Ice hockey fans in Northern Ireland have had a long 15-month wait for green shoots of post-lockdown recovery, but the first new signings by the Belfast Giants seem to have been worth the wait.
The trio are not actually new at all to the Giants faithful, having already more than made their mark on the city, not least as part of the 2018/19 season team that memorably won the Elite League title.
The practically unbeatable Tyler Beskorowany returns in nets, alongside goal-scoring machine Darcy Murphy and brick wall defenceman Kevin Raine.
The news, announced at a special exclusive online event for season ticket holders, lit up social media on Wednesday night.
“This day has been a long time coming for both the club and the fans,” Belfast Giants Head Coach Adam Keefe said.
“Darcy Murphy, Kevin Raine and Tyler Beskorowany are players of exceptional standing, each with significant on ice achievements here in Belfast and elsewhere.”
Hockey in Belfast ground to halt late in the 2019/2020 season, when the Covid-19 pandemic started to take hold.
The Giants were the reigning league champions and will now be hoping they can get back on the ice and back to winning ways.
It remains to be seen exactly what that will look like for fans - how many will be allowed inside the SSE Arena, for example, when the vaccination centre currently in operation there is packed up and the ice laid down once more.
However, fans will take comfort in knowing they have at least three known quantities already lined up to pull on the teal jerseys – and more are likely to follow.
The first three signings have already treated them to a string of highlight reel saves and goals in their previous stints with the team.
Beskorowany, known as ‘Besko’ to the Teal Army, only played one season in Belfast – but the 6ft 4ins fan favourite racked up eight shutouts during that time and was unsurprisingly named EIHL Goaltender of the Year.
He moved on to HC Banska Bystrica in Slovakia, but has since been working back home in Canada during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I went camping with my brother-in-law, and I was listening to some tunes and reminiscing about my time in Belfast. I started missing the game again,” Besko said, catching up with Joel Neill from the Giants official podcast A View From The Bridge.
“I started missing that feeling of playing, and being in those competitive situations.
“Two days after my camping trip, Keefer ended up texting me and I knew that had to be fate!”
Forward Darcy Murphy actually first played in Belfast years before he became part of the Belfast Giants side, having featured for Colgate University when they competed in the first ever Friendship Four tournament in 2015.
His later move to the city in 2017 showed the rewards that were to be reaped from hosting such an event and offering young players that kind of formative experience.
In just two seasons, Murphy racked up an incredible 83 goals and 77 assists – the first ever Giant to score 50 goals in a single season and claiming an EIHL Forward of the Year title before he moved on.
He has since had spells in Germany, Switzerland and Poland, but feels the time is right to return.
“I’m excited to see all of the familiar faces,” Murphy said.
“I’m excited to play hockey again in Belfast and I’m sure everyone else is excited after missing it for the last 15 months!”
Defenceman Kevin Raine is also looking forward to getting back down to business for what will be a fourth season in Belfast.
He most recently featured as an assistant captain during the season halted by Covid and has since been working in construction back home in Ontario.
“Getting to win the Challenge Cup back-to-back years, getting to win the league title... The list could go on and on. Belfast is a special place for me,” he said.
“Ultimately, had Belfast not had a season this year, I don't know that I would have played. I wanted to return to Belfast, to continue to play for the Belfast Giants.”
Further signings are now expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
Elite League games for the new season are 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.