Friday, January 16, 2015

Alan's 16-point newbie guide to the Belfast Giants

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. But unintentionally, I find myself half way through January 2015 and a theme of “trying new things” is developing without much effort on my part.

Tuesday week ago I found myself at a Belfast Giants ice hockey match for the first time. It was the first leg of two against the Cardiff Devils.

1. Wear a jumper. The Odyssey Arena is a huge venue, and together with the freezing lump of ice in the middle and the not quite packed stands, you’ll feel a chill for the first hour or so. This is obviously why so many spectators wear Belfast Giant’s replica shirts sweaters over their clothes in the arena. (If you want your shirt signed, head up to the bar afterwards and many of the Belfast Giants team and coaching staff will appear dressed in their natty suits.)

2. If you have a ticket, you’ll have a block and a door, row and seat number. There is no reason to turn up early. The evening we attended, doors opened at 6pm for a 7pm start. The match – and the entertainment bits in-between the three 20 minute periods of ice-hockey – will stretch out until at least half past nine. Some other newbies at the match were expecting a fourth period ... clues about the rules are few and far between!

3. There’s no perfect seat to get a close-up view of the ice or a good overview of the action. But there are worse seats. At the east end of the Odyssey arena, round towards Door 3, there’s a small elevated platform with four comfy seats on it all on their own: fonacab’s Front Row Seats. The ‘winners’ may look lonely, and slightly uncomfortable with the Subway mascot sits on their knees.

4. You can easily eat your ticket price in food during the evening. You’ve two and a half hours to fill. Some types of food will be exhausted and run out before the evening is over (for instance, no more cheese for the nachos, no more sausages for the hotdogs). That fact shouldn’t encourage you to over-eat too early in proceedings, since you’ll only get hungry again and buy more. Don’t you’re your food down: you’ll sit a long time with your indigestion. But eating is one of the few comforts possible during the moments of tedium while items of food from Subway, Boojum and Pizza hut are thrown at the crowd. Your chances of catching food are increased by sitting near the front and having a small cute child on your shoulders.

5. The music before the game starts will be deafening. A rule forbids music while the game is in progress so you will get some relief … until the referee spots something and stops play. Then the music will crank back up and it feels like the referee waits until the sting finishes before starting play again. At times it will feel like there’s a tune for every kind of foul.

6. If the Belfast Giants score a goal there will be a blast of Belle of Belfast City fiddledeedee music and the crowd will go wild. If the opposition score, the electronic scoreboard will silently increment their goal count and the game will continue without any ceremony. It’s quite possible to miss the opposition scoring a goal: it looks and sounds just like normal play. The Giants’ supporters don’t even boo. How can there be sport without booing?

7. There are drums: it is Northern Ireland after all. You can take the sectarianism out of one local sport, but you can’t get rid of the drums. Thump. Thump. Thump. Go Gi-ants. If the drums are to stay, a bigger repertoire of chants and rhythms are needed. At least reintroduce 2 4 6 8 Who Do We Appreciate? [insert name of sponsor]

8. Irritatingly, while the PA system in the Odyssey Arena seems perfectly tuned for music and adverts, the occasional announcement to tell you that “player mumble has been fowled by mumble and there will now be mumble” are very indistinct. Yet these are the bits of audio newbies desperately want to hear.

9. It’s not obvious which team is which. Take the night – my first time – I was there. The four Cardiff Devil fans sat in their own half of a stand wearing red team shirts. There was a red-shirted team on the ice. (And as the players hunch over with their sticks you can’t see the logo on the front of their shirts.) The local fans – boosted by blow-ins from sponsors and youth organisations offered several hundred freebie tickets – wore shirts (see above) with a white background. And there was a team wearing a white background shirt on the ice. Fooled you. The Belfast Giants were wearing red; the Cardiff Devils white. Go figure.

10. The puck is small and moves fast. You may not see it. The players probably don’t see it a lot of the time either. The puck is either hidden behind the legs and sticks of the biggest bunch of players on the ice, or that is where it used to be.

11. If a local breakfast radio presenter like Citybeat’s Stephen Clements comes onto the ice at half time during one of the intervals and asks spectators to throw their pucks into the centre of the ice, don’t throw a real one in case he hasn’t heeded the warnings on every wall and noticeboard in the Odyssey Arena that “it’s your responsibility to watch out for flying pucks”. He’s only expecting the numbered foam ones that have been handed out, not the odd real one that’s lying under your seat.

12. A blue semicircle sits in front of the goal net. I’m told it’s called the “goal crease”. The goalkeeper often stands in it. But not always. It’s not clear whether the blue semicircle is intended to keep the goalkeeper in, or other players out. It’ll not be the only mystery.

13. Players enjoy a bit of rough and tumble. Not quite full Saturday afternoon wrestling play acting, but not far off at time. Sometimes one of the referees will decide to take action. Often they don’t. If the spectators had voting buttons they could bet on whether particular incidents would be spotted by referees.

14. Despite being played on ice, the players stay upright for a surprising amount of the time. However, they could learn a thing or two about speed from figure skaters. If any camogie or hurling players could adapt to the ice they would speed the game up and give the Canadians a run for their money.

15. Sadly Google Glass has been shelved (in its current incarnation). Apart from the risk of being smashed by an incoming puck that’s flown over the Perspex safety barrier, an augmented reality app to tell you which player is which (you can’t read the back of the shirts at a distance), who’s on the subs bench and random factoids would be incredibly useful. In the meantime, bring an ice hockey nerd with you to the match, or adopt one nearby in the stadium.

16. It was a really friendly experience. The EventSec guys who show you to your seat were a delight and full of information. Long time fans were happy to answer ignorant questions and fill in gaps in our knowledge. The atmosphere was good. The cheering wasn’t that feverish, and the mid-week sides seemed to be playing at less than full power. The score was 4-3 to the Devils, but that’s nearly immaterial.

So how was my first Belfast Giants game?

It’s sport. And quite like the last sporting event I attended, which was a Warriors NBA match in Oakland, San Francisco about eight years ago. [My memories are of foul tasting cheese in the hot dogs, 45 minutes play spread over 3 hours, and a very poor shot-to-basket ratio that amazed me given my notion that they’d be like the Harlem Globetrotters.]

So despite very low expectations, I enjoyed the Giants more than I thought I would.

I think I’d go back – occasionally – armed with a jumper, a printout of the rules, and a flask of hot milky tea. Perhaps even a flask of sausages: you could make a killing selling black market hot dogs when the concession stands run out!

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