How the Belfast Giants have become stronger than ever
They were supposed to be a one season wonder, a flash in the pan. It will never work many said falling over themselves with laughter at the prospect. Ice hockey in Northern Ireland? Pull the other one.
Well, 12 years on from the shock and cynicism, ice hockey in Northern Ireland appears to be stronger than ever with the Belfast Giants having just become the Elite League champions playing to their biggest crowd for over a decade.
There were 7,022 raucous fans in the Odyssey Arena last Friday night when the Giants thumped big rivals Sheffield Steelers 5-1 to claim the title.
The next evening the party continued with 5,386 turning up to see the Belfast boys beat the same opposition 5-2 before lifting the Elite League trophy.
It was a weekend to savour for boss Doug Christiansen, his players, who these days unlike back in 2000 include several local stars as well as Canadians, majority shareholder and Ulster born Jim Gillespie, who splits his time between the USA and Northern Ireland and Todd Kelman, who has gone from being a popular player on the ice to a successful General Manager off it.
He says: “It's more stressful being on this side of it in charge of the team because you can't affect the game on the ice like a player.
“The main thing on Friday was that our team came out to play their best all year in the biggest game of the year. As soon as we hit the ice there was no chance for the Steelers. We outplayed them in every area which was exactly what we needed.”
It wasn't just on the ice that the Giants delivered.
In the stands the players were roared on amid one of the noisiest atmospheres the Odyssey had ever witnessed. This in an arena which has played host to almost every major music act in the past decade and all the screams and shouts that goes with that.
Kelman says: “On Friday the atmosphere was nuts. We had the biggest crowd we've had in 10 years and it was the first time we've won the league championship on home ice. Every other time we've won it away so it was nice to be able to celebrate in front of our home fans.”
Down the years those fans and indeed the Giants have had to put up with green eyed monsters looking on from other sports, surprised and on occasion irked by the team’s success and longevity.
If I remember right there wasn’t much sympathy floating around the sporting world here when the threat of bankruptcy hit the Giants in 2003. Creditors who reluctantly voted to accept 20p in the pound weren’t over the moon either.
The Giants came through that and now attract greater crowds that most Irish League teams, the Ulster based rugby sides competing in the All-Ireland League, local hockey teams and some GAA club sides.
Kelman insists, though, that the Giants haven’t taken supporters away from those sports, stating that it’s been more a case of finding their own fans and working hard to keep them happy with entertainment added to the ice hockey on match night.
Canadian Kelman says: “We’ve always said we weren't trying to compete with football or rugby or gaelic games. We're creating our own fans and our own niche in the sporting market here.
“I go to all the other sports and believe me it is easier to market a sport when it is a traditional sport.
“Where I'm from in Calgary, if they started a rugby league or a gaelic league they would have to work at it and get people excited by all sorts of crazy stuff to get them to fall in love with it.
“We have done that here with the Giants by listening to our fans.
“If it was just the sport of ice hockey that people were coming to see we would have 1,500 or 2,000 diehard Belfast Giants supporters.
“What we have to do is get the other 3,000 people in on a regular basis that we need to survive. We do that by making it a fun night which is the key for us and the fans.
“It's not that we are competing with other sports — it's that we are competing with other entertainment options.
“People in Belfast enjoy having fun. You can teach them the rules of ice hockey but you have to ensure they have fun because when you are weekend entertainment you have a lot to compete with now.
“I'm not talking about rugby and football here, I'm talking about movie theatres, bowling alleys and the X Factor. That's what I worry about. I don’t worry about Ulster Rugby because they have their own fan base.”
Kelman adds: “I think other sports could learn that in the current climate when you are trying to attract fans it is not all about the sport — it’s also about entertainment.
“We have cheerleaders and music going all on the time at our games.
“The thing about ice hockey is that there are natural breaks. It's not like football which goes on for 45 minutes each half so we thought let's use those natural breaks and make them fun for fans.
“We use our sponsors and give away free pizzas, during one of the breaks we give away free music coupons and have cheerleaders running up and down the ice to get the crowd going.
“You can win prizes all night long from free flights to free ferry trips. We have promotions for the loudest fans in the building or the best group of fans showing up.
“We get the crowd involved and take that north American approach where it's a Saturday night, it's entertainment and fun. We know sport is a serious business and that's the way the guys playing approach it, but we believe the fans should have a good time no matter what. I think people get it now that they are going to have a good family, wholesome night out. If we lose we don't want people going home angry.”
There you go then, the secret in the land of the Giants — keeping the fans happy. It’s a motto that will continue.
“Hopefully we can build on this season and our season ticket sales will reflect the great title winning campaign we've just had,” adds Kelman.
“It’s a battle every single week to get people in the building. and we will continue to work really hard on that.
“Just because we have won the title that work won’t stop.
“The Giants is a fantastic sporting story for Belfast. We’ll do all we can to continue that successful story.”