Mendota Heights' George Awada: Irish hockey luminary
George Awada has seen more ice than the Liberace Museum, Barbara Streisand's armoire, and Lil Wayne's neck combined. Awada, the former St. Paul Vulcan and St. Cloud State standout, has been getting paid to play hockey since his 1998 pro debut with the Albany River Rats of the AHL. And while his career path may not have been paved to the NHL, Awada is now the captain and all-time leading point/goal scorer for Northern Ireland's Belfast Giants of the U.K's Elite Ice Hockey League, which he to the league's 2005-'06 title.
Long known for his mettle, perseverance and candor, Awada was kind enough to exercise the latter herein, taking some time from his Giants' schedule to discuss his life in hockey, and the lifestyle of an American skater in the U.K.
1. What's the biggest difference between the style of play in the U.K. and the U.S.?
I would say the style's are very similar in the fact that the league is predominately made up of North Americans. Each team is allowed ten imports. A lot of the guys that come over have played some sort of pro hockey in the states and are now looking for a way into European hockey. Hockey in Britain has been around for some time now and in the last 10-15 years there have been some really good players that have played in this league. There isn't much of a language barrier, so the transition is easy. The one main difference is the ice is Olympic size, but most colleges have converted to bigger ice surface so there are more players used to it. I was fortunate to have played for the St. Paul Vulcan's at the new Mariucci and then up in St. Cloud where we had the big sheet as well. The fans are the same all over the world, they love the fights -- that is one advantage of having North Americans in the league. The depth of the teams depends on the local boys and there are some very skilled British players throughout the league which makes the game just as good as back home.
2. How well does hockey in Ireland compete with soccer and rugby?
Obviously ice hockey isn't the national pasttime here or in the UK. Hockey has been around the UK since the World Wars and before, so there is some history of the sport but it is no where near soccer or rugby. The fan base is good for most teams. We have a couple thousand season ticket holders and average about 4,000 a game, which is better than some of the local football teams here. But hockey is, and will always be, just a novelty sport over here. The kids in schools don't have floor hockey as a gym lesson and the weather isn't cold enough for the lakes and ponds to freeze over. We only have three ice surfaces in all of Ireland, one of which was just built last year and another that is only used for our games. The main reason hockey is here in Belfast is because it is a non-sectarian sport and the majority of sporting fans here welcomed that. Local soccer games can get pretty violent in the stands and isn't the best atmosphere for families. I have never heard any bad reports from rugby matches other than the weather. There are Irish sports which are overshadowed for the wrong reasons. Gaelic football and Hurling have a huge fan base and somehow still hold an honorable element to it where the athletes play for their club and county for no money. There is more pride in being on the team than there is getting paid the most money. It blows my mind that these guys dedicate there lives to play in front of 80,000 people and they don't see a dime. They are under strict drinking rules and work normal jobs as well as train year-round. I would love to see some of the sport stars back home try that for a season.
3. What's the Irish fan base like? Are they pretty knowledgeable hockey fans? Passionate? What do you think they enjoy most about the game?
The fan base all over Europe has a different feel than the fans back home. There seems to be more passion and commitment to the game and the athletes. They sing all game long, beat drums, waive flags and let you know when you're rubbish. We just had a double header inEdinburgh and we had 400 fans over supporting us, which took over the rink not the mention the city. Not taking anything away for the crazies back home tailgating and battling sub-zero temperatures but there is a difference. There is obviously a contrast in the drinking cultures, as well. We took the ferry over to Scotland and there were hundreds of football fans going over to support the Glasgow Rangers, all of them were on the pints at six in the morning and wouldn't stop drinking until the next day. And as I said before, the one thing fans have in common all over the world is the love for a good fight. Obviously they love seeing goals and nice plays, but the physical aspect of hockey is what makes it such a great sport.
4. What's your favorite rink to play on in the Elite League? What's your favorite city? Why?
My favorite rink would be ours, the Odyssey. It holds up to 7,000 people. It's relatively new and is the most professional-feeling of all the rinks in the league. It also holds all the big concerts that come to town. I have always loved Belfast ever since I came over to the UK and I found my beautiful wife here -- it's my new home. It has a St. Paul feel to it, meaning it's just the right size -- plenty of good restaurants and pubs and easy to get around town. And there is a river that runs through it as well.
My second favorite city after Belfast would be Edinburgh. It is a true European city and has great history and the landscape is beautiful. Another favorite of mine is Manchester. I played there my first year over here. I would say it's like Minneapolis. It has a great music culture and great night life.
5. Does the Elite League serve as a feeder to the NHL in any way? In addition: are you still pursuing an NHL career yourself?
No, there are a lot of players that come through here that have either had a stint with an NHL team or just got lost in the system. During the lockout year, we had a few players come to our league, no real big names. They're are back in the NHL now, and had a good impact on our league. We were fortunate to have one the greatest players of all time play here with us for a season, Theo Fleury. Theo was buddies with one of our new owners and he asked if Theo would like to come over and play and maybe get back to NHL if it all went well. So he came over and had a great season and we won the League title. He never made it back to NHL but he had a great time here and it was an unbelievable experience to play with such a great player at this stage of our careers and of all places, in Northern Ireland. My aspirations -- like most of the guys that come over -- are done chasing the dream. There are a few exceptions that have made it back over to the NHL but there are too many good players in the states these days. Your window is very small and even then there are a ton of players that are just as good as you are.
6. You're the all-time leading point/goal scorer for the Giants. What does that mean to you? I imagine there are quite a few little dudes donning "Awada" sweaters.
Belfast has had some great players come through here and I wouldn't rank myself as one of them. I have been fortunate enough to last five seasons here and just put up consistent numbers. This league seems to be getting better players every year and there are a few guys here that could top the stats if they are here long enough. But for now I will enjoy seeing that I was able to accomplish some things coming to end of my hockey career, and hopefully I can keep adding to my totals.
There are a few little junior Giants around with my jersey and I guess I have become a familiar name here. It doesn't matter what league you're in, it's great to see that there are future hockey players looking up to you.
7. The team website refers to you as "Super" George Awada. Self-appointed moniker?
Definitely not self-appointed. My first year over in the UK was in Manchester and that's where it came from. When the team in Manchester suspended operations I came to Belfast. The fans from Manchester supported me even after I left and passed on a few songs that they made up for me. So the Belfast fans adopted them and still sing them during the games, which is funny to hear, but also kind of neat. The boys still give me a little flak for it, but I think they're just jealous.