Irish ice hockey still searching for somewhere to call home

by Stephen Findlater

Irish Ice Hockey Association president Aaron Guli is calling for greater respect for winter sports in Ireland as he hopes a full-time ice rink can finally be built in the country. 

Since the closure of the Dundalk ice dome in 2011, practitioners of the sport have been limited to slim pickings.  

Prior to the pandemic, it was limited to road trips to East Belfast for the graveyard shift on a Saturday night at the Dundonald Ice Bowl and 7am run outs at temporary rinks when they popped up for a couple of months each Christmas. 

For Guli, a New Yorker originally who has been based in Ireland since 1997, it is a hugely frustrating situation for the sport he loves which he feels is getting short shrift from all angles. 

The club recently ran a “March to the Rink” fundraiser with the extra purpose of raising awareness for their plight. 

Currently, the Republic of Ireland is one of just three countries without an ice rink and seemingly no short-term solution in sight. 

Guli says they have largely given up hope of getting a hold of the vacant rink at Dundalk IT after five years of legal headaches despite offers to invest up to €250,000 to get it up to speed. 

“Ice hockey has been around in Ireland since the early 80s,” he told the Dublin Gazette. “In the beginning, they were happy enough to have Dolphin’s Barn and Phibsboro but those were small rinks which weren’t built for ice hockey or ice skating.  

“In 2006, they built the Dundalk ice dome, purpose built, lovely arena. Some managerial and ownership problems, coupled with the global economic meltdown led to its demise. It wasn’t for a lack of use. It was a successful business but it closed. So in the 40 years of ice sports, those four years were only the time we had an actual full-size rink!” 

Conversations have begun with the Sport Ireland and the National Sports Campus but Guli does not envisage them bearing fruit before another generation of potential players could be lost. 

“In the past six to eight months, they have realised winter sports are here to stay and are not going away.  

“They have opened up discussions about the possibility of having an ice or winter sports centre on campus as part of the master plan. That’s purely in the discussion stage. They have hired a company to do a feasibility study but, I think, best case scenario we would be looking at 10 years if they solely did it.” 

And he feels the slow-moving nature is indicative of where winter sports currently sit in the pecking order.  

Should any talent be shown in the likes of skiing, ice skating or ice hockey, emigration is the only option to pursue that dream.  

“I have been saying it for years. Anyone who wants to compete in winter sports in Ireland has to leave the country.  

“There’s nothing here for them other than a standard gym. We are the only sports who have to do that. In 2021, that to me is shocking at best.  

“I don’t find it acceptable. Ireland is a global economy and one of the richest in the world with a very diverse population – a lot of eastern Europeans and north Americans. Their primary sport is not GAA or rugby and they want their sports.  

“It’s not a popular opinion. Ireland, when it comes to sports infrastructure, is third world. The only investment they put in goes into GAA, rugby or soccer.  

“Everyone was shocked Finn Harps got €4m for its dilapidated stadium. We shouldn’t be celebrating that; that should be mandatory for everyone. 

“It people think about what Ireland could achieve in sport with proper facilities! You see what we do without it. Instead of a once in a generation Sonia O’Sullivan, we could be churning them out year after year. I travel around the world for hockey and see what they have if we had half of this. Why can’t we have a regular national stadium, an ice hockey rink or proper training grounds for all these other sports? When sports funding comes out every year, 80% goes to the top three sports and it swallows up all the money. 

“The only ice time we can get is in east Belfast as the Dundonald ice bowl. Pre-covid, we got a one hour slot on a Saturday night from 10.15pm to 11.30pm. That’s not conducive to kids. If you are in Dublin, you don’t get home until 2am. It’s only for adults.” 

As such, with investors waiting in the wings, Guli and his cohorts have been scouring Dublin and its neighbouring counties to try and purchase properly zoned land themselves and get things moving.  

Sounding simple in principle, it has proven an onerous task which has yet to bear fruit but Guli is determined to offer a different sporting avenue rather than see Irish youngsters emigrate to simply pursue the sport. 

“Our top athletes have to go live, train, play and live with other people in other countries. One of the kids from Kilkenny went to Liege in Belgium for transition year. It’s not a very English speaking area – he bypassed that fact and went there for a year just to play hockey.  

“We have another who went to Boston for three years in secondary school and then on to university to play. Kids go to Canada, France, living away from their family in order to play. You are not going to get many other people in Irish sport to have that dedication. 

“It’s difficult but that is what we are in here for. We are trying to find that site and are saying to people we don’t specifically need money from you.  

“We are not looking for heavy subsidising but we have the money, we just need somewhere to put it. That’s the wall we are trying to get over now – ‘where can we put this?’ 

“Councils don’t really have land to provide for something like this. It’s all pretty much zoned for housing so you have to go down the private route.  

“When private land comes up for sale, it is zoned agricultural or something else. It is harder than it sounds to get the land without ending up in the middle of nowhere which is an issue because you still have to cater for the general public. You can’t end up in a field in the middle of nowhere and expect teenagers to show up. They just won’t do it! 

There’s countries like Nepal, Iran, Uzbekistan, Philippines, Mongolia – they all have ice rinks. We cannot compete in our world championships because our global governing body has ‘minimum participation’ standards which require a dedicated rink to be able to take part. I look at those countries.  

“Nepal is considered one of the poorest countries in the world and they have managed to complete their first rink. Yet, here we are, one of the only ones who don’t have one.” 

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