Wonders will never cease

A COUPLE of weeks ago my good friend Eddie Hughes, who, with Tony Coy have created the novel but hugely enterprising Kilkenny on Ice in Cillin Hill, encouraged me to visit the establishment with a view to getting a good story for the column.

A COUPLE of weeks ago my good friend Eddie Hughes, who, with Tony Coy have created the novel but hugely enterprising Kilkenny on Ice in Cillin Hill, encouraged me to visit the establishment with a view to getting a good story for the column.

What the two young entrepreneurs have created in the Kilkenny Mart complex is truly amazing, where entertainment for all ages is paramount, and ongoing from the early AM to the late evenings. The venue branded Kilkenny on Ice has been documented by my colleague Trevor Spillane some weeks ago in this paper, but my interest, was specifically directed towards the ice rink.

If like me you would be abysmally unaware of the fact that among a wide plethora of sporting disciplines, Kilkenny competes on a national level in the Irish ice hockey championships, I will absolve you from the state of ignorance.

Kilkenny certainly does compete in the National Championships, and furthermore there are at least four native Kilkenny players figuring on the Irish international team. Not only that, two Kilkenny men are official coaches to the Irish international teams at all levels.

Can you believe that?

Can only train in Belfast

It is not as if Cillin Hill is a satellite of Kilkenny, positioned inside the Arctic Circle around Lofoten Island!

You are quite aware that Kilkenny’s purpose-built, all embracing cattle mart is located less than a league out the Dublin Road. The Irish ice hockey teams are confined to training in the only ice hockey arena still functioning on the island of Ireland in Belfast (The Odyssey). All games in the championship are played there, as are all all international tournaments confined to Belfast. There were four ice rinks in the country outside of Belfast, all capable of facilitating international competition, but alas, all three, for reasons best known to the business fraternity, were forced to close their doors.

Kilkenny City Storm - oh yeh, that is the name of the Kilkenny Ice Hockey club - was consequently forced to travel to Belfast for competition, or to train with their colleagues on the various Irish international panels. Distance is a dauntingly, expensive element in the club’s functioning.

They have been forced to compromise, and in their searches for a suitable alternative, they found the O’Loughlin Gaels GAA club a willing and generous ally. They now do a considerable amount of their training on roller blades in the vast expanse of the O’Loughlin’s indoor arena.

Where would some sports in Kilkenny be without the generosity and co-operation of the men from the St John’s side of the City? Last month we wrote of the assistance rendered to the basketball people in their pursuance of their sporting discipline.

Back to ice hockey! Why were we in Cillian Hill?

A little bird whispered that the Irish international under-18 team were having a trial against the Kilkenny City Storm as a training preparation for an up-coming tournament in Gdansk. We have covered a broad canvas of sporting activity in these pages over the years, and what was the problem in adding to that portfolio?

None!

An adventure

If it is Kilkenny, we will be there, or as the transport logo might read, if Dunne can’t do it, it can’t be done. Kilkenny man, Michael Cummins is the General Manager of the Irish under-18 international squad. He is only one of the Cummins family associated with ice hockey, but more anon about that.

We opined to Michael that a few short years ago, ice hockey and Kilkenny would seem uneasy, if not estranged bed partners.

“I can see where such observations might gain momentum, but due to the presence of the ice rink in Cillian Hill, and the co-operation of Kilkenny on Ice Company who organise a superb menu of adventures for young and not so young around the months of November through to February, we have found it very beneficial to our players, both Kilkenny players and the under-18 squad to use the rink,” he explained.

“Now the rink is only half the size of the conventional playing rink, but it serves many purposes for us in the sense that we don’t have to travel vast distances to get our training and coaching sessions done,” he added.

Why the Irish team now in Kilkenny?

“Quite simply, we have four of the squad from Kilkenny (Anthony Coy, Darragh Hickey, both Kilkenny City; Oisin Power and Aaron Grehan, both Graignamanagh) and whilst Belfast is the usual location for international training, the present climate up there is worrying, and it was great to be afforded Cillian Hill for the purpose,” was the explanation.

When the ice arena finishes, Kilkenny City Storm play in-line hockey in O’Loughlin’s, which is basically ice hockey on roller blades.

Michael Cummins was an ice hockey addict, who played the game at a competitive level. He inveigled his brother, Paul, the former World kick-boxing champion, to attend one of his games. It was an instantaneous magnetic field of what Paul Cummins was looking for to whet his post kick-boxing days. Michael coached him in the skills of ice hockey and some 10 years ago they both set up the Kilkenny City Storm club right in the heart of the Marble City.

Paul excelled

As he did to become World champion, Paul excelled over a short window of opportunity. He undertook coaching courses under the auspices of the Irish Ice Hockey Association; came back to Kilkenny to coach the club’s junior players and now he is on his way to Vermacki in Finland to further his coaching skills, sponsored by the IIHA.

Michael would be the first to admit that the influx of foreign nationals (Canada, Latvia, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Sweden) were a God send. He would readily agree that their expertise and knowledge was of immense value to the embryonic Kilkenny ice babes.

“Such people are still involved, and still doing valuable work at all levels with the senior, juniors and Pee Wee teams,” Michael told us. “It is truly amazing to see some of their children being so naturally adept at the game on our under-age teams. The popularity of the game locally is increasing week by week, and what could be possibly wrong with that statistic?”

Not a lot my friend, not a lot!

Back to the Cummins influence.

Michael was the ice hockey origins of the species. Behind him are his brothers, Paul and Jamie, who also carries a big name as a talented soccer player in the Kilkenny and District League.

Facilities, or the lack thereof, is a very real problem. With the closure of the four or five arenas due to the economic downturn, all the National League games have to be played in Belfast. The clubs use the facilities like Cillian Hill during the Winter/Christmas riposte, but during the Summer the inline game comes into its own.

Looking at the speed and consequent contact one would see where a need for body protection would be prioritised. The goalkeepers certainly put their bodies, and probably their lives, on the line to prevent goals. They look like the Michelin Man with their multi layered body and head protectors.

’Association is generous

The puck (ball used playing) is a blur. The skates create snow storms as the skaters zip all over the place. One would need the eyes of a black mamba to pick up the puck in flight.

Is the game an expensive one to get into?

“The National Association is very generous and helpful when it comes to providing gear for under-age children,” Michael continued. “It has been agreed also that hurling helmets are acceptable for youngsters while they make up their minds up about the game. Later on, when they have found a grá for the game, the up-market gear becomes somewhat expensive, but at that stage a lad’s mind is made up.”

Kilkenny City Storm’s first sojourn into foreign competition came when they visited Gdansk in 2007.

“We had never played on ice before,” Michael told us. “We were about to compete in the National Championship and we used the Poland trip to test our capabilities, our adaptabilities to ice. We had always played inline hockey.

“We certainly exceeded our expectations. We returned home elated. Our next overseas outing took us to Winnipeg in Canada, where we played some local teams. We raised some €15,000 in sponsorship to defray expense, and our performances against some of the local teams was above and beyond our wildest dreams.”

That year the club finished third in the National League. The club has a policy of providing first timers, or try out parties, with the required gear.

As Michael Cummins observed: “We will help people to have a go. See if you enjoy it. Find out if it ticks all or none of the boxes for you. If it is not your bag, then there is no harm done, or on the other tack, we could get some great talent from some of those first timers.”

The club caters for both genders, for people with disabilities, mams and dads.

Imagine - an ice hockey team

As I drove home from Cillin Hill I mused.

Here we are living in the best hurling county in the land, in the heart of some of the best agricultural land around, where the only chance we have of seeing ice is on top of a rainwater barrel, or a duck pond, or in a gin and tonic glass, and we can boast of a Kilkenny team competing in a National Ice Hockey Championship.

Is there any sporting discipline around that this great county cannot master? A Kilkenny ice hockey team?

Wonders will never cease!