Read the Original Article (Translated from Finnish) here
IRISH ICE HOCKEY AND MISSION ICE HOCKEY ARENA
The Irish Ice Hockey Association is trying to keep the sport going, even though the country currently has no full sized ice rinks. Belief in success is alive. It just needs to stay alive until the long wanted ice rink can be acquired.
Text: Cereals Päätalopolku | Photos: IIHA
Ice Hockey world is constantly expanding, and new arenas are being built for example in Asia and Africa. Only one country in Europe is still without a full sized ice rink: Ireland, the country of shamrocks, Guinness and green color.
– I know that ice hockey is being taken at least to Morocco, Qatar, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Singapore. If you can have hockey in Africa and the Middle East, where there is never snow and ice, it really could also work in a northern European country, says President of the Irish Ice Hockey Association, Aaron Guli.
Irish hockey was doing better about ten years ago, but after that things went wrong. Badly. There is no money, nor there will be, at least not from the Irish Government. Therefore the ice hockey association has shifted its focus towards international sponsors.
– I believe that we can get an arena opened at some point but we probably will never get funding from our government. It is different for you in Finland: ice hockey is the number one sport. In Ireland the biggest resources are taken by gaelic sports, then football and rugby. Ice hockey is somewhere at the end of the list, says Guli.
The difficulties came to a head in 2010, when the only ice hockey arena meeting the international standards was closed due to management problems.
– We had a full sized ice rink in Dundalk less than an hour away from Dublin to the north. I have been the president for two years now and we have worked hard in order to get one opened again. However, we have a couple of little problems: we do not get support from the government and a couple of projects lack money.
Dublin Ducks is a junior amateur ice hockey club. The Ducks, like other ice hockey players in Dublin will have to play in a temporary rink.
Agony of the country denied from international competitions
The Irish ice hockey story is rugged, but familiar from sports: one problem was followed by another, then third and finally it spiraled.
– In 2010, we won the Third Division championship, but since then there have only been problems. Our players moved abroad in order to continue playing, and so we lost the core of our group. Even now, two of the best young players live in other countries in order to continue playing.
It is understandable for promising players who want to play ice hockey even partly professionally to leave Ireland. However, these problems do not matter anymore.
– We cannot afford to fly these players around the world to World Championships. This issue has been difficult for us, but now IIHF denied our participation in the games completely due to lack of an ice rink. I believe that we could do well now that there are new ice hockey countries coming from Asia and elsewhere, but we cannot play, Guli grieves.
Guli says that regardless, the Irish national team has fans. Loud ones, he explains.
– A couple of years ago I took our national under 18 team to Turkey to the World Championships. We had the most fans after the hosts and definitely the loudest. On this basis, I would say that we were really popular there. And it was not crazy raging, but encouraging. We were a big hit, even though our team was young and inexperienced and the results were not very good. Others saw that we would never give up on the ice or in the stand.
Ireland has also hosted one Ice Hockey World Championship. The year was 2007, league third division and host city the only one with an ice arena: Dundalk. The number of spectators: surprisingly large. Do you still think people are not interested in ice hockey?
– When we held the adult world championships, we had about 3000-4000 spectators at the games. The passionate fan base does exist, but now they have to watch games on TV, or travel across the border to Northern Ireland to watch the local Belfast Giants games.
Sweden-Finland, USA-Canada, Czech Republic-Slovakia … competition between neighbors is familiar also between the British and the Irish, but in ice hockey the difference between the big brother and little brother is so big that there is no point to compete against each other. Ireland’s main competitors are elsewhere, Guli says.
– In all sports our natural enemy should be in England, but in ice hockey they are so much ahead of us that we cannot compete against them. This season United Kingdom played for gold in IB division, and we could get badly beaten up if we tried. After all, we are at the third division level!
Guli hopes that one day the country would be at a level where the bitter enemy could be found. Now rivals are still very exotic to say the least.
– At the World Championships level we have been playing mostly Luxembourg, Turkey and North Korea. They are not actual rivals, but we have played against them the most. But it is not like Finland v Sweden! If we can expand our operations, perhaps our enemies could be in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Hopefully, one day we have a rival!
Celtic Clovers is a mixed adults team, that plays for example in amateur tournaments in Strasbourg. Training takes place in Ireland on a rink much smaller than a real rink.
Ice hockey improves quality of life
Small ice hockey has survived in Ireland year after year. Also in this case, it is due to a chain reaction: a keen enthusiast spreads it around.
– Many of the junior players are children of immigrants from Eastern Europe, North America or even Finland. Their parents want their children to try ice hockey, and then they play in the temporary rinks in the winter – the other children see that and want to try as well. Kids love ice hockey, and adults can play it for a long time. You only need to know how to skate. Players come from different genders, ages and sizes.
This small sport can do good. Guli gives an example of an Irish youngster whose quality of life has improved.
– One of our players has anger management problems because of problems at home. He saw others playing and said, hey, I want to try that. The team got him the equipment, and now, after a year of playing, he is part of the group and is very passionate about the game. It has helped a lot with personal problems. Put children on the ice for an hour – a lot of energy is consumed.
The enthusiastic children still have a rocky road ahead.
– We’re trying to get them to stay in the sport. They usually stop around teenage years, when we can no longer provide them with anything. We are going in the right direction, but without the ice rink we only get to a certain point.
Guli himself has skated since he was four years old. He was born in New York, and played ice hockey when he was young until a high level. He knows that the right kind of work includes game trips abroad – for example to Finland.
– One off the junior girls went to play in Vierumaki. At first she was afraid to be against Finnish, Americans, Canadians, but she did well. My job as the President of the Association is to ensure that these talents are not wasted. Once we can play again, we are ready to put on the national team jersey and get medals.
You can watch ice hockey in Ireland but only if you are ready to pay for it. Forget about reading about the sport in the newspapers.
– We have Setanta Sports, which shows the NHL, KHL, the UK World Championship games and main World Championships. Late start times are, however a problem at least with NHL games, Guli complains, although this sounds like a small problem to a Finn – after all, Ireland is two hours behind Finnish time!
The tournament in Ireland was the high not only for the games but also for the attention it got from the media. Even the local channel showed some of the games.
– During the championships, RTE showed a couple of games, but usually we do not get time while they are reporting on Gaelic sports. We had media campaign under way earlier this year and we got a little bit of radio attention, but that’s it.
Is the future in the new generation? Dublin’s team assembled from the juniors travels for games also outside of Ireland, mainly to England.
A passionate sports country that just does not understand
As a big ice hockey man Guli understand the position ice hockey has in Finland.
– I could nominate ten Finnish players who are second only from God: Selanne, Kurri, Koivu and so on. Superstars. We don’t have those.
The best players in Ireland are still unknown there are some promising ones.
– We have had good players. 20-year-old Conor Redmond moved to England to play, and 18-year-old Sean Coleman who plays in Boston Junior Division can be really good one day. We have had players playing in Belfast Giants. But we have always been playing as a team. There won’t be one player to score 15 goals at the World Championships. Therefore, it is difficult to name one or two. We were always exceptionally good as a team.
Ice hockey would fit Ireland like a glow, believes Guli, but awareness should be increased.
– Ireland has been a very passionate sports country. If only we could get more attention to ice hockey and we could show that this would be suitable for them! They have a wrong idea about it. Many think that this is just a Christmas time game. They do not realize that this is one of the world’s most popular ball games.
Guli talks with great enthusiasm about their goals dreams about taking ice hockey forward.
– My goal is to get us to the same level with countries of similar size such as Denmark and Slovenia. When you look at where they were 10-15 years ago and where they are now, then … that’s where I want us as well. Slovenia has seven ice hockey arenas, Denmark dozen. Both are at the World Championship level and play in the Olympics. That level is my dream.
Neighboring Great Britain has a lot of ice hockey arenas.
– In Northern Ireland, there are two arenas, eight in Scotland and England has almost 50, so in Great Britain there are about 60 arenas. And our government does not give us one! Our players need to go to Belfast if they want to play full sized rinks. We have smaller, dissemblable rinks from September to the end of the winter, but they are perhaps one-third of the size of the full sized rink. It is ok for children, but for adults the situation is stark: a two-hour journey to the ice.
We would have players, says Guli.
– At the moment, we have about 300 registered players. In 2010, when the arena was open, we had more than a thousand. I believe that if it opened tomorrow, volumes would increase tremendously. Many just do not want to play when you do not have a full-scale ice.
The dream lives.
– Maybe everything will still change. Someday, I would like to see Ireland at the World Championships.