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Kelman's persistence helped lead NHL to Belfast

by Shawn P. Roarke /
Todd Kelman had a dream and was not to be denied.

Why should he? He's already experienced one hockey miracle in his lifetime.

Kelman's dream: His tiny Belfast Giants playing an NHL team in an exhibition game in his adopted city as a shining example of hockey's ability to heal even the deepest wounds. Today, that dream is incredibly close to becoming a reality.

The Giants, one of the top teams in the UK Elite League, will host the Boston Bruins in an Oct. 2 exhibition against an all-star team from the UK Elite League at the Odyssey Arena as part of Boston's European tour, which includes two 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere games against Phoenix in Prague the week after the Belfast exhibition.

Amazingly, Kelman, the Belfast GM, got the ball rolling with a cold call and an amazing amount of persistence.

"I didn't even think I would get an answer to the first e-mail," Kelman told

"What's the worse that could happen? They could only say no, right?"
-- Todd Kelman, Belfast Giants GM

The genesis of the idea came when his Giants had played against a pair of American Hockey League teams the previous season in a preseason tournament hosted by the Edinburgh Capitals.
Suddenly, a light went on in Kelman's head: If Edinburgh could host a pair of AHL teams, why couldn't Belfast host an NHL team? So he asked Patrice Brisebois, the then-GM of the Hamilton Bulldogs, whom he should contact at the NHL.

Brisebois suggested Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and provided an e-mail. Soon after, Daly had the e-mail in hand and passed it along to Ken Yaffe, the NHL's Senior Vice-President, International TV.

In the e-mail was Kelman's ambitious plan, selling the merits of a one-off exhibition in Belfast, a city with its reputation still recovering from decades of sectarian violence. Kelman said he tailored the pitch to play upon the NHL's stated mission of growing the game on a global scale.

"What's the worse that could happen? They could only say no, right?" said Kelman, laughing heartily at the sheer bravado -- and perhaps naiveté -- of it all.

But the League did not say no. Instead, Yaffe saw the same vision. He saw credence in Kelman's pitch that hockey is a unifying force that could bridge the religious divide between the Catholics and Protestants that began ripping Belfast apart more than 50 years ago.

"As you look around the landscape of European hockey and look into likely places for us to go and play, Belfast never made the long list, never mind the short list," Yaffe told "But when we started talking to Todd and saw the role that the Giants played in the society there, then Belfast became much more intriguing to us."
There are precious few things in Belfast that have not been impacted by the divide between Catholics and Protestants. The Giants, however, have avoided falling into that category since they came into existence in 2000. From the beginning, the Giants have appealed to all segments of Irish society.

Rules were put in place to restrict the wearing of jerseys that broadcast religious or political affiliation through either color schemes or messages. Flags are not allowed in the stands and the club does not play the United Kingdom national anthem, "God Save the Queen," which is a staple in other Elite League arenas.

"They really did a good job of planning from the beginning to never be involved in the religious divide," said Kelman, a Calgary native who joined the Giants for their inaugural season after playing three seasons in the league with the Bracknall Bees.

Kelman, who took over as Giants GM in 2007, still remembers the trepidation as he prepared for his move to Belfast. He remembers his parents, who have Northern Irish roots, pleading with him to reconsider. Now he can laugh at the gag gift from recreational hockey friends back home -- a hockey stick with a mirror attached to the blade in a crude attempt to replicate the tools used by soldiers and policeman in the region to scan the undercarriage of vehicles for bombs -- that didn't seem quite as funny back then.

And he still didn't know what to expect when he arrived for duty in Belfast.

The Odyssey Arena, brand new at the time, was the first big sports arena in Belfast and residents showed up to those early games out of curiosity about the building more than a love of hockey.

"You'd come out for warm-ups and there would be all these people in the stands and they would cheer when you scored on your own goalie during warm-ups," Kelman said. "They didn't really know what was going on."

The Giants gave the fans a crash course.

"We were all smart enough to know that we needed to fight," Kelman said, laughing. "Before the first game, we were sitting in the dressing room and talking and said we needed to have like five fights to become popular and everybody it seemed wanted to go out there and fight."

It didn't take long for word to get out about the Giants and the exciting product they were putting on the ice and the fan-friendly atmosphere they were creating in the stands.
"I played hockey in a lot of places, but it has been humbling to play hockey in Belfast. This, more than any place, is where you feel you have made a difference in the community by playing hockey." -- Belfast Giants GM Todd Kelman
Soon, fans were coming up to Kelman and other players after games, thanking them for creating an entertainment option in the city that was bereft of all religious connotations. Kelman even recalls having conversations with mixed families of Catholics and Protestants and being told that the Giants were one of the few things those families could enjoy together.

"I played hockey in a lot of places," said Kelman, who grew up in Alberta and played in the United States and England before arriving in Northern Ireland, "but it has been humbling to play hockey in Belfast. This, more than any place, is where you feel you have made a difference in the community by playing hockey."

Now he wants to give back to the community by bringing the Boston Bruins to the Odyssey Arena, a gift to a community that has an undeniable link to the United States in general -- and Boston in particular.

"Everyone here in Ireland dreams of three cities -- New York, Boston and Chicago," Kelman said. "Everyone here, it seems, wants to go to America and live in Boston."

While that is not possible, bringing a slice of Boston to Kelman's adopted hometown has become not only a possibility, but a reality -- one that is being more embraced by the day by Belfast residents. As Kelman said, the arrival of the Bruins is much like having Manchester United or the New Zealand's All Blacks rugby club come calling.

"This is going to be massive for the city," Kelman said. "It's a lot of work for us, but we want to make sure that Boston comes and has a blast and we show the NHL that we can pull off an event like this.

"It should be interesting."
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