Heritage attracts Clarke to play in the Emerald Isle

Aaron Clarke spent a season playing in Northern Ireland with the Belfast Giants. (Candice Monhollan)

Aaron Clarke spent a season playing in Northern Ireland with the Belfast Giants. (Candice Monhollan)

Getting to play hockey is one thing.

Getting to play hockey in a city your ancestors once lived in is another.

Current Kalamazoo Wings forward Aaron Clarke was able to do just that last season when he spent the year with the Belfast Giants of the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL).

“A bit of my heritage is from Belfast, so that kind of helped me out [in the decision],” Clarke said. “I always wanted to go to Ireland and it was kind of a free vacation. Actually, I was getting paid to go there.”

He made the move to Europe in the summer of 2011 after spending the previous four years in the AHL and ECHL.

“The coach had been contacting me there for quite a bit in the summer,” Clarke said. “I knew some players who had played there before. Things in the ECHL didn’t work out the way I wanted and next thing I knew, I was over there playing.”

Though the team is based in Ireland, the 30-year-old Peterborough, Ont., native didn’t feel too far from home with some of his teammates.

“We had 10 or 11 imports per team allowed, so you had a bit of a North American feel,” Clarke said. “A lot of the players are maybe at the end of their careers over in Europe and are just trying to have a good time.”

The difference between hockey in North America and Europe, for him, came with how the game is played.

“It’s definitely a different style of game,” Clarke said. “They have larger ice surfaces and maybe less competitive, but it’s still 10 guys on the ice playing.”

The Giants are the only EIHL team located in Ireland, while the others are based in England, Scotland and Wales.

As the only team in the country, the Giants draw a sizable crowd for their home games.

“We had 6,000 or 7,000 fans [a night],” Clarke said. “They have drums and chants going, so the hockey rink is like soccer over there. It’s actually a lot of fun.”

Despite the amount of travel involved with away games, the fans are willing to make the effort to be present to support their team.

“The fans travel really well over there,” Clarke said. “At any away game, you always have 100 or 200 fans with the drums cheering. It’s a great atmosphere, actually. It’s a little bit better than here, to be honest.”

Clarke played in 34 games with the Giants, tallying 16 goals and 34 assists in 2011-12.

In his downtime or during a break in the league, he took the time to explore Ireland and the surrounding countries.

“I got to travel a bit of Scotland, Wales and England, where the leagues are and a bit of Ireland and Northern Ireland,” Clarke said. “I got my fair share of trips in.”

Clarke returned to the ECHL in 2012-13 with the Wings, where he currently leads the team in assists and points.

He enjoyed his time playing in Ireland and has thoughts about a return someday.

“I would go back,” Clarke said. “Maybe later in my career when I was done in North America. I’d probably do more traveling.”

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Categories: ECHL, EIHL, Features, Ice Hockey, Sports

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