Ice hockey could be set to finally make a return to action in Belfast in the autumn, pending guidance from the Northern Ireland Executive on the easing of coronavirus restrictions around indoor sport.
The Belfast Giants have welcomed the news that the Elite League in which they play is now looking to get the new season up and running this September.
Hockey ground to a halt late in the 2019/2020 season when the pandemic started to really make its presence felt.
The Giants, the league’s defending champions, then had to count themselves out of any action during Northern Ireland’s lockdowns – the first time the club has missed a season in its history.
A limited Elite League Series did go ahead in England in April with just four teams involved – Coventry Blaze, Manchester Storm, Nottingham Panthers, and Sheffield Steelers.
The tournament, held at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham, was largely viewed as a vital opportunity for Team GB players to pick up ice time and a draft was held to determine teams.
A number of familiar faces from the Belfast Giants ended up pulling on jerseys of the teams involved – Stephen Murphy, Ben Lake and Ciaran Long with Manchester, Mark Garside and Lewis Hook with Nottingham, and Paul Swindlehurst with Coventry.
Nottingham may have taken the tournament bragging rights in the end, but more important was the fact that the EIHL was able to confirm no positive Covid-19 cases were recorded.
Players, coaches and support staff, as well as event organisational staff and others in close proximity to the players, were tested daily during the series with lateral flow tests each morning.
"We owe a great deal of thanks to IHUK’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Matt Robins for all of his support in putting the event together from the medical side,” Head of Hockey Operations Mike Hicks said.
“He was crucial in designing our testing strategy which has ultimately proved to be entirely successful.”
Elite League games for the new season are now scheduled to start on the weekend of 25-26 September 2021 and run through to the Playoff Finals weekend on 23-24 April 2022.
According to the league, it will hold its annual fixtures meeting as usual at the end of June and the full schedule will then be released in July.
Details regarding the format of the league, the playoffs, and the Challenge Cup are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
Belfast Giants’ Head of Hockey Steve Thornton welcomed the announcement as a welcome development and a positive step forward.
“This has been a long time coming for both the club and the fans and we’re excited to progress with our planning for the forthcoming season,” he said.
“Over the coming months, we will continue to work hard behind the scenes to get ready for 2021/22.”
Thornton added: “Naturally, there are still events and decisions that remain outside of our control.
“As the rollout of the vaccination programme continues, we are hopeful that we will see easing of restrictions needed locally to get us back on the ice in Belfast for the next season.”
The Giants’ SSE Arena home has been being used as the mass vaccination centre for Northern Ireland since the end of March.
It is anticipated that will continue until August.
“We would like to thank our fans and partners for their continued patience and support,” Thornton said.
“We can’t wait to welcome everyone back to the SSE Arena Belfast and we will update on plans for our return as soon as we can.”