Belfast could host NHL game
There have been many big games in the history of the Belfast Giants.
League title deciders, Play-off finals and the infamous Challenge Cup final of 2002 when, with home advantage, the Giants were expected to stroll to victory over the Ayr Scottish Eagles only to succumb to an embarrassing 5-0 defeat.
When the Boston Bruins arrive at the Odyssey Arena on October 2, it will be without doubt the biggest night that the club has had in its 10-year history.
And when one of the most powerful men in world ice hockey pays a visit two months before the game then you know it's important.
Ken Yaffe, the senior vice-president of the NHL — only half a dozen men have higher positions than him in the organisation — spent yesterday in Belfast checking that everything is in place ready for the visit of one of the biggest ice hockey teams there is.
He's the man with the power to pull the plug on any game involving an NHL club and had he not been satisfied with the facilities at the Odyssey or any of the arrangements that have been put in place for the glamour exhibition match between the Giants/Elite League Select team and the Bruins then he would have been on the phone to Boston immediately to tell them that the game was cancelled.
Not only did his mobile stay in his pocket, but the visit of the Bruins could be the precursor to a regular season NHL game coming to Belfast, with Helsinki, Stockholm and Prague each hosting two matches this year. All three of those cities have seen real NHL action before and if the net is cast wider, then Northern Ireland is an option.
“We're very optimistic about this year's event and coming to Belfast again is something that we would look at in the future,” said Yaffe.
“That's not our focus at the minute though. We're concentrating on the games we have this year in five different coutries across Europe, both exhibition games and regular season matches.
“I wouldn't rule out Belfast and the size of the arena — although it is about half the size of those in the NHL — isn't a problem.”
As the man who heads up the NHL's international operations, not just in terms of matches but things like television rights and merchandise as well, Yaffe will be back in Belfast when the Bruins come.
Why, though, is a sport that has only been played professionally in the country for a decade and has never produced a player that's earned his living outside his own shores bringing one of its biggest clubs to Northern Ireland?
“There were a couple of factors, but it was mainly the pursuit from the team and the commitment of Todd Kelman (Belfast Giants general manager) to bring an NHL team to Belfast,” said Yaffe.
“The fact that Boston has such a strong Irish-American heritage makes it the right fit.
“We want the legacy of the Boston Bruins visit to be broader exposure for the Belfast Giants in Northern Ireland and the UK and for the league as a whole to benefit from the spotlight of having an NHL team play in one of its arenas.”