Belfast Giants v Boston Bruins

Chris Chambers finds out how Belfast's stickhandling fares after two decades on the ice

This month the Belfast Giants gave a memorable performance in front of a full house at the Odyssey when they faced North American superstars the Boston Bruins, even daring to score first against their world-famous NHL opponents, before the Bruins battled back with quick goals to ultimately win 5-1.

But given that ice hockey is barely two decades old in Northern Ireland the performance was nothing short of impressive, and the man who founded the country’s first professional team - the Castlereagh Knights - says it demonstrates just how far the sport here has come.

Canadian Jim Graves came to Northern Ireland 17 years ago to coach hockey at the Dundonald Ice Bowl. The former Nottingham Panthers goaltender says he established his team from a mix of young local players and talented Ukranian imports. 'It was difficult at the time to attract foreign players here,' Graves recalls. 'Belfast still had that connotation, that kind of reputation. Players I would have liked to recruit weren’t prepared to travel.'

By 1996 the Knights were ready to play their first match in what was then the Northern Premier League. In front of 2,000 people at the Ice Bowl, they beat the Whitley Bay Warriors 3-2. It was Northern Ireland’s first taste of the sport, and it was only the beginning.

This December marks the 10 year anniversary of the opening of the Odyssey Arena and the formation of the country’s championship side, the Belfast Giants. Graves was again instrumental in setting up the team, which has since risen to success in the UK's Elite League.

However, taking on a superstar side like the Boston Bruins was another story altogether. One of the NHL’s ‘Original Six’ sides, the five time Stanley Cup winners are considered the best of the best. To put it into perspective, they’re the equivalent of a Premier League football team and in the Giants they were facing a side perhaps two divisions below. 'They’re the best team that’s ever skated on this ice,' Graves said. 'We may never see the likes of it again.'

Accompanied by an entourage of over 75, the Bruins jetted into the city this month (October 2010) after Giants general manager Todd Kelman finalised the deal in Boston over the summer. Showing no signs of taking the match lightly, the American heavy-weights fielded a full-strength side despite the game’s status as a pre-season friendly. The Giants’ squad was made up of eight regulars, bolstered with some of the best players from the Elite League.

'For the Giants players, it was huge,' Graves continues. 'They’ll take it personally as one of the highlights of their careers. It’s not very often an individual gets to be tested to the highest of their ability.'

Meanwhile the event also marked a unique occasion for the NHL side, who were playing their first ever match outside North America. Bruins forward Shawn Thornton, whose mother is from Belfast, spoke in the US press of his particular excitement ahead of the trip. During his stay in Belfast he was reunited with relatives and even courted rumours of a more permanent move to the city. Graves says that Belfast is a place off the beaten track for most, they'll take it all in and enjoy the break from North American hockey.

But the Giants were determined not to give them an easy ride, and for large periods stood tall against the visitors in a fast and furious clash. The opening goal - scored by Nottingham Panthers select player Jade Galbraith - lifted the roof of the Belfast arena and gave fans hope of an unlikely victory. But the fairytale wasn’t to be.

'After they scored the Giants ran into a penalty problem and found themselves playing three against five, they survived the first penalty but the Bruins scored while they were still a man down. After that the Bruins killed the game off with two more quick goals. The Giants played extremely well though, I was surprised by how well they did - full marks to the net-minder Stephen Murphy. They were a real credit to their league.'

Now retired from ice hockey management, Graves’ love of the sport is still evident through his current venture - Rockies Bar in the Odyssey pavilion. In the style of an authentic Canadian sports bar he has over 200 jerseys on display, whether hanging from the rafters or framed on the walls. Hockey shirts from 50 Canadian universities have been donated to the bar, as well as all kinds of sporting equipment and memorabilia.

'I think of it as a sporting museum as much as a bar,' Graves enthuses. 'It’s an extension of who I am, it has personal items and sporting items tied to my homeland. I have a direct link to everything you see here, none of it was bought just to display.

'You could come in on your own and spend 20 minutes enjoying your pint, walking around and looking at everything. I find that happens quite often. It’s like an extension of my living room - like welcoming people into my home.'

Graves still has shirts from his Castlereagh Knights days at the premises but, after an accident involving a drunken customer, they’re no longer hanging on display. But he says such incidents are rare, which is just as well as he had a full house to contend with after the Bruins game. 'It was like a hockey-fest in the bar,' Graves says. 'We were so busy that people were spilling out. We had fans from all over Europe all wearing their teams’ jerseys.'

Since its infancy in the mid-1990s, the status of professional ice hockey in Northern Ireland has grown and grown, and the match last week can only have raised its reputation further. Graves hopes to continue to play a role in the sport here, whether that means helping to develop new talent or simply providing a place for Giants fans to meet in the unique surroundings of the country’s first Canadian sports bar.

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