Ireland's largest inline hockey rink is the product of a love affair one Irish player has with the game. The aim is to encourage youth to get involved in hockey.
Hockey is rolling along in Ireland. The efforts of Love Hockey Ireland founder Stephen Lynch has led to the creation of Ireland's largest inline hockey rink, which opened this season in Portadown, Northern Ireland.
"We achieved our dream," Lynch said. "As we continue to grow and have a proper rink, we hope to grow programs much quicker and hope to make cross Atlantic connections with similar style organizations in the U.S. and Canada who use hockey for developing young people."
Here's a clip of the new facility, which was funded almost entirely by charitable contributions. The venue is the only facility in Ireland to use the unique mutli-sport "Ice court" playing surface which is ideal for all sports.
Love Hockey Ireland obtained a European Union funding grant, which was set up to help continue peace in Northern Ireland, in 2012. A new program called Skating Together Advancing Relations focuses on using the sport of inline hockey to bring people together, break down barriers and have a lasting impact within the Southern Cluster area of Northern Ireland upon community relations. The aim of the project is to deliver a school's outreach program, youth engagement program and ethnic minority program to enhance cross community relations and aid the integration of ethnic minority groups into local communities.
"This is a massive boost for our hopes of growing hockey in Ireland," Lynch said.
Here's a story previously published in The Hockey News, Vol. 64, No. 17, Feb. 14, 2011, pg. 47.
EMERALD ISLE ICE TIMES
In Ireland, hockey is definitely a niche sport. Stephen Lynch is trying to change that, with some help from his friends
By Andrew Goyens
It’s tough to be a hockey fan in Ireland. Sure, the Belfast Giants of the United Kingdom’s Elite Ice Hockey League are always competitive, but their arena – the Odyssey – is the only ice rink in the country. There are inline hockey leagues for those who want to play, but the latter don’t number many – between 600 and 700 players in the country of more than six million.
It’ll take a real fanatic to get the game going. Luckily, Ireland may just have one.
Stephen Lynch eats, sleeps and breathes the game. He’s the chairman of – and plays defense for – the Armagh Stars inline team. He even met his future wife at practice and when they married this past June, their cake was made to look like the Stanley Cup.
Now, Lynch wants all of Ireland to share in his love for hockey. “I feel very passionately about it,” he said. “I believe very strongly that you can sit around and mope and complain or you can make something happen.”
Lynch started Love Hockey Ireland in February 2010. He said hockey has the potential to bring people of different backgrounds and ethnicities together. “Northern Ireland was a war zone 12 years ago,” Lynch said, referring to the religious tension between Catholics and Protestants. “Then, Belfast got ice hockey and it didn’t matter which religion you were – you wear team colors, and no one says anything to you about it.”
The first step towards growing hockey in a non-traditional market is getting kids interested and involved. Lynch has a plan to make that happen. “We’re going to go to 12 schools and make four teams (of 15 kids),” he said. “There’ll be five kids (apiece) from Catholic, Protestant and Eastern European backgrounds. We’ll take them to a sports hall, kit them out and teach them how to play and work as a team… After three months, we’ll have a school cup final (tournament), and their school friends can come watch them.”
“Kitting them out” is proving difficult, though. Lynch wants to provide schools with the equipment the kids need to get started, so they can afford to play regardless of their parents’ finances. However, LHI can’t afford to buy that much equipment. It’s a not-for-profit organization that isn’t big enough to qualify for government funding or register in the Irish public eye.
Lynch began to look toward the NHL for help. He called teams up and down the U.S. east coast without much luck.
Then he found a kindred spirit in an unlikely place.
“Stephen and I were talking on Facebook,” said Philip Atkinson, president of Windsor Sports USA – a company that sells hockey sticks at discounted rates. “We talked about Ireland and starting up Love Hockey Ireland… We wanted to get him some equipment to take back (to Ireland).”
The conversation turned to promoting Lynch’s organization. Atkinson had a friend who could help: Mark Sofia, the manager of community hockey initiatives for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Charged with growing the game in a non-traditional market himself, Sofia was willing to help and the three set about finding a way the Lightning could help raise LHI’s profile.
“Stephen wanted some Lightning guys to fly to Ireland for an appearance,” Sofia said. “We said, ‘No, we can’t go there – but do you guys want to come here?’”
They did and are headed there in March. Lynch has put together a team of senior inline players – it was too short notice to bring kids, but Lynch hopes to do so next year – who will fly to Tampa Bay and tour the area, playing games against all-star teams from local rinks. The team will attend the Lightning’s March 7 game against the Capitals, the Bolts’ “green” theme night.
Sofia says the Lightning will roll out the red carpet for LHI. “It’s a perfect idea to do something cool,” he said. “They’ll be recognized and get lots of exposure during the game.
“(Stephen) wants to grow the sport and get exposure. Why wouldn’t we give him the opportunity to come in?”
The Tampa tour is just one of the projects Lynch has going. The school tournament is scheduled to take place in September and Lynch is working to get charitable status for LHI – something he hopes will be done soon.
For Lynch, all the work is worth it if the sport catches on in his country.
“If we get genuine hockey lovers who are willing to work hard, we can grow the sport here.”