Belfast might not be the first place you associate with hockey, but Griffins center Kory Karlander can attest to the popularity of the sport on the shores of Northern Ireland.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Kory Karlander is one lucky hockey player.
It's true that Karlander has never spent a day in the NHL and, at the age of 31, it's rather unlikely that he will ever get the opportunity to play hockey at the highest level.
But before you start feeling sorry for the affable center for the Griffins, consider that the Melita, Manitoba, native is thankful that he's been able to play some form of hockey for teams in so many places across North America and overseas.
Starting in Columbus, Ohio, where he began his pro career after attending Northern Michigan University, Karlander has played everywhere from Louisville to Los Angeles, including stints in Detroit, Kalamazoo and Muskegon as well as Grand Rapids.
But of all the places he's played Raleigh (N.C.), Jackson (Miss.), Peoria (Ill.) and Milwaukee are the others the most interesting undoubtedly has been Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he has played not once, but twice.
Karlander was a member of the Belfast Giants during their inaugural 2000-01 season in the British Ice Hockey Superleague (BISL). He came back to the states for a year, only to return for another hitch in Belfast last season.
Now if the idea of playing hockey in Belfast sounds like it should rank right up there with playing in Beirut or, even worse, Baghdad, you wouldn't be alone.
I wasn't pursuing it it found me," Karlander says, recalling the opportunity to play for the Giants. People contacted me and I looked into it.
Belfast, of course, is known for its so-called troubles, the sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics that has led to more than 13,000 bomb attacks and left more than 3,000 dead over a quarter of a century.
Karlander talked extensively with Giants coach Dave Whistle, a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, who had played several years in the U.K. before entering the coaching ranks. He also consulted Colin Ward, the younger brother of NHLer Dixon Ward who had been playing in the BISL for three years. Karlander knew Ward from their pro roller hockey days.
Given assurances that the peace process was making a difference and that Belfast's current troubles were due more to bad press than bad behavior, Karlander agreed to give hockey there a try.
He couldn't have been happier that he did.
It was absolutely great, he says. It takes a while to catch onto the Irish accents, but things there are very relaxed. The land is just breathtaking. You see pictures, but when you see it in person, it's absolutely gorgeous.
Northern Ireland is under British rule, but Karlander said it seemed like the United Kingdom either has the fewest work days on the planet or the most work holidays. They have the most relaxed business hours, he says. People are just more laidback and into socializing.
Life in Belfast, it seems, often centers around the pub. You work and you go for some lunch and a pint at the pub and later you hit the pub for happy hour, Karlander notes. Then you go home and eat dinner before you come back (to the pub) again.
The people there work hard, but they play hard too. They really pride themselves on the art of conversation. As soon as they know you're from North America, they'll talk your ear off.
All the action around the pub helps explains why the team in Belfast was known as the Harp Lager Giants (by virtue of its Guinness sponsorship). In Northern Ireland, it's hard to escape tradition.
There is so much history there, says Karlander, who learned his fair share of local lore during enlightening Black Taxi Tours through the city. You can be sitting, having a pint, in a pub that's older than the United States or Canada.
He saw little evidence of the bombing that terrorized the city for more than a quarter of a century. Every big city has some violence; it just so happens that in Belfast it usually gets pegged on the religious divide, he says.
Most of the violence probably has more to do with drugs or money. Actually, you probably see more about it on the news over here than when you're there living in the city.
The hockey team played at the Odyssey, a new multi-functional entertainment venue that includes a 12-screen multiplex cinema, IMAX® theater and a range of bars, restaurants and leisure activities.
Belfast has really turned around, Karlander says. There's a lot of new development and construction, especially in the downtown area where a lot of the players were housed.
Most of the games at the Odyssey Arena were sold out. Although many fans were new to hockey, Karlander says they embraced the sport with enthusiasm chanting and singing as is the custom at soccer games there.
I watched them over the course of the season become very knowledgeable they learned very fast, Karlander says. They take a lot of pride in their sports, as they do in their religion, life or whatever they're involved with.
Playing in Belfast was a great experience for Karlander and his wife Jolie, who were married during the summer before his second season there. She was even able to find employment in Belfast, working for the agency in charge of government housing.
We got to see some of Europe, although not as much as we would have liked to have seen, Karlander says. I'm already thinking about the day when we can go back and visit Belfast and Northern Ireland.
Belfast is a long way from growing up in a small town in western Canada where Karlander's father, Ken, was both his principal and coach. He coached me, but he let my interest in the game motivate me.
Naturally, Karlander's upbringing left him with ideas about the role parents should play in sports.
If kids are interested in hockey, or any sport for that matter, I think it's very important that they want to play, not because their parents want them to play, Karlander says. It ruins it for the kid when parents push too hard.
He is afraid that some hockey programs today almost set kids up to fail.
Even if hockey is a child's favorite sport, I think it's important for them to be involved in other sports, if nothing else for the development of their motor skills. Unfortunately, there are so many practices and so many games, it becomes hard to play other sports.
When Karlander was growing up, he participated in baseball, golf and swimming as well as track and field, in addition to hockey. I even played badminton, which is a family reunion/outdoor sport in the states, but in western Canada is actually a pretty competitive high school sport.
Karlander, the nephew of Al Karlander, who played for the Detroit Red Wings in the early 1970s, used his athleticism to play three years of hockey at Northern Michigan University.
He entered the pro ranks in the East Coast Hockey League in Ohio, where he met Jolie. During his first couple of seasons, he spent his summers playing professional roller hockey, including a couple of years in Los Angeles.
It was a lot fun and it was pretty decent money, he says. It was a good summer job. It sure beat swinging a sledgehammer or pounding nails.
Making the transition from ice skates to roller blades and back wasn't easy, according to Karlander.
I remember skating in Winnipeg to get ready for the (ice hockey) season, he recalls. You feel like you're staring all over again. It's hard to turn, to stop and the puck feels like you're shooting a brick. I didn't think I was going to be able to skate the same way again.
Things got a little better the second and third year, but you start thinking about the time you could be visiting your family and the risk of injury and pretty soon those things outweigh everything else.
After helping the Belfast Giants win a championship last season, Karlander is glad to be playing again for the Griffins.
Although he bought a house in Grand Rapids this past summer, he figured he would be mostly playing for the Muskegon Fury this season. Injuries in Detroit and callups gave the Griffins an opportunity to bring Karlander into the fold again.
He signed a standard player contract with the Griffins on Jan. 3.
It's great to be back but I don't take anything for granted, Karlander says. I feel very fortunate to have been able to experience all the different cultures that I have.
Hockey has taken me all these different places and I feel very lucky.
Griffins head coach Danton Cole is glad that Karlander was available.
Karly's done very well for us, Cole says. We use him in every situation and he's been outstanding.
Cole believes Karlander has improved as a player since he last played in Grand Rapids.
We knew he was a good energy guy who skates well, but as a player he just seems to have more patience with the puck now, a better awareness on the ice. I don't know whether it was going overseas or just getting more experience, but he's matured as a player.
Being smarter on the ice has made Karlander a more valuable player. When you throw that in with his speed and the fact that he's in great shape, he can be dangerous, Cole says.
Cole, for one, is glad that he could call on Karlander when the Griffins needed players after the Red Wings depleted their ranks. Muskegon is a whole lot closer than Belfast.
Thank goodness, Cole says. When we were short, he really helped out.
- Karlander won a championship last season with the Belfast Giants.
- Karlander played for the Griffins during parts of two previous seasons.
- Karlander holds the Griffins' record for most shorthanded goals in a single season with four in 1998-99.