The Fighting Irish
The boys in green keep heads high despite troublesome return
IIHF Reporter Henrik Manninen contacted the IIHA ahead of Irelands campaign at the World Championships in Croatia interested in writing an article. Below is his well written article. Please note that this article has been edited from the origianl due to a word count limit given to the journalist.
ZAGREB – Even with the proverbial luck of the Irish, this year’s IIHF World Championship Division II was always going to be a tough battle for the newcomers in green and white.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” said Ireland head coach Jim Tibbetts before the first puck was dropped at the 2011 IIHF World Championship Division II Group B in Zagreb. “Things were looking great last year when our players had a league to play in, and we won promotion. But with no rink and no league this season, we know it will be tough, but we hope to win one game, maybe two.”
So far Tibbetts has been right with his predictions. But the outcome for Ireland at the event in the Croat capital of Zagreb after its first two rounds of fixtures, 6-0 and 5-0 defeats against Bulgaria and China, should not come as a surprise. Many on the Irish roster have been experiencing difficulties both on as well as off the ice by the direct effects of the economic recession.
Four years ago, in 2007, Ireland got their first taste of international ice hockey on home ice, when the Dundalk Ice Dome hosted the IIHF World Championship Division III and Ireland ended up winning silver and promotion. The following year, when an all-encompassing Irish Ice Hockey League got off the ground, the verdict for an outsider looking in was that the game was beginning to make positive strides on Ireland.
Today, the reality is somewhat different, and for Irish ice hockey the implications of the financial downturn has been profound. The Ice Dome in Dundalk, the Republic of Ireland’s only international size ice rink, has been closed for almost a year, causing the collapse of the Irish Ice Hockey League in the process and halting the development of the game on a junior level.
The direct consequence of the rink closure in Dundalk have led to a situation in which the Irish Ice Hockey Association, who built up their national team incorporating players from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, now find themselves having the game concentrated to Belfast, on the north-east corner of the Emerald Isle, where the two only permanent full-sized rinks are located.
The current captain of Ireland, Belfast-born Mark Morrison, was one of the few Irish players who featured prominently for the Belfast Giants, a professional team in the British Elite Ice Hockey League, until job and family commitments made him retire last year.
Morrison, brought up near the rink in Dundonald, got involved in hockey thanks to his best friend, Graeme Walton.
Walton, today the only local player featuring regularly for the Giants, opted to represent Great Britain and the defenceman is on the roster for the upcoming Division I Group B in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Morrison decided instead to go the opposite way, following the path of his older brothers, Willie and David, to represent Ireland. According to Morrison, there are two simple but fundamental challenges holding back Ireland’s development in ice hockey.
“It’s the selection of players available and not having enough ice time that works against us,” he said.
US-born head coach Tibbetts is currently in his seventh year working with Ireland. With extensive international coaching experience and previously having been in charge of the French national team together with the late, legendary U.S. “Miracle on Ice” coach, Herb Brooks, Tibbetts admits that although preparations ahead of this year’s event have been far from ideal, stepping up a level also meant more difficult opposition.
“Even with a rink and a league to play in, playing at this level of the World Championships would have been tough. The Belfast Giants have given us some ice time for practice, but for most of the time our players have been on their own this season,” he said.
“I basically have a pool of 25-30 players to choose from, and we have pretty much the same team like last year. We have two guys who are playing in Canada, and four, five guys who have been skating for four years or so.”
Joining the IIHF in 1996, Ireland made their international debut at the 2004 IIHF World Championship Division III in Reykjavik, Iceland, and played in 2008 at the IIHF World Championship Division II in Miercurea Ciuc, Romania, where five straight defeats meant relegation back to Division III for the Irishmen, although a 7-4 loss to Bulgaria then gave them encouraging signs for the future.
Ireland, who for the rest of the remainder of the tournament is hoping for inspiring performances from their team captain, 28-year-old Morrison, also counts for big shifts from Gareth Roberts, Steven Ewen and Canada-based Sean Dooley, while young Adam Pepper, a goalie that took up ice hockey four years ago, has impressed between the pipes so far. And despite the defeats, Tibbetts is still content with his team’s display so far.
“I am very happy with the attitude of the players, and we will give 100% right to the end,” he promises.
Meanwhile over in Ireland, efforts are there to work in Dundalk for a return of ice hockey in the near future.
“Our focus this summer is on getting the Dundalk Ice Dome back open and on fund-raising for our national association so that we can stay afloat in these hard times and keep people on the ice.” says Martin Grant at the Irish Ice Hockey Association.
“The fact that there are players on the Ireland U18s that played at the World U18 championship in Mexico this year hailing from Cork, Belfast and Dundalk shows that people are interested in this game in every corner of Ireland.”
The 2011 IIHF World Championship Division II Group B is played at the Dom Sportova in Zagreb, Croatia, April 10-16 with Ireland facing Bulgaria, China, Iceland, Romania and hosts Croatia.