US College hockey comes back to Belfast at the weekend as the Friendship Four returns to the SSE Arena.
At first glance, it seems an odd fit: college sport in the UK is far removed from its US equivalent, and the sporting heroes immortalized on Belfast’s famous murals tend to be footballers, boxers or rugby players. Ice hockey, despite the success of the Belfast Giants, is not necessarily high on the list.
Yet the event, which arose partly out of the ties between Belfast and Boston, Mass, was a big hit last year when it became the first ever time regular season NCAA hockey games took place outside of North America.
The four teams that crossed the Atlantic – Brown University Bears and Colgate University Raiders of the ECAC, and Northeastern University Huskies and UMass Lowell River Kings of Hockey East – devoted plenty of time to working with local schools. As a result, they recruited a whole new bunch of loyal fans. For Kevin Lough, of Colgate University, those excited kids were the highlight of the trip.
“It’s crazy to think how much support we had from people who didn’t know us a week ago,” Lough said. “If we can inspire those kids to try and play hockey that’s part of why we do this at all.
“It’s a bit of a younger crowd than we get back home. Maybe the knowledge of the game isn’t there yet, but everyone was having a lot of fun and it was rewarding to see that.”
Colgate, admittedly, had little else to celebrate after heavy defeats in both games on the trip. The Belpot Trophy went to UMass Lowell, who grabbed a game-tying goal in the dying seconds of the final against Brown and won it all in a shoot-out after a 5-5 tie. Northeastern University took third place with its win over Colgate in the consolation game.
Lowell coach Norm Bazin reckoned the event could only boost the profile of British hockey in general – and the Belfast Giants in particular – potentially attracting new Trans-Atlantic talent to Northern Ireland.
“I think this could be the best recruiting tool for the Belfast Giants,” he said. “A lot of kids will want to come here and play after college. Whether they’ve played in the NHL or the AHL this would be a great venue and a great city to play in.
“Our guys were more excited than usual because of the build-up here. It was the closest thing to a ‘Frozen Four’ atmosphere, and it was a great experience for them culturally and educationally.”
And across the weekend about 20,000 fans came to the four games, support that suggested Irish hockey talent could yet have a bright future of its own.
For Northeastern head coach Jim Madigan said: “Who knows, maybe in 10 or 15 years’ time we’ll see our first Northern Ireland player coming through college hockey. If you look back maybe 25 years you would never think there would be somebody coming out of California or some of the non-traditional areas where we have players today. We need the game to expand and it’s great that we can come to new parts of the world.”
Before the end of play in the 2015 edition, the organizers confirmed that the show would return in 2016 … and the NI Connections Friendship Four takes place on November 25 and 26. This year’s quartet comes from Quinnipiac University, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Vermont and St. Lawrence University. More details, and tickets, are available at http://friendshipfour.com/
Much of the material in this story originally appeared last year on iihf.com