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Belfast Giants

“It’s Complicated”

Stability is something so many crave in life. Stability in our private life, in our employment, in our finances and in our health. But it’s not always possible. From time to time something that you think is ok, something you think will sustain the stability you hold with so much comfort, comes along an takes the legs from under you. Leaving you with little more than the determination to drag yourself back on your feet again, and it is in this instance that your character receives true judgement.

“Money makes the world go round”, an adage recognised by those that have it as much as those that don’t. Financial security is something that can provide safe stability should it be properly employed in life, and no less in sports. The troubles of many professional sporting organisations can boil simply down to poor financial planning or sparse monetary backing. There is very little profit in sport.

So when the dollar signs are flashing and the financial backing is promised, sometimes the desire to prevail can cloud the way of morality. Roman Abramovich rescued Chelsea Football Club from the brink of financial meltdown, purchasing the club for £1 and burdening himself with the debt the team had accumulated in a quest to reach the promised land of the Champions League. The Russian Oligarch’s shady past cloaked by the large sums of money he publically put to increase the profile of a team for so long treading water in the midriff of the Premier League.

The demise of the Ice Hockey Superleague and the phoenix of the Elite League was a means to learn from lessons of the past. The fact that financial sustainability was paramount in the development of the sport in this country, however as time progressed it became clear once again that affluent financial backing would be the driving factor and prime nutrient for the survival of many teams. The ‘haves’ prevailed while so many ‘have-nots’ moved on or fell by the way-side, a victim to an entertainment medium so desperate for a public resurgence but so devoid of fresh interest.

Belfast fell victim, in their genesis years, to the vulture of financial backing. The need for sponsors to prop up the club, while the fall of the novelty the sport initially provided brought little in means of support to the clubs gate receipts, while bills soared and creditors cried out. The stability was rocking and it took some large investment, organisation, time and patience to steady a ship on tempestuous waters.

Many years down the line, that investment began to sprout shoots of success. From championship titles to visiting NHL teams, the work done by the General Managers, John Elliot and his successor Todd Kelman, developed a strong reputation for triumph, popularity and entertainment. The Giants, so ridiculed in the early days of their existence, have become a strong sporting fixture in Northern Ireland thanks to hard work and strong backing from Mr Jim Gillespie. An unassuming man who knew that his place was at the back of the ship providing the fuel, while those who knew the course well, took the wheel.

But such backing cannot last forever, few sporting organisations remain under the same revenue stream for significant amounts of time. Short of being under a co-operative structure like FC Barcelona, a representative for further financial stability and continued success needs found, and here you encounter difficulty. Here is where excitement and desperation can mix.

Christopher Knight walked into the Odyssey Arena like Michael Knighton walked into Old Trafford. A man with apparently sound financial backing and a perceived public profile to match. Like Knighton he grasped the limelight as quickly as he took the microphone of the Odyssey public address system. He smiled for the cameras; he spoke to the gathered Giants faithful and promised the world. He brought in off-ice entertainment and attempted to provide an extra “razzmatazz” that he felt the organisation was lacking. Endearing to many, while annoying to some. But sadly all was not to be.

Money can do many things. It can cloak those that have it, while those that don’t can be easily deceived should their want for it be so great. And as the revelations of Chris Knight’s character begin to filter into the public domain, many questions continue to be thrown back to those that accepted him.

“How could this happen?”

“Why didn’t you check?”

“How can a man like this own our organisation?”

Easy for those who watch on from the side-lines to ask, not so easy for those in the mire to answer. Should someone be standing before you providing an answer to a problem, it can be very easy to take them at face value if they provide to you what you need. Equally if that person has something to hide, they can easily shroud that should they have the means.

Knight appears to have had a significant skeleton locked deep within his closet. One he denies, but one that has eventually slipped beneath the door. And as it appeared to those whom he had apparently deceived, a question of “Money or Morality” presented itself to the powers that be within the Belfast Giants.

Morality doesn’t sustain a hockey team. Morality doesn’t pay the bills. Morality doesn’t provide stability.

Money does.

But in a business so public, and so reliant on reputation, morality can make you or break you. To abide in the charade could lead to ruin should it break down. A decision needed made. But this decision lies equally as dangerous.

The action taken was quite admirable. But fraught with continued difficulty.

My hope last night was to interview Kelman for the A View from the Bridge podcast, something I have done many times. But it became clear very early on in our discussion that this story has a long way to run yet and the time is not right to jeopardise any further legal complications with public statements in response to difficult questions. The progression of this story should remain behind closed doors until such time it is resolved to the acceptance of all parties.

Kelman’s position as the General Manager and the first to move from the company puts him as a public figure for the myriad questions both from fans and solicitors alike, while Knight also courts the press with threats and personal clarifications.

Frustration will build as uncertainty and instability will rage across the club and the fanbase alike. But as the dust blows in the eyes of those who try to calm it, there is still an objective to be met. A team on the ice to support. A league title to retain.

Giants fans should take heart from the support the clubs choices have received both domestically and internationally, while discarding the naysayers who pick holes in the actions for a means to their own teams gain.

The choices taken have the backing of the league, they have the backing of those who wear the skates and hold the sticks, but mostly they have the backing of the fans. As fans the decision we should make now should be to leave the board room battle to those who know it best. A constant barrage of questions will sustain nothing but distraction. Many of the problems will be solved as time passes, but in their own systematic way.

The Giants have endured dark days before and found stability through the tempest.

We know we have the right people with us to do that again.

Have patience, but mostly, before you judge their character, support your team!

Patrick Smyth

“Did You See What I Saw?”

The enduring enjoyment of a sport can lie in the opinions and perceptions of the game. The agreements and disagreements that come from contemplation over what has been witnessed and the differing mind-sets of what each spectator wishes to gain from the sport they enjoy.

In ice hockey, the action that takes place on the ice is finite. The goals that are scored, the hits that shake the plexiglass, the slashes that shatter sticks or bruise calves all stand as actions with consequence and probable reaction. However they also develop opinion and response. Fair and Foul.

A referee may see a player fall to the ice and in his opinion it was due to the dragging stick of an opponent left to trip his opposite number. However the offending player will most likely see it differently, and a third opinion falls to the spectator in the crowd.

Here, in the comfortable seat of Block 3, the opinion of Johnny-Home-Fan is once again polarised by the shirts the players wear, not necessarily by the action that has taken place. His opinion is split between what he witnesses, what he believes and if this is in line with the decision of the referee.

Yet depending on his opinions, his experience of the game and love of his club, the immediate reaction may be partisan, falling in line with those around him. However deep down his contemplation of the event may lead him to believe his reaction was wrong, the referee seeing the correct incident, the players actions being worthy of the penalty. And here-in lies the tribal opinions of sporting fans. Few willing to stray from the norm of resentment for actions that impede their team’s advances.

On Sunday night in Coventry’s SkyDome Arena I witnessed what, for me, stands in the top 5 British hockey games I’ve ever had the privilege to attend. Over 2000 people stood with me as a saga unfolded which stirred opinions, emotions and elations. When an opening period takes around one hour to complete due to the extreme battle on the ice you begin lose sight of what is controlled and sensible. As a fan you encamp yourself among your fellow supporters and you stand tall against the opposition. As a visiting fan, doubly so.

As I stood watching Belfast and Coventry entertain the crowd with a distracting display of physicality, skill and aggression I also began to become aware of what was going on around me. The responses of the Coventry fans, the Belfast fans around me and my own approach to the game.

Those that know me know that “from time to time” I’m not afraid to express my opinions at games, loudly. Yet I found my opinions in the stands during that game were different to those that I discussed in the period breaks, different to those that I discussed in the bar afterward and different to those I typed up in report of the action. All because I felt a need to show support in the game for my team.

Even if I knew the referee to be right, I berated him for “being wrong”. I witness Gregory Stewart wholly defeated in a vastly one-sided punch up with Mike Egner, yet I cheer like Stewart was the victor upon its tumbling conclusion. Likewise the Coventry fans chant “Hirshy Hirshy Hirshy” for their starting netminder, many already in acceptance that Referee Andrew Carson had little choice but to eject him for “3rd Man In” to the tussle between Chalmers and Stewart. They boo as the angry shot-stopper is shown to the dressing room. Booing and disagreement all round, yet forums and discussions are heavy with understanding by Blaze fans as to why he had to go. But the consequence deemed superfluous to the cause and who such blame lies on.

The game stirs these emotions. The game stirs these opinions. The game stirs these reactions.

The key, however, is understanding these facets of your character and not letting them take the better of you. Such a failure of control leads to incidents like was witnessed in Cardiff over a week ago when one fan saw fit to confront Benn Olson because the game and the actions witnessed had stirred him to feel this was the correct course of action. It was not.

Unfortunately games such as Sunday’s in Coventry are all too infrequent. I am hard pushed to find anyone on the ice, on the bench or in the stands that left that arena without their money’s worth of entertainment. No doubt twitter feeds and discussions between fans across the league that night were rife with information and mis-information from between those walls I was lucky to inhabit.

Games like that reinvigorate your passion for the sport. Remind you why your opinions become so strong and why you follow your team. Belfast fans left happy with the win, the discipline of their team and the way they were able to provoke their opposition to the verge self-destruction.

Coventry fans left happy in the display of “never-say-die” hockey the Blaze provided in the face of adversity, the performance of young replacement netminder Adam Goss personifying the spirit that brought the blaze fans to their feet in applause over the final minutes of the game. Points lost, but pride intact.

The final buzzer goes and you walk away from the arena. You mind whirring from what you have witnessed. Your opinions chomping at the bit to be expressed. The bar is filled with discussions and disagreements. Not everyone sees things the same way. Not everyone understands the game in the same way and not everyone sees the entire action across the vast frozen rink. But as you piece your night back together and understand your friends opinions, people begin to realise why sport in itself is so popular.

Because I don’t agree with you!

Patrick Smyth

Wir schaffen eine Atmosphäre

It dissertation editors can be strange how attitudes vary in life, never mind sport. But there is something tribal and visceral about sport spectatorship that effects so many people across the world. Even sports that appear as tame as darts or bowls can draw a competitive empathy from an onlooker who, though not competing themselves, wants to believe that his or her actions in the stands have added to and inspired the success of the team at task before them.

Thus comes the common misnomer that “we’ve won the league”. When Belfast lifted the Elite League title last season I was among friends looking on and to a man (and woman) we were proclaiming how great it was that “we won the title”.

“We”.

There is an emotional link with your sports team. The gentlemen who pull on the hockey shirts of your team are felt to be representing you. Each person in the crowd, while knowing little of the personal life of the team members, uses the abilities of the individuals and team as a whole as a representative of themselves on the national sporting stage. You watch your team win and cheer, you watch your team lose and gripe. Those in the stands cannot will the puck into the goal. They cannot put a hit in on a player at the boards, nor can they snatch the puck out of the air as a forward snipes on goal. Yet the emotion that such actions create draws the support or the derision of all spectators.

And when the season is complete fans of opposition teams congratulate the fans of those teams who took the ultimate spoils, again without merit of creating the achievement themselves, merely through choosing to support the successful team. Be that choice be consciously or through birth or abode.

Despite all this, can fans actually have an input to the game, can a collective create an atmosphere that can intimidate a visiting team and inspire a home team to victory? There is little analytical doubt that yes, a boisterous crowd can certainly have an effect. But inevitable there are varying theories on how and why. A BBC Online article from July 2008 cites everything from the adrenaline boost given by home advantage to the effect of a partisan crowd on the subconscious of the referee. While in 2004, Hilary MacGregor of the LA Times, was quick to highlight how, in certain finesse sports, a crowd can actually have a negative effect to that intended.

It does take a crowd to provide the atmosphere to give this sway. And it’s astounding how differing lands can give differing approaches and atmospheres to sport. Last week I was privileged enough to travel to one of my favourite cities in the world, Berlin. And to once again travel to see local DEL side, and reigning German Champions, Eisbaren Berlin as they took on Dusseldorf. This wasn’t my first trip to see them play but every time I enjoy it greatly for two distinct reasons.

Firstly I find the standard and style of hockey played there to be very entertaining. While not running down our own product, I wouldn’t be shocking anyone by giving my preference to the game in Central Europe.

But the second and most notable reason is the atmosphere. Taking up my position in the ‘Fankurve’ terrace at the O2 World Arena the atmosphere is overwhelming. The crowd all bedecked in their colours, their scarves, all in fine voice as the players take to the ice, joining the announcer in the introductory role by announcing the surnames man by man. The drums are loud, the songs are boisterous, the beer is flowing and the caldron is brewing. It is, quite simply, breath-taking. Short of my experience at the Ryder Cup in 2006 it is difficult to draw a memory of a more overwhelming sporting atmosphere than that in Germany.

From first puck to final buzzer the noise is persistent, both from the terrace and the seats. The songs are both complimentary and encouraging to the hosts while also providing derision and defamation to the characters of the visitors. Scarves are swung around heads as goals are scored, the visiting team subsequently mocked. And in all this the atmosphere remains relatively friendly. As a foreign visitor I have received nothing but welcomes and fantastic hospitality since my first visit back in 2005. Though there is little doubt a rival teams fans would not receive the same.

The question that bugged me a day or so later as the adrenaline and excitement of that experience, once again, began to fade; Outside of the crowd size, what is different to allow the atmosphere in German sport to be so vastly superior to our own?

Do we in the UK have a certain inbuilt subconscious inhibition that prevents us from going as far in our boisterous support as our European cousins? The Fankurve terrace sits as the hub of noise that influences the rest of the arena. However a “call and response” instance between fans midway through the final period demonstrated the attitude was not limited to those stood at one end of the arena.

The involvement of a terrace is one thing, yet outlawed in the UK Stadiums since the Taylor Report in 1990, standing does not overtly influence attitudes. A history of loud chanting and songs through the ages, passed from father to son could be cited, however teams like Nottingham and Fife can claim to somewhat have this history intact, while other fans will have been watching ice hockey through various franchises for almost 20 years, at what point does a “Culture of Noise” develop.

Crowd capacity is certainly an issue, the empty blue seats of the Motorpoint Arena etc cannot make noise on their own and this is certainly an “atmosphere killer”, something that commercial development to bring larger number through the door could try to rectify. Yet it would need those who are regular patrons to inspire the newly arrived into regular chants, into regular songs and demonstrate what the atmosphere could be like.

Sadly in my years following the sport in this country such an attitude is all too rare. Silence has been deafening in many arenas from the NIC to the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle. An all too unwilling fear that to make noise would set you apart, or disturb someone watching the game.

I look forward to travelling to Germany in the next few weeks, many Giants fans maybe travelling to a German hockey arena for the first time. I pray that the atmosphere that will meet them may inspire them to pack it in their suitcases and return it to the Odyssey Arena. To be creative in their support and in such good voice that they regularly leave Queens Island hoarse.

The sport on the ice is only one half the entertainment. The atmosphere we create should be the other, because in the end our home arena should have its identity determined by the one constant fixture.

The Fans.

Giants Appoint Keefe As Chief

Adam Keefe, in his second season at EIHL level, has been made Belfast Giants captain. An unexpected, yet certainly not unwelcome appointment of a man who last season was prominent in his ability to lead from the front.

Christiansen’s squads in the last 2 seasons, and this season to boot, have been filled with leaders. Men with significant experience in the game along with time spent carrying a letter firmly on the front of their shirt. So the choice of Belfast Giants captain cannot be an easy one, not least after only a couple of weeks on the ice together.

Keefe’s appointment shows the development of the Belfast Giants, and possibly the league as a whole, over the last few seasons. The original acquisition of the 28 year old Ontarian was met with the typical excitement toward his ability without gloves as opposed to with them. Stepping into a Giants side that in the previous year had lacked the grit needed to pick the Elite League title, many Giants fans maybe hoped he would have even a pinch of hockey nuance to meet with his pugilistic skills, so fresh was the memory, and disappointment for some, of Sean McMorrow in many minds. Adorned with the monikers “AK47” (*wince*) and, alongside fellow new-comer Daryl Lloyd, “The Bash Brothers” (*double-wince*), pre-conceptions and expectations followed the #47 shirt onto the Odyssey ice.

What was received was a breath of fresh air. A physical yet intelligent game. A player willing to do his part for a team-mate but not at the cost of the team or the game. A player who entertains as well as undertakes his role. 13 goals in a 31 point season truly banished the memory of McMorrow and re-introduced a long forgotten ‘tough player’ role in Belfast, not seen properly since the days of Schulte or, to a lesser extent, Skihar.

To pick, as I have, on McMorrow may not be unexpected and some may consider it to be unfair, but in comparison to the product Keefe produced for Belfast last season, it really highlighted what a fish-out-of-water he was. Though not his fault, his ability and roles were not unexpected and one which the coaching and management staff obviously believed were required and of use. The appointment smacked of commercial desperation rather than sporting ambition. Memories will live long of McMorrow standing on the blueline frantically pointing with his stick toward the man he was picking up, only for said player to skip away easily. Likewise the look of amusement on Jay Latullipe’s face while a rampaging McMorrow met nothing but plexi as his intentions of a hit were lost in the vastly differing speed of the Cardiff Devil’s centre.

Keefe’s appointment and his performance in the Giants side last season may have once again redefined how the league recruited for this forth coming season. Of course this role is no stranger to those in South Wales. Brad Voth, sadly now retired, captained in such a way for many years. However in Sheffield, Coventry and certainly in Nottingham such a player has been sporadic in their influence on the ice in seasons gone by. So much so that an appointment such as that in Belfast would come with equal surprise.

Supported by Craig Peacock and Robby Sandrock as alternates, the new Giants captain will have both experience and youthful creativity at his side as the season begins. His public approach has been commendable, not least on social network Twitter where his banter, while not reaching the (admittedly humorous) abusive depths of new Devil “hard man” Devin DiDiomete, has been both entertaining and respectful in its approach toward fans, fellow players and nay-sayers alike.

I have to wish Adam good luck this season. There is no doubt he will be a fine captain. We look forward to him proving that the responsibility of captaincy is merely a feather in the cap rather than a weight on the shoulders.

Patrick Smyth