Blueliner Hockey Tour 2014: Belfast
The season is over for most and so is our annual trip to a hockey city. This year we made the short trip to Belfast; a city that sometimes feels a long way away but around 1 hour on a plane from most UK cities the Northern Ireland capital is closer than you may think.
It is not our first visit to Belfast for ice hockey and it is not a destination that is new for hockey fans. That said though the city is on the raise and ever changing. The area around the arena is now no longer a bit desolate. The former dockland area is now home to new flats and a museum dedicated to the Titanic in the actual dock in which it was built. On the city side too there are new features with local art work appearing and work to make the city more pedestrian friendly creating a series of squares and quarters with shops and bars.
We arrived on Friday night giving us a full day on Saturday in the city. We spent this on a new bike tour, which is something that would not have been possible 10 or 15 years ago. It is a sign of the progress made in the city as the troubles have ended that tourist groups can travel out of the city centre through outer laying suburbs and even through former flash points.
The countryside around Belfast is beautiful. The city centre has the shops, bars and museums but if you have time a visit to the countryside will show you the real Northern Ireland with its small former linen mill towns. Our trip took us to Hilden where a microbrewery has popped up in a former mill ownerâ€™s house. As well as offering 3 award-winning beers there is a fantastic restaurant using that beer in its meals.
After a short trip back to the hotel we made the short walk back over the river to the Odyssey arena. In global hockey terms the Odyssey is a small arena. However it is not out of place with its amenities. Boxes offer corporate hospitality on 2 sides of the arena and seating covers the lower bowl. A long side the typical food, drink and merchandising stalls there are areas for the fans to meet and mingle including a lobby area and a bar. That offers a great vibe as fans of both sides meet and interact in a way that only hockey fans can.
The game itself was a bit of a non-event on Saturday night. Belfast had secured the EIHL title a long time a go and with both sides meeting the night before in the Challenge Cup final first leg it was clear all eyes were on the second leg. The fact that the game was such a non-event is a sign of the success of the Giants not only this season but since their inception.
The Giants have had consistently high attendances as they have offered family entertainment and giveaways but there is a deeper factor. The Giants as a new sports team have not had an historic tie to either side of the divide in Northern Ireland and with a new generation coming through it bodes well. The work done by the Giants over the last decade has now caught on and Ulster rugby union side has taken some elements to expand its fan base into more non-traditional markets.
The EIHL has altered its scheduling plans to give more teams back-to-back games in Belfast and it has proved very popular with away fans. The cheap airfares and easy access to the city centre via a bus service has allowed fans to sample the culture and hockey in Belfast over the weekend. Whether this has helped or hindered the Giants is unsure. They may have benefited by an increase in away fans but with home fans it has meant that it can be a long time between visits of teams. That said Saturdayâ€™s home game against the Nottingham Panthers was a complete sell out.
Belfast will only continue to be a popular destination for fans but it should be for more naturals than just those fans of teams involved. Belfast has so much to offer and the hockey caps of day of activities. It will be interesting to see if the Giants suffer if a much-muted team in the Dublin area come to surface. However it could easily help the Giants too with a rival just over an hours drive away on a direct motorway.