kingdom have never been more cordial, but we felt the time was right for this island to have a league of its own,” says Mick Higgins, the Irish national team’s former general manager and the chairman of the new league.

Major progress in a short time

The first hockey game of any significance to be held in the Republic of Ireland was a 1983 match between the Dublin Stags and the Liverpool Leopards held at the small Dolphins Barn ice rink. The local team won, 3-2. Irish-based teams continued to compete against UK-based club, with the Dublin Flyers winning the Scottish Cup in 1997.

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At the international level, Ireland became a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation in 1996 and iced its first team at the Division III World Championships in 2004.

For the Irish national team to advance to the Division II level so quickly, even if it struggles next year and is relegated back to the bottom group, is an impressive accomplishment by any measure. When you consider the fact that ice hockey receives no funding from the Irish Sports Council or the Irish government – the Hockey Association and the players themselves have paid for everything – the team’s rapid advancement is extraordinary.

One of the wisest early decisions the IIHA made was to use players from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland on the Irish national team. The athletes have blended together just fine as teammates and the national team has had a deeper talent pool from which to assemble the squad. The team has also been bolstered by hiring a pair of experienced American-born coaches: head coach Jim Tibbets (formerly the head coach of Team France) and U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and former Olympian Scott Fusco as an assistant.

“There’s competition for roster places, which is always good for raising the caliber of play,” says Higgins. “Unfortunately only 18 skaters and two goalies can be selected to play on the team. These players give their all to hockey.”

Within the Irish hockey community at least, there is strong solidarity between north, south and the surrounding islands. In particular, the IIHA and the Belfast Giants have established a cooperative relationship. There are several Giants players on the Irish national team, bringing their UK Elite League experience to the table. Additionally, the Giants have made ice time available to the Irish national team at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena. This has enabled the team to have more extensive practice time and establish cohesion in the lineup.

Last year, the Giants announced a major step forward for local Irish players -- both in the north and south -- to gain higher level hockey experience. In a move introduced by Giants general manager John Elliott and approved by the UK Elite League board, there was a key amendment to the circuit’s player affiliation status rules. Now, any Elite League team can sign any player registered and playing with the Irish Ice Hockey Association as additional ITC players over and above the previous 10 players permitted per team. This has opened doors for promising Irish players get a foothold in the Elite League.

Division III tournament scores at home

During the 2007 Division III World Championships in Dundalk, two of Team Ireland’s games were televised live and the T.V. company made the decision to stay with the final game into overtime rather than switch to a live Irish International Rugby match as scheduled.

A crowd of 1,522 fans packed the Ice Dome to root on the national team in a must-win game against Luxembourg for the right to join tournament-winning New Zealand in Division II next year. Earlier in the tourney, Ireland crushed first time tournament entrant Mongolia by an 11-0 margin, dropped a hard-fought 4-2 game to New Zealand after taking a 2-1 lead into the third period, and then outlasted South Africa in a 3-1 decision.

Team Ireland enjoyed a major territorial advantage in the first period against Luxembourg, peppering the net with 13 shots. But despite the exhortations of the crowd, the Irish were unable to score. Meanwhile, Irish goalie Kevin Kelly faced just a pair of harmless shots.

At all levels of hockey, it often seems that when one team dominates play but can’t score, the opposition finds a way to take the lead. That’s exactly what happened in this game. Irish forward Gareth Martin took a hooking penalty at the end of the first period and Luxembourg’s Ben Houdremont beat Kelly for a power-play goal at 1:15 of the middle period.

Six minutes later, Luxembourg pushed the lead to 2-0 with an even-strength tally. As the period and game passed the midway mark, Ireland went on the power play and narrowed the gap to one, as defenseman Robert Leckey finally solved goaltender Philippe LePage.

It didn’t take Luxembourg long to restore the two-goal lead. With Martin in the box on another hooking minor Houdrement once again made Team Ireland pay.

Late in the second period, Ireland gained a 5-on-3 advantage. In a virtual must-score power play, Ireland’s top offensive player came through. Belfast Giants forward Mark Morrisson pumped a shot past LePage to trim the gap to 3-2 heading into the third period.

The third period seemed be destined to clone the first. The ice was tilted in favor of Ireland as Luxembourg attempted to cling to its narrow lead, and the Irish came in waves at LePage, who made 23 saves in the frame. Finally, with time ticking down to 2:25 left in regulation, Team Ireland’s Trevor Kennedy (a defenseman for the BC Flyers) found the equalizer. The roar from the stands and the reaction on the Irish bench made clear just how seriously the team and the Irish fans took this game and the tournament.

Neither team scored in a cautiously played overtime, so the game moved to a shootout. In the biggest moment in Irish hockey history to date, Mark Morrison calmly advanced on net and beat LePage, touching off an emotional celebration.

Grass roots hockey gaining momentum

Even more heartening for Irish hockey than the national team’s success at the Division III tournament was the connection the players – and the sport – made with fans, some of whom were watching hockey for the first time. The true health of any national hockey program lies in its ability to spur the development of youth hockey, and the early returns are very encouraging.

During an intermission of the Ireland-South Africa game, a large group of young children were allowed on the ice, demonstrating the basic hockey skills they’ve learned during the public coaching drills that regularly take place at the Dome. Their numbers figure to swell. As a direct result of the tournament, inquiries and enrollment requests have jumped.

One important facet of growing the sport is for young players to identify with the national team and its players. Mark Morrison in particular has become something of an Irish hockey hero wherever the sport is played in the islands. He gets the celebrity treatment – mobbed by autograph seekers and asked to pose for photographs – at both the Belfast and Dundalk rinks. Hard-hitting Dundalk Bulls defenseman Simon Kitchen is another favorite.

More crucially, there is a major multi-purpose arena construction project afoot in Dublin, which remains the only major city in Europe without such a facility. There is already a seasonal outdoor rink in Dublin, but the new facility, which would include an ice rink, would be something on a much grander scale. There is also a permanent-installation rink project in Cork.

If Ireland is ever to grow the sport of hockey on a broader scale, the momentum started after the Division III tournament must continue and be followed up with infrastructure-building steps to allow the national hockey program to take the next steps.

Irish Ice Hockey League takes form

The new Irish Ice Hockey League will consist of five teams: the Dundalk Bulls, Dublin Flyers, Dublin Rams, Belfast Bruins and Latvian Hawks. The inclusion of the latter two clubs is particularly significant in this often strife-torn part of the world.

The intention of the Irish Ice Hockey League will be to be an all-island circuit, not one that’s limited to the Republic of Ireland. Just as Belfast Giants team has taken pains, with significant success, to welcome fans of all religious and political views, the IIHA wants the domestic league to cultivate interest and pride in the sport among all Irish people.

The Belfast Bruins’ participation represents the inclusion of Northern Ireland in all hockey-building ventures undertaken by the IIHA. Likewise, the Latvian Hawks represent the significant numbers of Latvian expatriates (many of whom are hockey fanatics) who have settled in Ireland.

“We want to reach out to let the ‘New Irish’ know they are particularly welcome in our hockey community,” says Higgins. “They will contribute a lifetime of hockey experience to a sport that is still establishing itself here.”

As part of the run-up to the launch of the new league, the Belfast Giants will be playing Swedish team Huddinge IK Hockey in Dundalk on August 31 and September 1. "This is yet another example of the ways that Irish hockey has attempted to incorporate itself as part of the global hockey community." /p>

At its very best, the sport of ice hockey brings people together and forms camaraderie while at the same time creating more healthy forms of rivalry and competition. The continued growth and success of hockey in Ireland – both at the national and international levels – will continue to build bridges that generations of politicians have tried and failed to forge. That’s something the hockey community worldwide can be proud of.

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