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America's top colleges clash for the Friendship Four Belpot Trophy in Belfast

The Northern Ireland Connections Friendship Four returns this weekend as four of America's top colleges clash for the Belpot Trophy.

This year Clarkson and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) from ECAC, and the University of Maine and Providence College from Hockey East will battle it out at the SSE Arena to decide who will be champions.

As the #6 ranked side, Clarkson will be the favourites, with #10 Providence close behind, but on the day, anyone can come out on top.

All four games count towards the league standings in America so there’s more on the line than just the trophy for the winners, there’s also crucial points on offer for the four colleges.

Unlike the Belfast Giants in the Elite League, college hockey tends to be faster paced.

The teams have been using the week to see around Northern Ireland and visit schoolchildren, but come game time there’ll be no friends on the ice, and there’s guaranteed to be plenty of big hits as well.

 

The teams

CLARKSON

Head coach: Casey Jones

Captain: Nicolas Pierog

Assistant captains: Devin Brosseau, Brett Gervais

Record: 10-3-1

Colours: Green and gold

Nickname: Golden Knights

Located in Potsdam, just south of the Canadian border, Clarkson are the highest ranked side in this year’s Friendship Four and will be favourites to take home the Belpot Trophy.

A private research university founded in 1896, Clarkson is regularly voted in the top tier of American colleges and their hockey team is considered to be one of the most consistent as a competitive side in the NCAA.

That’s evident this season as they started the year well, but their best run has been in recent weeks, the college winning their last six games in a row, including a 4-0 shutout of Cornell in their last outing.

That run has seen Clarkson go top of the ECAC standings, a position they’ll want to hold onto with a win over RPI on Friday and then victory in the final against either Maine or Providence on Saturday.

They will be confident of a win in their opening match, not just because of the run they’re on but also the fact they’ve already beaten RPI this season, a 6-0 shutout victory last month.

Clarkson’s star man is forward Sheldon Rempal, who leads the team in goals (11) and points (18) this season, while defensemen Terrance Amorosa and Kelly Summers provide threats from the blue line.

Head coach Casey Jones is a veteran of the NCAA having worked with Cornell, Ohio State and Clarkson over the course of a 26-year coaching career and will know what it takes to win games like this.

It’ll take a lot to stop the Golden Knights, but they’ll be wary of the fact that they’re the team to beat - and they won’t take anything for granted.

What they said:

Casey Jones, head coach:

“It’s been a fantastic experience, we spent the first 48 hours taking in what Belfast has to offer, the people have been treating us great and now we’re preparing for two big hockey games this weekend. We want to focus on our own game, in the previous game against RPI (Clarkson won 6-0) we got a bit of puck luck early so I’m expecting a really tough game. We’re going to get a good game to kick us off, I’m looking forward to it.”

Brett Gervais, assistant captain:

“Being on the road together brings us closer as a family which is awesome and it’s been really fun so far. We’ve been successful up to this point so we need to keep focusing on what’s got us here. We need to stick to our game and play our hardest out there and we’ll see what happens.”

 

 

RENSSELAER POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE (RPI)

Head coach: David Smith

Captains: Jared Wilson, Michael Prapavessis, Viktor Liljegren

Record: 2-7-3

Colours: Cherry and white

Nickname: Engineers

RPI, which is just north of New York City in the city of Troy, are coming into the Friendship Four hoping for a change of fortunes after a poor run of results.

The Engineers haven’t won in three games and are coming up against a Clarkson team that blew them out 6-0 earlier in the season.

The university is split into three campuses, the main one of which is in Troy, and was founded in 1824. Known for its engineering, technology and computing programmes, RPI is considered within the top 50 universities in America.

One of the most popular hockey teams in the NCAA, the Engineers haven’t been the most successful team in terms of championships, but their 1984 team do hold the record for the longest unbeaten streak at 30 games.

This season has been a difficult one for RPI, winning just two of their opening 12 games, and they badly need a few wins to turn things around and become competitive again, starting against bitter rivals Clarkson.

Defenseman William Reilly, drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in this year’s NHL Draft, is a key figure in their roster, while captain Viktor Liljegren and leading points scorer (10) Jacob Hayhurst lead the forward lines.

Ultimately this could be a difficult weekend for the Engineers, who come to Belfast with the worst record of the four teams, but if they can spark some much-needed offense then they can cause a shock.

What they said:

David Smith, head coach:

“This has been terrific, it’s a wonderful wonderful place. The biggest change we’ve tried to make is adjusting to the time difference and the jet lag - we also need to separate the experience off the ice and the game on the ice but our guys are very good at that. Our guys have gotten better every day, and I like that. Clarkson are a very good team, we played them a while back and we didn’t play well and they did, but we’ve gotten better since then.”

Jared Wilson, captain:

“It’s been an awesome experience since the moment we stepped off the bus, getting to the Giant’s Causeway and doing a black cab tour around Belfast, which is a beautiful city. We’re over the jet lag, we’ve got a good night’s sleep and we’re now good to go. We’ve seen Clarkson before, they’re a very skilled team, but we know what we need to do to execute so we’re prepared - they embarrassed us earlier in the season and it’s a pretty historic rivalry so we’re gunning for them.”

 

 

UNIVERSITY OF MAINE

Head coach: Dennis Gendron

Captains: Chase Pearson, Mark Hamilton

Assistants: Rob Michel, Cédric Lacroix

Record: 4-6-0

Colours: Dark blue and light blue

Nickname: Black Bears

The first of the two Hockey East sides in this year’s Friendship Four, the University of Maine will be hoping to turn around a disappointing result last time out in search of the Belpot Trophy.

The furthest north of the four colleges, a four hour drive from Boston, the university was founded in 1865 and boasts 11,000 students - the most in the state.

Among their alumni is Belfast Giants forward Colin Shields, who played for the Black Bears between 2000 and 2004 at the start of his career in the United States.

He’ll be cheering on Maine as they seek to banish the bad memories of their 7-0 shutout loss to Boston University last weekend and get back to winning ways, with two wins this weekend taking them back up to the .500 mark.

However, this week will be a challenging one for them as they haven’t faced any of the other colleges before this season and are due to face a top-10 side in the shape of Providence in Friday’s semi-final.

However, they have a reliable backstop in netminder Jeremy Swayman, drafted in round four of this year’s NHL Draft by the Boston Bruins, while Latvian skater Eduards Tralmaks and captain Chase Pearson are dangerous finishers.

They’ll need to pull out a big performance in the first game to make it to Saturday’s final, but Maine are confident they can turn their fortunes around and bring some silverware back to the States.

What they said

Dennis Gendron, head coach:

“The attitude of the people has been phenomenal, all the folks in Northern Ireland have been terrific. The guys are still feeling (the jet lag) a little bit but come tomorrow I know we’ll be fine and ready to go. This is a league game for us, it counts in the standings, so we’re here to play hard. Providence are tough opponents, we’ve seen a lot of their games on video so we know what to do to have success. It would mean a lot to us and our entire programme (to win the trophy), but our focus is on Friday night and we’ll worry about other things when they come.”

 

 

PROVIDENCE

Head coach: Nate Leaman

Captain: Brian Pinho

Assistant captain: Jacob Bryson

Record: 7-4-1

Colours: Black, white and silver

Nickname: Friars

If Clarkson are the favourites for this year’s Friendship Four then Providence will be the team that run them closest for the Belpot Trophy based on the college rankings.

While not boasting the same excellent record as their cross-league rivals, Providence have started the season well and will be confident they’ll be more than a match for the other three teams in Belfast.

An historic university, located in Rhode Island just south of Boston, it specialises solely in programmes relating to the liberal arts and is the only college administered by the Dominican Friars, thus their nickname.

They are the other university this weekend to boast a Belfast Giant among their former alumni in defenseman Jeff Mason, who wore the “C” for his final of four years with the Friars in 2005.

While he and Shields will be cheering opposing Hockey East teams on Friday, it will be Mason’s former charges who will start the game as favourites thanks to their top-10 ranking and recent record having not lost in three games.

Erik Foley, a round three draft pick by the Winnipeg Jets in 2016, is their star man as he leads the team in goals (6) and points (12) this season, while they also have the only British player among the four teams in Scott Conway, the cousin of Nottingham Panthers forward Brett Perlini.

Should things go to plan then Providence should be in Saturday’s final and have the chance to go for glory. But they’ll have to be wary of a Maine team who aren’t in any mood to roll over again.

What they said

Nate Leaman, head coach:

“We feel very fortunate to be here, overall this’ll be a lifelong and once in a lifetime experience, we’re very happy to be a part of it. It’s going to be a good game, we haven’t played Maine yet this year and normally our games are very close so we know it’ll be a good game. We want to take the momentum we’ve built the last couple of games and see if we can get better.”

Brian Pinho, captain:

“For most of us this is our first time here and we love it. We’re all well adjusted by now and feeling good on the ice, we’re looking forward to the game now - we came here on a business trip and to win a tournament.”

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