A RANDALSTOWN ice hockey player who was set to embark on a life-changing trip to the USA a year ago has recalled the eventful trip - which took place just as ‘coronavirus’ began to be the word on everyone’s lips.
Conor Martin started attending Belfast Giants games with his sports-mad father and was soon bitten by the bug.
He first started by playing in-line hockey, which takes place on rollerskates, in his teens, and now plays for the Northern Ireland Tridents, who play their matches at the Ice Bowl in Dundonald.
The NI Tridents Ice Hockey Club was formed in 2010 and was originally comprised members of Northern Ireland’s three main emergency services; the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service(NIFRS) and the Northern Ireland Prison Service.
The team now includes members of An Garda Siochana as well as civilians giving the Tridents a unique first as the only all-Ireland joint emergency services sporting team on the Island.
The team originated ahead of the World Police and Fire games held in Belfast in 2013, has played in Las Vegas and hosted Fitsburg and team Remax from Canada.
Conor works for Wrightbus, has also helped out behind the scenes with the Belfast Giants and plays in goals, or ‘between the pipes’ as it’s known in the sport.
Last year he received his call-up to the Ireland team to play in Chicago over the St Patrick’s Day celebrations - but the trip was cut short in dramatic fashion.
In his first season he attained a number of accolades, including: most shutouts (games without conceding a goal), the League ‘Most Valuable Player title, Cross Border Cup League Champion and Cross Border Cup Playoff Champion (both for the first time in franchise history, lowest ‘Goals Against’ average and highest save percentage
“After having such a successful season, I was invited to attend the Team Ireland training camp in the summer of 2019.” he said.
“After months of hard work and rigorous training, I successfully managed to secure a spot on the Senior Team Ireland roster for the 2019/2020 season.”
As well as the Chicago Exhibition Tournament, Conor was also looking forward to the World Championship Qualifiers later in the year - which of course did not take place.
Conor said that while the image of ice hockey may seem violent, sportsmanship is to the fore in the amateur game.
“There is a bit of a stigma, if you watched it on TV in the late 90s or early 2000s you might think there is a lot of brawling,” he said.
“It is a contact sport, but we have to adhere to a written code and things have definitely improved.
“There are harsh penalties for those who violate those rules.
“If someone even accidentally collides with the goalie, they will have two defense men to answer to, pretty quickly!
“There is a lot of sportsmanship in the game and what I really like is that it is a true cross community and cross border sport and there is a lot of camaraderie.
“We all look out for each other and the fans are brilliant as well.
“When you look at some football matches, they need police to keep the supporters apart - with ice hockey, while the fans are passionate in the stands, they socialise with each other no problem before and after games.”
However he concedes that the sport is a very physical one.
“The equipment I have to wear in the goal certainly does look like a suit of armour and it can be intimidating to see forwards bearing down on you.
“The puck can weigh up to 170g and can be coming at you between 80 and 100 miles per hour, so it’s not pleasant to have one hitting you.
“The helmet has a backplate but even so, no one wants to have the back of their head hitting off the ice.
“There’s definitely been some bruising, but touch wood, no serious injuries, and I do train five times a week to keep my fitness up.”
Conor said that his dad, a big GAA fan, is delighted to see him succeed in the sport.
“It’s the ultimate privilege to represent your country so I think he is glad to see it,” he said.
“All those years of taking me to watch or participate in various sports has paid off!
“It really is an honour to get the chance to play at such a high level.
“My work have been brilliant about time off and my colleagues have been really supportive.
“It’s definitely a niche sport and there is a lot of personal expense - things like flights, accommodation, equipment and insurance - so I am grateful to anyone who has supported me or feels that they could in future.”
Thanks to his interview with the Antrim Guardian last year, Conor secured sponsorship from Randalstown firm Fire Stop and Seal.
So in early March 2020, the Irish Men’s Sr team and U18 team travelled to Chicago, to take part in a series of goodwill games.
The men’s team played five games versus local teams with the top game against the Chicago Fire Department team.
The U18’s played three games versus Brother Rice High School, St. Rita’s High School, and the Vikings.
The U18’s were also payed a visit by US Olympian Kendall Coyne Schofield.
Conor explained: “We were two or three days into the trip whenever COVID really started to take off.
“We flew out in the early hours and at 1am, Trump announced that external travel was banned.
“Thirty minutes later he announced there would be a temporary exemption for people from the UK and Ireland.
“There was a bit of a panic initially but we stayed in touch with the Irish consulate constantly.
“Our competitions went ahead, over six days we had five games.
“A significant in-person attendance was expected, especially at the University games, but that was canned so there was hardly any audience, which was a bit weird, as the crowd interaction is a big part of the sport.
“One game on the last day was cancelled, as the Chicago governors decided to close everything down, but we still got to play a good amount of hockey.
“It was a big thing for us to be there, we got decent press coverage.
“We were treated like celebrities and we were due to take part in the St Patrick’s Day parade, but obviously that didn’t happen.
“A big thing was spreading awareness and getting support for the reopening of the ice rink in Dundalk, as there was a lot of American involvement in getting that built in the first place.
“Some were surprised to hear that ice hockey was a sport in Ireland, and we were happy to educate them that it derived from hurling!
“I loved the time that we spent with the Chicago Suburban Fire Department team and we even had a ‘tailgate party’!”
Conor said that the accessibility to the sport in the USA was like ‘a breath of fresh air’.
“The facilities were amazing, even a relatively small college place had four ice rinks in one building.
“It was a real eye-opener, even being able to walk into an ice-hockey shop and try on equipment and talk to like-minded people.”
Towards the end of the trip, the concern over COVID 19 began to grow.
“A lot of the team was holding out. some wanted to make the most of the trip, adjusting flights was looking very expensive, but it did look at one stage as if we were going to be trapped and there was a lot of worry about families and jobs in the backs of our minds.
“However the staff at the consulate were brilliant and the call was made and we managed to get away a day before schedule, with thanks to a lot of discussion with Aer Lingus.
“Even then, we weren’t to know how big the whole situation was going to become.
“But it was a brilliant trip, we made some amazing memories, made some great contacts, played well and I feel lucky that we were able to do it before the whole world changed.”
And since then, there has been precious little happening on the ice.
“Since last March, the pause button has pretty much been pressed at club level.
“I did get a bit of a stretch in November and December for training, but I knew it wasn’t going to last long.
“At National level, discussions are ongoing about a possible international development tournament towards the end of the year, but nothing can be set in stone.
“The team coaches are trying to encourage everyone into off-ice training and things to aim towards.
“Thankfully I have a good set-up at home with weights and we’ve been challenged to see what we can do at home.
“Goalkeeping is all about stamina and flexibility so I can cover a lot of that by cycling, running, stretching and working out.
“But when it comes down to it nothing beats being out there on the ice.”