In early 2007, HEROS founder Norm Flynn watched a documentary film, When Hockey Came to Belfast, and that sparked an idea. The documentary told the story of two young boys living in Belfast and how they formed a friendship over their passion for hockey, despite one being Catholic/Nationalist and the other Protestant/Unionist. Norm watched the documentary in awe and wondered whether HEROS could have a similar impact on youth from either side of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
HEROS had experience helping bridge divides within communities, in particular in the HEROS Toronto chapter, an area divided by gang activity related to cultural identity. Inspired by the impact they were having, Norm took action and spent the next year speaking with government leaders, community service providers and others from both Ireland and Northern Ireland about his idea.
In the summer of 2008, after a year of coordination, the 1st HEROS International program took place in Belfast at the only public rink in Northern Ireland. Donated equipment was shipped from Canada to Belfast and select HEROS volunteers took vacation from work to help with the camp. Half the players were from Dublin and area and the other half were from communities in and around Belfast. None had experience with hockey, but all were excited for the week-long hockey camp.
Since that first season, the program has grown from a one-week residential hockey camp to a 6-month youth development program. In January of each year, youth are selected and begin work in their home communities; taking part in activities focused on communication, leadership and understanding. The Belfast program is locally funded, both by community partners and by the players themselves, hosting bake sales and other community activities that raise funds. As summer approaches, the young people are brought together for a 2-day residential program that focuses on connection, identification of common interests, and teamwork. All of these activities are in preparation for the week-long hockey camp.
The hockey camp that comes later in the summer is a chance to take these new off-ice skills and attributes and apply them on the ice. It’s an intensive weeklong residential camp, with nine on-ice sessions over five days with several off-ice personal growth activities. It’s rare for any of the players to have skating experience and even rarer to have an understanding of ice hockey. Success comes from working together and drawing upon what they have in common as opposed to their differences. They share a brand-new experience around a sport without cultural and historical ties, that in other sports can drive them apart.
There are some unique aspects about the players that sets them apart from their North American counterparts. Our International HEROS grew up playing popular European sports (soccer, hurling, rugby, netball) that rely on foot work and agility. This athletic background results in amazing footwork with the puck that far surpasses what may be seen in North American players of the same age. What is most exciting about the program is the number of registered female players. This summer, 90% of the players were girls, something unheard of in North America where the participation rate in hockey hovers near 10% female. HEROS International has not had a summer where the female participant rate has fallen below 40%!
In 12 seasons, HEROS Belfast has grown to become one of the largest sport-based cross-cultural initiatives for young people in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It brings together youth from backgrounds that have clashed historically and creates a space for mutual respect and understanding. On the Friday of camp, parents and extended family are brought together to watch the “Final Match.” Many of the parents have had the experience of living through the troubles that gripped the area for a long time, and drove people apart, but come together to watch their children play as teammates, not opponents.