Meet the Irish National Ice Hockey team. At first glance, the notion of an Irish ice hockey team may seem farfetched. Bowes, the team’s captain, admits that he’s had to laugh off comparisons to the infamous Jamaican
bobsled team. The sport’s history lends credibility to the idea, however. Many hockey historians believe that the game had its start in the quintessentially Irish sport of hurling, and stories of the game’s 19th century origins in Canada are dotted with references to “ice hurling” and “hurley hockey.” Team Ireland’s press officer, Wayne Hardman, is unequivocal about the connection. “Hockey came from
hurling,” he said.
Whether ice hockey is an exotic Canadian import or the offspring of a native game, Bowes believes that Ireland is about to become its newest hotbed.
“When the Smithfield rink opens in Dublin, we’re going to have hundreds of kids playing junior ice hockey,” he said.
Skaters for Team Ireland will be making use of the seasonal public rink, as well.
“The Dublin City Council have been kind enough to let us train there several times a week,” he said.
The physical, fast-paced nature of ice hockey would seem to be a natural fit for Irish sports fans. Sadly, though the team has existed since 1996 and is recognized by both the International Ice Hockey Federation and the Olympic Council of Ireland, relatively few people in their home country have seen them play.
The first “home game” in team history took place on Nov. 19 against a traveling amateur team from Long Island, N.Y. The Belfast Giants of the UK’s Elite Ice Hockey League donated the use of the rink, but because the Irish team lacks the logistical support to accommodate public admission, its galloping 13-11 victory over the visitors took place behind closed doors. Hardman doesn’t think the seats will stay empty.
“When people see these guys play, they’re going to love watching them,” Hardman said. “They’re scrappers.”
Said Cliff Saunders, one of the team’s veterans: “We tend to have a very aggressive approach to the game.”
The Luxembourg National team would likely agree. Heavily stocked with skilled players from German professional leagues, they faced the Irish in a friendly on Nov. 15 and were surprised to find themselves in a scoreless deadlock at the first intermission. Irish goalie Kevin Kelly “made some fantastic saves,” said Hardman. “[Luxembourg] knew they were in a game.”
Though Ireland fell by a 5-3 final, the players felt they’d acquitted themselves against an international opponent. “What we lack in skill, we make up for in heart,” Bowes said.
Saunders says that the Luxembourg players weren’t the first to be impressed by the Irish. “When some of us went to Canada some years ago, they didn’t believe we were from Ireland because our skating was so good,” he said.
Bowes and Saunders attribute the team’s advanced skating to the undersized ice rinks where the players honed their skills.
“The rink we used to train in was one third the size of a normal rink,” Saunders said. “We had to skate through a lot of traffic. When we went to play on an Olympic-sized rink, we had more ice than we knew what to do with.”
At present, the only place on the island to find that Olympic ice is the Odyssey Arena. The last commercial rink in the Republic closed more than four years ago. Bowes is helping lead a drive to open a new, permanent Dublin rink.
“It’s working in Belfast, an hour and a half north of here,” Bowes said. “Years ago, there was no ice hockey there. Now there’s a British Elite League team [the Giants] there. I think the Elite League is crying out for another team. Dublin would be very welcome to compete with them. The numbers of people skating in Dublin
certainly justify the construction of a new rink here.”
The problem, of course, is money. “We get no help from the Irish Sports Council or the government,” Bowes said. “We’re actively seeking sponsors.”
The lack of sponsorship makes playing for Ireland an expensive proposition. The IIHF partially subsidizes the travel and per diem costs associated with international games, but even with IIHF backing, each player will have to spend about