Belfast Telegraph

Hurling-loving Tyrone teacher gave ice hockey to the world

By Claire McNeilly

Did you hear the one about the Tyrone man who invented ice hockey?

It's not a joke - new research has credited a teacher from the county with introducing the popular sport to the world.

We can now thank one William Cochran, a native of Omagh, for Ulster's newly unearthed claim to sporting fame.

Mr Cochran, who emigrated to Canada over 200 years ago, was a keen hurler, but the freezing conditions in Nova Scotia, where he settled, meant the traditional Gaelic game could not be played.

He subsequently invented 'ice hurling' with specially adapted, narrower sticks - and it ultimately morphed into Canada's national sport.

This hitherto little-known link between hurling and what North Americans simply call hockey was unearthed by film director Eamonn O'Cualain during exhaustive research for his new documentary Poc na nGael (Puck of the Irish), which explores the Celtic roots of one of the world's fastest and most exciting team sports.

"It was people from Northern Ireland (sic) who first brought hurling to Canada," said Eamonn.

"We found out that William Cochran, a principal in a school in Windsor, Nova Scotia, was teaching his pupils hurling, which he then improvised into ice hurling.

"The seed of the game came from hurling and ice hurling, and then the game just took off.

"It holds a lot of the same characteristics as hurling - the speed, the passion, the skill. After hurling took to the ice and became ice hurling, it took a new life of its own. A new sport.

"The Canadians are definitely as passionate about ice hockey as the Irish are about hurling."

It may surprise a few people to learn that it was Ulster Protestants who brought hurling across the Atlantic with them - or that two of ice hockey's modern day legends are Lurgan woman Geraldine Heaney and Belfast-born Owen Nolan.

Indeed, it's often a source of bemusement to 49-year-old Geraldine's family when the rather short list of 'Northern Ireland's Olympic gold medallists' is trotted out, and the daughter of Mike and Kathleen Heaney from Victoria Street isn't among them, even though the ex-Toronto Aeros ace won gold at the 2002 Winter Games at Salt Lake City representing Canada.

"Geraldine is probably the most successful Irish-born sportsperson that no one in Ireland has heard about," said Eamonn.

"Because ice hockey is relatively unknown in Ireland, she's always under the radar."

Nolan, whose parents emigrated from Belfast when he was a baby, also won gold at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

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