Video report by UTV Sports reporter Simon McIntyre:
The Belfast Giants have confirmed that a planned return to hockey in December will not be possible and the new season has been suspended league-wide.
The Elite League took the decision took the decision to further suspend action due the coronavirus pandemic with the agreement of all 10 teams.
The possibility of some form of ice hockey in the UK in early 2021 is being examined, but that may not include all teams and is dependent on crowds being allowed back inside rinks.
Government compliance along with the safety of our players, officials, staff and fans is paramount to this decision.
League chairman Tony Smith said: “We’ve been very open that we need to have fans back in our arenas for us to begin playing again.
“We operate around 75% to 100% capacity at our venues and this is the level of crowds we would need in order to go ahead at any point, which isn’t a realistic option right now. ”
It marks a huge blow for the Giants, who won the league in 2019, but had their season as defending champions cut short by Covid-19.
Video: Belfast Giants Head Coach Adam Keefe on the league's suspension
In a statement, the Giants’ Odyssey Trust owners said: “Over the last six months, the Belfast Giants have been working hard, alongside the other nine teams in the league to facilitate a return to play for the 2020-21 season.
“However, the club has been unable to find a model that is economically viable, meets all government guidelines, and is safe for fans and players.
“Sadly, a full EIHL season starting in 2020 with 10 teams is now no longer a viable option.”
Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the sport, leisure and entertainment sectors. This will be the first time in the Belfast Giants’ 20-year history that the club will miss a season.
The Trust has said it is committed to the future of hockey in Belfast, with the Giants and the Friendship Four NCAA tournament.
It is turning its focus to planning for the 2021/22 season and is calling on the government for vital support in planning its roadmap to recovery.
Robert Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Odyssey Trust said: “Thanks to the Belfast Giants, ice hockey is now a mainstream sport of choice for many people in Northern Ireland.
“In the land of the Giants everyone is equal, regardless of class, creed or gender and that’s what make us special to so many of our fans, sponsors and supporters.
“Unfortunately, Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate either and we have been hit extremely hard by this virus. As a tier-five business, we will be amongst the last to re-open.”
Covid-19 still poses a very serious threat to our business. We are doing everything we can to mitigate this threat, but we also need government to step up and provide vital support to protect the future of our industry, which contributes so much, not just in significant economic impact but also as part of the cultural and social fabric of our city.
Head of Hockey Steve Thornton said: “We hoped that this day would not come and it’s with a heavy heart that we confirm that the league has been suspended.
“It’s very disappointing but given the circumstances, there was no other option.
“We, like many clubs, have reached the point of no return for a 2020 start to the season - we need to start committing to significant expenses to build a team and, with no government guidance on the timeline for the reintroduction of indoor sports events and mass gatherings, we simply can’t take that risk.”
We understand how difficult this news is going to be for our incredible fans, some of whom haven’t missed a game in 20 years. We want to assure you that we will do everything possible to bring ice hockey back to this amazing city at the earliest possible opportunity and that we will work hard to keep the Belfast Giants family connected.
The Belfast Giants are making refunds available for season ticket holders from Wednesday 16 September – or are putting in place a range of measures for those who choose to transfer to the 2021/22 season.
They include a price freeze, food and drinks credit for the SSE Arena, a bespoke jersey, exclusive fan events with Head Coach Adam Keefe and other guests – online until hosting in person is safely possible, and the inscribing of season ticket holder names in the ice when hockey returns.
“The names will be on the ice, just inside the blue line on the end of the ice the Giants defends twice,” the club confirmed.
“So, away teams will not only have to defeat Belfast, the team - they will also have to defeat Belfast, the people.”