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'After hurling took to the ice and became ice hurling, it took a new life of its own. A new sport'

Did the Irish invent ice hockey? Ger Loughnane is on a journey to find out.

WHAT DO ICE hockey and hurling have in common?

Both are lightning fast, hard hitting sports played with sticks that captive an entire nation. But that’s not where the similarities end.

Ger Loughnane with ice hockey legend Brendan Shanahan Ger Loughnane with ice hockey legend Brendan Shanahan

It turns out ice hockey traces its roots back to Celtic culture. There’s a direct bloodline from the ancient game of hurling to Canada’s national sport.

It makes sense. Over 250 years ago, ships carried tens of thousands of Irish emigrants to the four corners of the earth. The Irish spread their various art forms where they went, from song and dance to sport. They don’t come any more Irish than the small ball code.

In the upcoming film ‘Poc na nGael,’ Ger Loughnane takes a trip to Canada to explore the hidden link between ice hockey and hurling.

During his stay across the pond, the All-Ireland winning manager made some fascinating discoveries about ice hockey’s origin.

“We found out that 250 years ago an Irish principal in a school in Nova Scotia was doing training in games of hurling at the school,” explains film director Éamonn Ó Cualáin.

“His name was William Cochran and he was originally from Omagh in Tyrone. It was the people from Northern Ireland that first brought hurling to Canada.

“Because of the weather conditions out there, that soon changed to ice hurling. The type of hurling stick at the time was a thin, narrow stick rather than the rounded one we have today. It was fairly similar to the hockey sticks of today.


Source: Éamonn Ó Cualáin/Vimeo

“It was narrower at the top as it was more of a ground hurling game we played in Ireland 250 years ago.

Ó Cualáin continues: “The seed of the game came from hurling and ice hurling and then the game just took off. It holds a lot of the same characteristics as hurling. That’s what stood out to Ger – the speed, the passion, the skill.

“After hurling took to the ice and became ice hurling, it took a new life of its own. A new sport. The Canadians are definitely as passionate about ice hockey as we are about hurling.”

Such was the exodus from Ireland back then, by the 19th century one-third of the Canadian population were  Irish-born or first-generation Irish. Ice hurling became ice hockey, and quickly took hold across Canada.

“The Irish were there at the beginning when they started playing ice hurling,” he says. “Then they were there when the rules were being made, when the first clubs were being formed.

“The Toronto Maple Leafs were originally the Toronto St Pat’s. The biggest club in ice hockey came from an Irish team.

“The Montreal Canadiens which are the second biggest club in Canada were originally called the Montreal Shamrocks. The roots to all these big clubs and what hockey is today came from.”

Toronto at Columbus Source: TNS/ABACA

The Canadiens are the most successful hockey team of all-time, lifting the Stanley Cup 24 times in their history, while the Maple Leafs are in second place having won 13 championships.

The links to Ireland can still be seen today. Three-time champion Brendan Shanahan was born to Irish parents and went on to enjoy one of the greatest National Hockey League (NHL) careers in history.

He helped Canada to a gold medal in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013 and was recently named one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players in history. Shanahan is currently the president of the Maple Leafs and shows Loughnane around the organisation.

“We tried to bring the story full circle,” says Ó Cualáin. “Today you’ve got the Toronto Mapleleafs, which are probably the Man United of ice hockey, their president is Brendan Shanahan. He’s first generation Irish, his father is from Cork and his mother is from Belfast and he’s one of the most renowned people in ice hockey. He features in the documentary.”

Ice Hockey - NHL - Western Conference semi-final - Detroit Red Wings v Calgary Flames Source: David Guralnick

Former Toronto Aeros defenceman Geraldine Heaney is another ice hockey legend who meets Loughnane. She’s a two-time Olympian, having won gold in 2002, and won seven gold medals at the Women’s World Championships.

The Aeros retired her number 91 after a stellar 18-year career. She’s seen as a pioneer of women’s hockey.

“Geraldine Heaney was born in Armagh,” he says. “She’s probably the most successful Irish born sportsperson that noone in Ireland has heard about. She’s won Olympic medals and world championships playing ice hockey.

“But because ice hockey is unknown in Ireland, she’s totally under the radar. She attributes a lot of her own style of play and skills to camogie. Her mother played camogie before they left Ireland and a lot of her family as well.”

Directed by Éamonn Ó Cualáín and co-produced by Sam Kingston, the documentary’s Irish Premiere takes place this afternoon at 2.15pm at the Galway Film Fleadh. It’s expected to air on TG4 next October.

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