Episode 20: Giants from a different age, the history of ice hockey in Northern Ireland

WartimeNI's Scott Edgar is a fan of history and of ice hockey. In this episode, he goes back to 1939 to reveal the history of Belfast's first ice hockey stars.

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'A Wee Bit Of War' by Scott Edgar

Released on by WartimeNI

Running Time: 30:12

  • Social History
  • Sports History
  • Irish History


  1. Giants from a different age

Everyone remembers when the Belfast Giants brought ice hockey to Northern Ireland in the year 2000. But is everyone mistaken? Ice hockey had been played in Ulster since the Second World War. In 1939, Canadian Arnold "Duke" Brockman, manager of the Belfast Ice Rink at the King's Hall established a league. Harlandic Wolves, Short and Harland Raiders, Balmoral Tigers, and Thornton Wasps did battle on the ice as German forces swept across Europe and fears of invasion grew in the U.K.


Hello and welcome to A Wee Bit Of War, a podcast dedicated to telling the stories of Northern Ireland during the Second World War. I'm your host, Scott Edgar, and in this episode we are preluding next week’s Canada Day celebrations in Belfast by looking at the connections between Ulster and Canada and one of Northern Ireland’s least known wartime stories.

I’m going to take you back in time. Not quite as far back in time as we usually go on a Wee Bit Of War, but back to the year 2000. The world had not yet imploded as a result of the Y2K bug, Toca’s Miracle by Fragma and Darude’s Sandstorm were the sounds of the summer and I was 18 years old. A brand new venue had been built on Queen’s Island in East Belfast. High above the venue was a gantry, walkway, a construction of polished steel with a huge drop beneath that would terrify me today but not then. From there, I looked down on what was then the Odyssey Arena. The floor below would over the years see use as a conference centre, a gig venue, a motocross arena, and more excitingly for me, an ice hockey rink.

On 2nd December 2000, the Belfast Giants took to the ice in the Odyssey Arena. They suffered a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Ayr Scottish Eagles but things would change. This was a new Northern Ireland, a hopeful place in the times after the Belfast Agreement or Good Friday Agreement. And this was an exciting new game for the people of Ulster… only it wasn’t.

Ice hockey had been around in Northern Ireland for a long time. Dedicated followers of the game will know of teams such as the Castlreagh Knights and the Northend Racers but for many the thrill of watching the Giants take to the ice was something exciting and new. To trace the origins of the sport in Northern Ireland, we’re going much further back, back beyond the millennium, beyond the troubles, to a time of global conflict, to 1939.

Field hockey had long been a popular pastime in the United Kingdom, in Ireland, and across the globe. In the streets of Belfast, the sectarian violence of the 1920s had largely dissipated although tensions still ran high at times. News reels and papers spoke of the likelihood of an upcoming war but for most in Northern Ireland, there was little concern. Diarists from the time wrote of peace and tranquility, of the carefree way of life. There was a belief that war was something that would happen elsewhere. Why would the Nazis have any interest in Ulster? And so, in neighbourhoods across Belfast, children played happily in the streets. Of course, they played football or soccer, they played traditional street games like hopscotch but a newer craze was developing too; a fast paced fun game called roller hockey.

Streets in working-class areas of north and east Belfast, streets that would in a few years face the devastation of falling Luftwaffe bombs, resounded to shouts and cheers as local children skated and slotted home goals between makeshift posts. As the sport’s popularity grew, so to did the opportunity to play. Informal competitions took place at sporting venues like Dunmore Park off the Antrim Road and in community halls such as The Palm Hall on east Belfast’s Tamar Street. Across the Irish Sea, predominantly in London, ice hockey was fast growing in popularity. Were it to become a sport in Northern Ireland, a dedicated venue would be required.

In June 1933, work began on the construction of the King’s Hall. The large indoor arena owned by the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society would become a famous attraction in south Belfast, home to the Balmoral Show, and host to legendary concerts from the likes of The Beatles and Nirvana. The hall opened on 29th May 1934 at a cost of £61, 139.

By 1938, ice hockey was a pop culture phenomenon. In December that year, you could head down to the Curzon Cinema on Belfast’s Ormeau Road to watch ‘I See Ice’, a tale of an inventor who creates a camera small enough to conceal in a bowtie. An ice hockey game is taking place and the press is banned. And so our protagonist takes on the role of referee, sneaking his camera into the rink. The star of ‘I See Ice’ is none other than George Formby.

Earlier in the year, crowds at the State Cinema in Ballymena had enjoyed ‘Idol Of The Crowds’, a thrilling love story B-movie set against a hockey rink backdrop starring John Wayne and Sheila Bromley. Other movies that year included ‘The Game That Kills’, a drama of ice hockey, dodgy dealings, and racketeering.

In June 1938, questions were being asked in the letters pages of the North Down Herald and County Down Independent Newspaper. Much like recording a podcast episode about ice hockey at the height of summertime, the short piece came under the headline ‘Out Of Season?’ It reads:

This idea may be out of season, but it is one worthy of consideration. It concerns the Canadian sport, ice hockey, which is booming on the other side of the Channel both in England and Scotland. While this may, or may not, be the time of year to consider winter sports, it is generally reckoned that the “early bird…”

There is no doubt that the sport has caught on tremendously across the water, and it is undoubtedly one which could more than pay its way here. Ice rinks, costing about £20,000 to £30,000 are springing up like mushrooms, and £20,000 is not such a large sum when spread over say 1,000 shareholders. Surely, there would be sufficient support coming from Belfast to justify the erection of one either in the city or in Bangor. Preferably the former place.

Ireland has never been exploited for ice sports, and yet it can surely boast a large quota of skaters in the population. The ice hockey teams are, of course, recruited from Canada – so there won’t be any question of going outside the Empire.

Curling clubs could be formed, and this is a grand old sport for active old men and enthusiastic young ones. Skating is definitely on the upgrade, as would soon be proved by the erection of such a sports centre. The idea is, perhaps, unseasonable, but it has its possibilities.

Unseasonable it may have been but the case stood, and little over a year later on 4th October 1939, the Belfast Ice Rink opened to the public at Belfast’s King’s Hall. Local newspapers reported that over 1,000 skaters besieged the building on its opening night. John Gaston was the Managing Director of the company who leased and operated the rink. He also owned and ran the aforementioned Curzon Cinema. Gaston brought much in the way of local business acumen but he needed someone who understood the ins and outs of a rink and that man would be Arnold “Duke” Brockman.

Duke was a Canadian hockey player and coach and in his role as manager of the Belfast Ice Rink, ice hockey was about to become big business in the city. Brockman was a real pioneer of the sport. As a former player, he continued to coach, to train teams, to referee games and become and ambassador and promoter of the game.

The latter half of 1939 saw Britain declare war on Germany, saw the British Expeditionary Force set off for France… Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, the ice hockey business was really gaining traction.

On 18th July 1939, the British Ice Hockey Association issued a statement to expand the sport to all regions of the United Kingdom. It read:

As the body internationally recognised and responsible for the control of ice hockey in Great Britain and Northern Ireland and in view of the recent expansion of the sport, the B.I.H.A. have decided that as from August 1st 1939, the following provision shall take effect.

In accordance with the regulations and statutes of the international controlling body, Ligue International de Hockey sur Glace, all ice hockey clubs in Great Britain and Northern Ireland must be affiliated direct to the British Ice Hockey Association and the individual players must hold a valid B.I.H.A. playing certificate.

With rules and regulations in place, and Duke Brockman at the helm. Belfast was set. But on the subject of rules, this was a new sport for the people of Northern Ireland. In advance of the first games taking place in Belfast, several newspapers ran articles that described the intricacies of the game. Let’s have a look at the rules of the game as laid out by the Belfast Telegraph on 30th November 1939.

Many people will be patronising the first ice hockey match to be played in Belfast, at the King’s Hall, Balmoral, on Saturday next; and will enjoy the game much better if they know something of the rules.

It is generally recognised as the fastest and toughest game in the world. Hard knocks are given and taken, and occasionally players have stitches inserted, returning to the ice to continue the game.

The rink is divided into three zones – neutral, attacking, and defence – and the game lasts for three periods of twenty minutes each.

The goals are about ten feet wide and two feet deep, and the player in goal is known as the goalminder. Six players for each team are on the ice at once, and the formation is goalminder, two defence men, and three forwards. The teams carry substitutes, usually three, but they can only replace players when the whistle has blown for a foul or an infringement of the rules.

If a foul is serious a player can be sent to the box for one to five minutes, according to the seriousness of the offence, and the penalty box is an enclosure at the side of the rink, and an official with a stop watch times the period of detention.

The sticks are somewhat similar to hockey sticks, have longer handles, and the blade is flat and used both sides. The rubber puck, four inches in diameter, can be driven with terrific force.

And so, the people of Belfast were ready. Someone at the King’s Hall was preparing to holler let’s play hockey.

On 2nd December 1939, the Royal Air Force was preparing to drop its first bomb on German occupied land in Europe. Across the Atlantic, the Roosevelt Administration had imposed a ‘moral embargo’ on the Soviet Union, encouraging American companied not to sell airplanes, vehicles, or components to Stalin. In Northern Ireland, however, excitement was building for Belfast’s first taste of live ice hockey. Exactly 61 years to the day before the Belfast Giants skated out in the Odyssey Arena, two London teams – that’s London, England, not London, Ontario – took to the ice at the King’s Hall. The opening game at 2.00pm saw a thrilling 8-6 scoreline at the Wembley Colts ran out victorious over rivals the Wembley Terriers.

Another newspaper article from Ireland’s Saturday Night provided a little more context for the new casual fans.

The players look like giants from another age so well are they padded on shoulders, arms, and legs, for this is a real man’s game in which the blows given and taken are of the hardest. The goalkeeper is like a robot, with his huge cricket pads and wicket keeper’s gloves.

The second game of the day, saw the Wembley Terriers extract revenge with a 7-12 victory. If it was a fast-paced, goal heavy thriller that Gaston and Brockman wanted to show the excitement of the game to a new audience, then that’s exactly what they got.

The next series of games was already in the calendar. Two more English teams would visit on 16th December 1939, the Marlboroughs and the Redwings, both from London’s Earl’s Court arena. I don’t believe anything in Duke Brockman’s plan was accidental and with the exhibition games drawing to a close, it was time to really garner some local interest. It had at times been difficult for new local fans to get behind the visiting English teams. One newspaper reporter quipped that the atmosphere may have come on some had the teams worn blue jerseys and green and white hooped jerseys. However, with the Redwings vs. Marlboroughs game in the third period, the atmosphere ramped up in the King’s Hall.

The sports reporter in the Northern Whig on 18th December 1939 tells us why.

Though the evening game was poorly attended there was more enthusiasm than at the match between the Colts and Terriers a fortnight previously. This was possibly due to the fact that Archie Greer, a local player, came on as a substitute for the Marlboroughs., and incidentally revealed himself as being much better than a raw hand at the game.

That article ended with a tempting prospect. Early in the new year, Belfast would have its own team, a local team to take on their English and Welsh counterparts. But, there was a war on. Travel restrictions were in place. Crossing the Irish Sea was fraught with danger. And, perhaps Gaston and Brockman had a bigger vision the entire time. By 30th December 1939, only two weeks after the last exhibition game, Ireland’s Saturday Night was reporting on the establishment, not of a Belfast team, but of a Belfast league. Four teams, the Harlandic Wolves, the Balmoral Tigers, the Short and Harland Raiders, and the Thornton Wasps would battle it out throughout 1940 in both the Belfast House League and the Gaston Cup. A reporter writing under the nom de plume ‘The Skater’ fills us in on the key stats.

The organisation of a Belfast Ice Hockey League is rapidly working to a successful conclusion. At a full dress practice match last week an exciting game took place at the King’s Hall between Thortons and Short and Harlands. At the end of an exciting and even struggle the result was a draw of one goal each.

It is hoped to stage the first public league game before the end of January. The King’s Hall team is naturally setting the pace. They have some extremely promising talent available. Archie Greer, who made a promising debut in Belfast when assisting the Earl’s Court Marlboroughs, will be one of the forward line. His two brilliant individual goals scored against the Redwings should prove a good augury of goals to come. His Marlborough performance was all the more creditable when it was remembered that Thompson, one of the Redwings’ defence men, whom he was up against, has played for England 32 times in international games.

Nick McLaughlin’s nickname of ‘Train’ will give some idea of his speed, while Donald McIntyre, a very young player only 14 years of age is a prodigy for his years. Johnnie Chivers is another useful stickman.

Henrick Kacsar, a Czech by nationality, is also among the probables. He has been away from his native land for three years and seems quite acclimatised, but his countryman Don Moravetz, has been in Belfast only eight months and is a refugee. Ernie Johnston is available as goalminder. This experienced player belonged to the same team in Canada as Arnold Brockman, the coach.

Another experienced player who may find a place in the King’s Hall team is Zinet, an Austrian who played for the Zentralverein in Vienna. Although there are a number of strangers, however, the great majority of the players are Belfast born and bred and are fully capable of holding their own with the rest.

Aiming for an end of January start to the hockey season may have seemed ambitious but Duke Brockman was a driven man and such was the wave of enthusiasm within the city, that the league did start, only a few days late of that prediction when Balmoral Tigers faced off against Short and Harland Raiders on 3rd February 1940.

That day, Flight Lieutenant Peter Townsend of R.A.F. 43 Squadron shot down a Henkel over England, bringing down the first German plane on British soil in the Second World War. Across the Irish Sea, in Belfast the only Raiders on anyone’s minds were the team from the Short and Harland Aircraft Factory. It was the factory men and their neighbours on Queen’s Island, the Harland and Wolff Shipyard that provided half the teams and a lot of the energy behind the Belfast league. Six decades later, it would be a team based on Queen’s Island, with another Canadian in Dave Whistle at the helm that would reintroduce big game night hockey to a whole new generation of fans. Remember when that newspaper article in 1940 said the players looked like giants from another age…

Dave Whistle was not the only Canadian to make his mark with the Belfast Giants. Nor was he the only Whistle. From 2016-2018, and returning in 2021, Dave’s son Jackson Whistle has become a firm fan favourite in the S.S.E. Arena. Young Whis, though is not the first British-Canadian to make his mark in a Belfast hockey team. Nor was he the first named Jackson.

On Friday 4th June 1943, a coup d’etat in Argentina ousted president Ramon Castillo, Henri Giraud became Commander-in-Chief of the Free French Forces in Europe, the Royal navy sank U-308 off the coast of Norway, and in a small terraced house at 13 Hollycroft Avenue in east Belfast a young man died. He was 21 years old. His cause of death was secondary anaemia due to Hodgkin’s Disease. That young man was Jackson Kennedy, ice hockey star, and former captain of the Harlandic Wolves.

Born on Boxing Day, 26th December 1921, Robert Jackson Kennedy was the eldest son of Robert Kennedy and Margareta Kennendy (née Buchanan) of 75 Omeath Street, Belfast. Like many with an Ulster-Scots heritage, he was known by his middle name and as a young man, Jackson and the family emigrated to Canada.

On 30th May 1930, Jackson’s name appears alongside his mother and younger brother Ernest Thompson Kennedy on the passenger list of S.S. Doric. Traveling on a “Special Emigrant Rate”, they are third-class passengers departing Belfast and set to arrive in Montreal, Quebec, Canada on 8th June 1930. The family had by this time already spent some time in Canada between September 1927 and April 1929. Robert Kennedy was by this time a resident at 363 Sixth Avenue, Verdun, Montreal. He was an Iron Turner and had followed his brother Hugh Kennedy to Quebec in 1926.

By 1940, however, Jackson aged 18 years old had returned to Belfast where he found employment as a commercial traveller. He also found fame on the ice at the King’s Hall, being one of the first players to take to the new rink on its opening. From the first days of the game in Ulster, Jackson Kennedy stood out. He was one of only a handful of players with experience playing in Canada and it showed.

Towards the end of that inaugural season, Jackson Kennedy and another player who learned the game in Canada, Archie Greer, were top goalscorers, having found the net 9 times each. Not to be outdone, Jackson would notch up a further three goals in the first match of the Gaston Cup final on 22nd May 1940. As captain of the league and cup-winning Harlandic Wolves, he lifted the Gaston Cup from Miss Marjorie Webster on 29th May 1940.

Following his tragic and untimely death, Jackson Kennedy was buried in Dundonald Cemetery on the outskirts of east Belfast, only a few hundred yards away from the Icebowl Rink where generations of new young hockey players have learned the trade over the years.

Less is known about Archie Greer, Kennedy’s team mate at the Harlandic Wolves. By the midway point of the season both Greer and Kennedy were tied on nine goals apiece. Greer’s goals however came split between to teams. He started the season with the Balmoral Tigers, the home team of the Belfast Ice Rink before a shock transfer in April 1940 to the Harlandic Wolves. If you remember, it was Archie Greer to whipped crowds into a frenzy during the Marlboroughs versus Redwings exhibition.

Born on 8th October 1920, Archie was the eldest son of Alexander Greer and Ann Jane or Annie Greer (née Adams). On 21st May 1921, the three members of the Greer family arrived in Canada, bound for the town of Stuartburn in Manitoba. Alexander was a farm labourer and moved around Canada over the next two decades. Young Archie had siblings born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Essex, Ontario, and Windsor, Ontario. Then in 1939, the world changed.

Alexander and Annie Greer, now with seven children in tow returned to Belfast where Alexander joined the Merchant Navy. He served as a Greaser on vessels including H.M.S Carnarvon Castle until his time of death aged 44 years old on 2nd February 1941. His grave is in Dido Valley Cemetery, Simonstown, South Africa. This was not the last tragedy to befall the Greer family in 1941.

Soon after the family returned to Belfast, Annie gave birth to another daughter, Sylvia June Greer. On the night of 15th-16th April 1941, the Luftwaffe attacked Belfast in what became known as the Easter Raid of the Belfast Blitz. Young Sylvia June Greer, Archie’s youngest sister died as a result of the bombing along with hundreds more residents of the city. By this time, Archie had followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the Merchant Navy.

The escalation of the Second World War across Europe eventually brought a temporary end to ice hockey in Belfast. In December 1940, the victorious Harlandic Wolves held their annual end of year dinner dance in Thompson’s Restaurant, Belfast. While the mood was celebratory for the most part, there was also a sense of intrepidation. The King’s Hall venue had been requisitioned for the war effort. The Air Ministry acquired the site in late 1940, converting the hall into an aircraft factory for use by Short and Harland who produces fuselages for Stirling Bombers there until 1945.

Production at the Short and Harland aircraft factory increased. So too did manufacturing of vessels for the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy from the Harland and Wolff shipyard. At that dinner dance in December 1940, the Harlandic Wolves resolved to keep the team together for the duration of the conflict and make contributions to war charities and other good causes.

The hall was derequisitioned in December 1945, and after some repairs to the flooring, ice hockey returned in early 1947. Of the original four teams, only Harlandic Wolves returned to the ice although Balmoral and Short would ice different teams in future competitions. Many of those who played in 1940 would go on to play a role in developing the game in the post-war years.

And in the decades that followed, ice hockey continued in peaks and troughs in Belfast. Many teams have come and gone, paving the way for the Belfast Giants who are currently icing one of their most successful squads. With the establishment of the franchise in the year 2000, there was a desire for ice hockey to remain a neutral safe space, free from the trappings of sectarianism that dogged many other sports, teams, and grounds over the years.

Even in 1940, there were questions over “what side” ice hockey was on. Remember the reporter who suggested that the atmosphere would be greater should the teams wear the colours of Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic, or perhaps more fittingly Linfield Football Club and Belfast Celtic, two local sides at the height of their game at the time?

Some supposed ice hockey to be a game for the Protestant, Unionist, or Loyalist population of the city. The historical links between Ulster and Canada hinted at links with the British Empire. Many of those who emigrated, traveling back and forth across the Atlantic were of Ulster-Scots heritage, bringing that culture to Canada, where Presbyterian Churches and Orange Order Lodges became more common. In 1940, two of the major teams were formed in the shipyard and the nearby aircraft factory, two large local firms with a predominantly working-class Protestant workforce while the rink itself was situated in an affluent part of the south of the city. The assertion that ice hockey was a game for a Protestant people was not helped by the playing of ‘God Save The King’ after each game and skating session. However, there was never any bar to those who could play the sport. In this short episode alone we have seen people from across the United Kingdom, from Canada, local men and boys who identified as either British or Irish, and some who were refugees fleeing the building horrors in 1930s Europe.

For more than 80 years now, ice hockey has remained a sport that can be enjoyed by families from all walks of life in Northern Ireland. The world is a vastly different place now than it was in 1939 when the skates of the Colts and Terriers first graced the ice in Belfast. Hockey is bigger business in the city than it’s ever been and I’d like to think the likes of Archie Greer, of Jackson Kennedy, and particularly the ambitious Canadian Duke Brockman would be thrilled to see crowds spill out of the S.S.E. Arena on Queen’s Island where the domestic trophy cabinet is currently filled with silverware.

From wartime to peace, from giants of a different age to, well just Giants.

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