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Peace finds a rink-side seat in sectarian Belfast

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In Northern Ireland, sports are nearly as divisive as religion and politics. But hockey, a particularly pugnacious pursuit, is now being played for peaceful purposes - to help heal a society divided by more than 30 years of sectarian violence.

Because hockey is a nonindigenous and unfamiliar sport, hopes are that it will bring fans together on new common ground.

"Northern Ireland does not have any integrated sports," notes Bob Zeller, managing director of the Belfast Giants hockey team, now in the middle of their first season. "Stands are either filled with one religion or the other, but not both. Hockey could, in its small way, bring people together."

Among majority Protestants, soccer and rugby hold sway. Among Catholics, Celtic games like hurling draw the fans. If ice hockey is to thrive, it will have to attract spectators from both communities.

The Belfast Giants are the latest franchise in the nine-team Ice Hockey Superleague, which includes squads from England, Scotland, and Wales.

From the start, Mr. Zeller has tried to shape a team free from controversy.

The team mascot, Finn McCool, is one of the few heroes of lore shared by Protestants and Catholics - he vanquished a Scottish giant from Northern Ireland's Antrim Coast. When the team colors were being selected, Zeller chose red, not orange; and aqua, not green.

As Zeller and his team are doing their part to break the ice in Catholic-Protestant relations, pressure has mounted on politicians for a breakthrough in the now-stalled peace process.

Two and a half years have passed since the historic Good Friday Agreement was signed, but questions linger regarding the future of the Northern Ireland police service, the British Army's security presence and the eventual fate of the IRA's arsenal of weapons. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Premier Bertie Ahern were set to meet Wednesday to try to revamp the accord.

The Belfast Giants are in some way a reminder of what is at stake.


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