Peace finds a rink-side seat in sectarian Belfast

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In Northern Ireland, sports are nearly as divisive as religion and politics. But hockey, a particularly pugnacious pursuit, is now being played for peaceful purposes - to help heal a society divided by more than 30 years of sectarian violence.

Because hockey is a nonindigenous and unfamiliar sport, hopes are that it will bring fans together on new common ground.

"Northern Ireland does not have any integrated sports," notes Bob Zeller, managing director of the Belfast Giants hockey team, now in the middle of their first season. "Stands are either filled with one religion or the other, but not both. Hockey could, in its small way, bring people together."

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Among majority Protestants, soccer and rugby hold sway. Among Catholics, Celtic games like hurling draw the fans. If ice hockey is to thrive, it will have to attract spectators from both communities.

The Belfast Giants are the latest franchise in the nine-team Ice Hockey Superleague, which includes squads from England, Scotland, and Wales.

From the start, Mr. Zeller has tried to shape a team free from controversy.

The team mascot, Finn McCool, is one of the few heroes of lore shared by Protestants and Catholics - he vanquished a Scottish giant from Northern Ireland's Antrim Coast. When the team colors were being selected, Zeller chose red, not orange; and aqua, not green.

As Zeller and his team are doing their part to break the ice in Catholic-Protestant relations, pressure has mounted on politicians for a breakthrough in the now-stalled peace process.

Two and a half years have passed since the historic Good Friday Agreement was signed, but questions linger regarding the future of the Northern Ireland police service, the British Army's security presence and the eventual fate of the IRA's arsenal of weapons. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Premier Bertie Ahern were set to meet Wednesday to try to revamp the accord.

The Belfast Giants are in some way a reminder of what is at stake.

Construction of the 7,300 seat, $150 million Odyssey indoor arena that serves as the team's home was only approved after paramilitary cease-fires and political progress. Since then, Belfast property prices have skyrocketed, while unemployment has hit record lows. If the peace process slips, the renaissance could end.

But for now, Belfast Giants fan Sam Robinson just hopes that the team's winning streak holds. Recently, Mr. Robinson, along with his wife and four children saw the Belfast Giants secure their ninth home win in a row with a 6-3 defeat of the Newcastle Jesters. "To be honest, we don't know all of the rules," Robinson admits. "But who cares when you are winning?"

The family has only missed a couple of games since the season began, and while Robinson, a Protestant, was once dedicated to the local professional soccer league, he sees hockey as the future.

"Religious tensions are part and parcel of the local football league," Robinson says. "The games drew very rough crowds, and during the big games - when a Protestant team would play a Catholic team - there was sure to be some trouble. I think the younger generation, my kids, are going to stay interested in ice hockey."

Before launching the Belfast Giants, Zeller gauged a strong interest for a family-oriented sport like ice hockey. Across the rest of the league, women account for more than 40 percent of attendance. Children are strongly represented, too. The same holds in Belfast, where home games are consistently sold out. Zeller predicts that the team will turn a profit by the third season.

"Pardon my evangelism," Zeller says. "But we are really excited about this."

So are the players, most of whom are Canadian. Center Jerry Keefe, originally from Boston, says that because his grandparents are from Ireland, he feels "right at home."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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