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North the winner off the ice

By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

Despite going a goal down, the Boston Bruins recovered to claim the spoils in their historic weekend clash with the Belfast Giants in what was the greatest-ever sporting event linking the U.S. and Northern Ireland.

However, off-court, the winners were the Irish business and tourist agencies which reaped a bonanza from off-season visitors and delegations who flew in on fact-finding visits to coincide with the ice hockey showdown at Belfast's Odyssey Arena.

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Boston companies NaviNet and Art Technology Company - which announced a raft of new jobs during their visit - were among U.S. business guests feted by the North's economic agency, Invest NI.

NaviNet CEO Brad Waugh spoke emotionally about his own County Down roots as he picked up a special award at the annual Belfast Business Top 50 Awards in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, on Friday evening.

Meanwhile, top Boston politicians Rep. Charles Murphy, chair of the Ways and Means Committee in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, chair of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Marty Walsh and Alderman Sean O'Donovan of Somerville, took part in a whirlwind series of engagements in the run-up to the game.

The delegation visited with community leaders in nationalist West and unionist East Belfast and held discussions with many of their political counterparts including Justice Minister David Ford of the Alliance Party and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams.

Relatives of the Ballymurphy Massacre victims, 11 civilians shot dead by the British Army in West Belfast in 1971, also briefed the Irish American politicians on their campaign for an apology from the British government.

Before the Saturday game, the group traveled to Letterkenny in County Donegal to meet councilors and local TDs. Later, they were given a guided tour of Derry's Ebrington Barracks site, a former British army base being transformed into a cultural and arts center.

Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, an Irish Echo 40 under 40 honoree in 2008 and who was making his first visit to the North, has vowed to return.

"The opportunity to visit Belfast confirmed for me personally what I had been hearing and reading about for some time. The vibrancy of the city is not just in the city centrer, it is in neighborhoods like West and East Belfast.

"Derry and Letterkenny are similarly vibrant and buzzing with potential. In all these places, individuals, community organizations, businesses and elected officials are working collaboratively to build an economy so the region can compete in the 21st century," said O'Flaherty.

"We were also afforded the greatest courtesies and had the pleasure of watching the Belfast Giants play our Boston Bruins. The camaraderie was apparent throughout the Odyssey Arena and the game was a great success for all its organizers.

Our delegation will continue to work on the many ideas exchanged and I am looking forward to continuing this relationship well into the future. I'll be back," he said.