By Roger Brown
Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
When Mike Hoffman is asked what it’s like to be a professional hockey player in Northern Ireland, his response makes it sound like the way-back machine has returned him to the days when he was a defenseman for the Universityof Connecticut.
“On most days we practice in the morning and then go to school,” Hoffman explained. “From my apartment you can walk to the school and rink in 10, 15 minutes.
“The nightlife in the city (Belfast) is really good. They definitely drink a lot of beer over here. The pubs are filled in the afternoon. You see 50-, 60-year-old guys in suits who are absolutely crushed. I feel like I’m right back in college.”
Hoffman, who grew up in Scituate, Mass., is in his first season with the Belfast Giants, one of 10 teams in the Elite Ice Hockey League. The league’s nine other teams are located in England, Scotlandand Wales.
Hoffman, 30, was lured to Belfast, in part, because he wanted to earn a master’s degree in sports management. Five Belfastplayers are working toward advanced degrees at the Universityof Ulsterat no charge, as part of a sponsorship agreement between the team and the Belfastschool.
Forward Josh Prudden, who was raised in Andover, Mass., and skated for the Universityof New Hampshire, is also on the Belfastroster. He’s trying to earn an MBA and attends classes twice a week.
“Sometimes it does feel like I’m right back where I was 10 years ago (at UNH),” Prudden said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had to write a paper like the one I’m working on right now.”
Hoffman and Prudden are among the 20 players from the Elite League who were selected to play for the Belfast Giants Selects, an All-Star team that played an exhibition game against the Boston Bruins on Oct. 2. It was the first game played between Elite League players and an NHL team. Belfastgeneral manager Todd Kelman approached the NHL with the idea last summer.
Hoffman, who is used primarily as a defenseman, equated the level of play in the Elite League to what you would see in an ECHL game.
“The top five teams are like your high-end ECHL teams,” he said. “The bottom five are like the lower end of the ECHL. There are players here who could easily be playing in the AHL or other top leagues in Europe.”
The Selects held a 1-0 lead in the second period of their game against Boston, but the Bruins posted a 5-1 victory in front of nearly 6,000 fans at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena (capacity 8,300), one of three ice hockey rinks in Ireland.
“It reminds me of Lowell’s rink (Tsongas Arena), only bigger,” Hoffman explained. “The game was a lot of fun. My reputation isn’t as a goal scorer, so I was kind of a long shot to make the team. I was playing forward and leading our team in scoring at the time, so I got the last spot.
“Bostonis far and away the No. 1 city that relates to Ireland. They love (Zdeno) Chara over here. I think the Bruins game brought the reputation of the league up a lot.”
Elite League teams play most of their games during the weekend. In addition to attending school at no cost, Hoffman and Prudden each receive a salary, a rent-free apartment and the use of a car.
Hoffman, who spent eight seasons in the American Hockey League, may never have joined the Giants had he not made the Manchester Monarchs roster during the 2006-07season. The Monarchs sent Doug Christiansen to Readingof the ECHL to make room for Hoffman that season. Christiansen is now Belfast’s head coach, and the person who recruited Hoffman.
Hoffman had been battling injuries and was coming off shoulder surgery when he heard from Christiansen. He had begun to think about life after hockey, so the possibility of earning a master’s degree while continuing his hockey career was an attractive offer.
“Kind of a funny story because I took his roster spot, but it’s worked out for both of us,” Hoffman said. “He ended up overseas, which is where he got started in his coaching career.”
Hoffman said he has few complaints about life in Belfast. He said the people are friendly and treat Americans well. The biggest adjustment, he said, was getting used to the steering wheel being on the right side of the car and driving on the left side of the road.
“Yeah, you really have to pay attention,” Hoffman said. “The accents can be a little hard to understand, but they speak English. The food is pretty good, but everything comes with french fries, only they call them chips over here. If you ordered sushi over here they’d serve it with french fries on the side.
“There’s not a lot of organic stuff. If you’re a health-conscious eater, it’s probably not your best bet to eat over here.
“Overall it’s been a lot of fun. Just like when I was playing in school.”
Roger Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.