Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Giants' on-ice success has been mirrored by their off-ice work, which is just as impressive

Big honour: Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey hosted a reception at City Hall to mark the success of the Belfast Giants last night. She is joined by Eric Porter, Chairman of the Odyssey Trust, Alisha Duncan and Adam Keefe, Giants’ head coach
Big honour: Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey hosted a reception at City Hall to mark the success of the Belfast Giants last night. She is joined by Eric Porter, Chairman of the Odyssey Trust, Alisha Duncan and Adam Keefe, Giants’ head coach
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

Just as important as the Belfast Giants' recent on-ice success has been all their work within the community.

Since their inception back in 2000, the organisation's impact has gone a long way outside the rink, not just inside it, and last night they saw all their good work rewarded with a civic reception at City Hall.

In attendance, along with the Giants players, were this year's graduates from the Odyssey Ice Academy - one of the many off-ice initiatives run by the Giants and the Odyssey Trust which aims to help care-experienced teenagers learn valuable life skills through ice hockey.

Although it was a coincidence somewhat that the two could be celebrated together - with the Giants' visit to City Hall postponed until the outcome of the league was decided - it rather appropriately summed up what this Giants team represents: a sport and an organisation that is willing to reach across the community divides in Northern Ireland.

So while this year's roster were congratulated on their excellent success in the Elite League and the Challenge Cup, it was also a chance to recognise that they are making waves that are just as big away from the SSE Arena too.

Dierdre Hargey, Sinn Fein councillor and Lord Mayor of Belfast, awarded the Giants a Mayor's Certificate for their services to sport in Northern Ireland at the event last night.

"I think it's just as important that, after all this time after the Giants were formed, we acknowledge the contribution they make to sport in this city both on and off the ice," said councillor Hargey.

"They've changed the idea of what sport is in Belfast and have opened up a new sport for people of all ages to take part in, and that is a brilliant thing for our city.

"You can tell they take the community development approach, engaging young people from all backgrounds through the Ice Academy has been a brilliant programme and building their skills.

"Even in the Friendship Four, bringing those young people over from America, those kids are involved in that and making sure that week runs smoothly."

Part funded by the Giants' owners the Odyssey Trust, the Ice Academy is now in its second year and is flourishing under the work of former Giants defenceman Jeff Mason and the Odyssey Trust's Head of Social Affairs Wendy Langham.

The Academy, which works in conjunction with the Department for Communities, brings in teenagers with experience of being in care during their childhood and aims to help them not only learn how to ice skate but also helping them with their development.

It epitomises a lot of what the Giants themselves stand for, a team that puts a great emphasis on equality and assisting those who need it regardless of their background.

As if to provide a perfect example of the work it does, Academy graduate Alisha Duncan stood up on the night and delivered a confident, well-written speech, which also included the great news that she will be moving on to higher education at the Belfast Metropolitan College in September.

These are the kind of success stories that the Giants have been creating over the years with their community outreach programmes, with plenty of others in the Academy moving on to bigger and better things as well.

"I would argue that what (the Giants) do off the ice is more important than on the ice," said Robert Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Odyssey Trust, who has been a long-standing champion of all of their community work. "We're all in love with the sport, where we've had so much success this season, but really, if you asked me to pick between the two, it'd be our off-ice work every time.

"The kids in this room tonight needed a hand and we've constructed a programme that has given them a hand, and it's incredible. For as long as I'm involved in directing what this team does, it'll always be the off-ice stuff that will be more important.

"To be standing in the Assembly room in City Hall with the Lord Mayor, congratulating a group of young people who have taken the opportunity to better their life, you couldn't script that. That's why the Odyssey Trust exists and that's why we're going to keep running these programmes."

One of the key things behind the Giants' success is the buy-in from their players, who come over from North America every year and give all they have for a team that perhaps they weren't all that aware of whenever they first signed.

But that extends off the ice as well. Players selflessly give up their time to do school visits, to meet up with fans away from the rink and to get involved with the many community initiatives the organisation run. It's not part of their contracts, but they get involved anyway.

Not only that but the team has a large group of dedicated volunteers who help out too, all of them giving up countless hours of work on game nights, for community events and beyond even just the ice hockey itself.

It's yet another reason why this team goes beyond the standard ice hockey club. To some communities, a team are only an inspiration on the ice. For the Giants, that isn't enough - they live by the mantra that 'everyone is equal in the land of the Giants', and they show that through action.

"I'm glad they did the Ice Academy graduation here as well because that's just as important part of what the Giants do and what the Odyssey Trust does in the community," said Giants captain Blair Riley.

"The on-ice stuff is obviously something we really enjoy, but the work done in the community by the players, staff and volunteers is what's really important at the end of the day. It's why hockey is such a great sport.

"This is a great community to be a part of, and to help people out who are from disadvantaged backgrounds and bring them into hockey and develop life skills is something we're really proud of."

Of course, the work has only just begun. The Ice Academy is still in its infancy and, as seems to be the case with every Giants initiative, the plans for the future are bold and ambitious (and if the other initiatives are anything to go by, they'll be a roaring success).

Players may come and go from the Giants' roster, but the community outreach will continue long beyond just this season, led by the determined hand of Fitzpatrick and the Odyssey Trust.

"We've already started planning for next year, although we're restricted by the limitations of access to the ice. We're delighted to work with Include Youth, but I'd like to see if we can get some kind of education cohort added onto this," says Fitzpatrick.

"I'd also like to see if we can work with children with physical handicaps - deaf kids, children who are visually impaired - because I feel that the mood created and with the Giants willing to get involved then we can explore those opportunities.

"In the first year we gave every graduate a job, and the second year, as you've heard from Alisha, she's graduated to where she's now an employee. There are no amount of games you could win on ice that could replicate that.

"For me, long may that continue."

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