America's top college teams relishing Belfast challenge
University of Maine defenceman Rob Michel will feel at home when he takes to the ice in the Friendship Four at the SSE Arena this evening, despite being almost 5,000 miles away from his campus.
Not only does the American student have relatives in Belfast, a number of other family members have made the trip across the Atlantic to cheer him and his team mates on in their quest to lift the Belpot Trophy.
Now in its third season, the Friendship Four is a competition that all the top colleges in North America covet a place in, and for Michel it is extra special.
"It was crazy when we heard we got the bid," he said.
"I'm fired up for it. It's going to be awesome.
"I actually have some family that lives over there so probably two-thirds of my family will be going over with me.
"It's going to be an amazing trip and I've only heard good things about it."
The Maine Black Bears have their work cut out if they are going to take the Belpot home to New England.
Their semi-final opponents, the Providence College Friars, are among the top half a dozen teams in the US College set-up and they will enter the Friendship Four having not tasted defeat in their last three games.
The Friars, who hail from Rhode Island, boast four successive appearances in the NCAA National Championships and with a ranking that currently sits at No.10 they are well on their way to making it a handful.
Belfast Giants defenceman Jeff Mason is a Providence College graduate, and their recent success has been put down to coach Nate Leaman, who is relishing the challenge in Belfast.
"We are excited to be part of the event but also excited to learn more about Northern Ireland and Belfast," he said.
Swede Viktor Liljegren, who will captain the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineers in the opener against Clarkson, will also be backed by members of his family who have made their way from Scandinavia.
"I have a lot of family coming over to see me play and it's going to be a great experience," he said.
Clarkson made a strong start to the season back home with eight successive wins.
FRIENDSHIP FOUR FIXTURES: Today: Clarkson University v RPI (3pm), Providence College v University of Maine (7pm). Tomorrow: 3rd/4th place play-off (3pm), Championship Game (7pm).