Todd Kelman grabs a microphone, pulls up a stool and starts imploring people to ask him questions.
It's two hours before the Belfast Giants face off against the Cardiff Devils on Saturday, and Mr. Kelman, the Giants' general manager, is holding a question and answer session with about 60 budding hockey fans in a pub inside Belfast's Odyssey Arena. "You can ask me anything you want, fire away," he says.
For the next 45 minutes, Mr. Kelman is queried about ticket sales, playoff chances and whether a Giant forward is sick because he drank too much. At one point, Giants left winger Daryl Lloyd joins Mr. Kelman and they banter about the Devils. "Thanks, Daryl," Mr. Kelman says with a smile. "And remember, if you ever go to another team, we'll hate your guts."
Welcome to hockey night in Belfast, where the game Canadians love has found an unlikely niche and become something of a unifying force in a city beset by division. The Giants are running away with Britain's 10-team Elite Ice Hockey League this season, holding a 13-point lead.
The club is easily one of the most successful franchises, regularly pulling in more than 4,000 fans a game and winning the title or coming second more than any other team.
The success is due largely to a simple formula: Put the best team possible on the ice and stay away from Northern Ireland's complicated politics. That means being the only team in the league that does not play the national anthem before home games, and making sure no fans come into the building wearing T-shirts or colours that might cause offence. Nothing is left to chance. The team's name, derived from Northern Ireland's famous Giants Causeway rock formation, and teal-coloured uniforms, were carefully chosen to be as neutral as possible.
"We're a really good thing for Northern Ireland and Belfast, because we've made a conscious decision not to get involved in all that," said Mr. Kelman, a Calgary native who has been with the club since its founding in 2000 as a player and now manager.
It is working for fans like Wendy Cush, who fell in love with hockey about five years ago when a friend took her to a Giants' game. Ms. Cush did not like soccer and rugby, both politicized in Northern Ireland, and enjoys coming to a sporting event where unionist, nationalist, Catholic or Protestant allegiances are put aside. "That's all left at the door," she said. "No one cares about that here."
Women have been among the Giants' biggest fans, and the stands for Saturday's game were packed with women of all ages. "I just love the speed," Fiona Shaw said as she assessed Giants' line combinations with two female friends.
The players also find the city welcoming, a refreshing change from the club's early days, when recruiting players to Belfast was a challenge. "You go around town and speak with a North American accent and they know right away that you are not on either side and you have nothing to do with the conflict," said Calvin Elfring, a 37-year old defenceman from Lethbridge, Alta., who came to the Giants last summer after 12 years playing in Germany. "And then they are excited that you are here."
There are still plenty of challenges. Hockey will always be a niche sport in Northern Ireland, which has only one skating rink. And the Elite League is a long way from the NHL. The best players make about $50,000 a season, and nearly all games are played on weekends with teams frequently travelling by bus to and from games on the same day. To keep costs down, teams are limited to 11 import players, and some clubs, like the Giants, have struck deals with local universities to offer scholarships. Then there are the arenas. While the Giants play in one of the league's best facilities, the 7,000-seat Odyssey, which has an Olympic-sized rink, other clubs play venues so small the ice surfaces would not meet the NHL standards.
Ownership can also be tricky, as the Giants found out last year when the team was bought by a U.S. businessman who turned out to be on a sex offender registry in Florida. The owner was dumped and the team taken over by the Odyssey Trust, a public body that runs the arena.
As for the hockey, it is at the level of the East Coast Hockey League and much closer to North American rough-and-tumble style than European finesse. Fights are common, and in November, Cardiff's Andrew Conboy got a 12-game suspension for trying to gouge out the eyes of Giant defenceman Jeff Mason. However, referees have clamped down on most of the rough stuff this season.
There are indications hockey is on an upswing in Britain, where the game has been played for 100 years. It has deep roots here. Britain won the Olympic gold medal in 1936, and the Stanley Cup was made in Sheffield, England, and named after a British peer. Two of the best players on the Giants are from Britain – goalie Stephen Murphy, who plays on the national team, and forward Colin Shields, a 6th round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2000.
For now though, fans like Margaret Shaw are just happy the Giants are in first place and that the team thrashed the Devils 7-2 last Saturday. "I'm 72-years old, and my friends think I should be at home knitting," Ms. Shaw said with a laugh. "That hardly keeps you young."