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Q&A: Friendship Four project manager Shane Johnson

By Adam McKendry

After retiring from his playing career in 2010, Shane Johnson has found just as successful a career off the ice as a project manager for the Belfast Giants.

As one of the driving forces behind college ice hockey tournament the Friendship Four, which is taking place this week, Johnson has been a key part behind bringing top quality NCAA players to Belfast in an event that is growing year on year.

Here, he sits down with the Belfast Telegraph to discuss this week, why he has a personal link to one of the teams this year and also the future of the event...

Q: So Shane, we're now in the fourth year of the Friendship Four - did you ever think it would get to become as big as it is now where teams are lining up to take part?

SJ: Both Steve (Thornton, Head of Hockey Operations at the Belfast Giants), myself and a lot of the Belfast Giants had played college hockey before, so we knew what kind of scale it was at. In the first year we were just kind of thinking can we do this, let's get it done, and it was a relatively short period time between finding out we were doing this to trying to figure out how we were going to do this from a cost perspective and a logistics perspective. A lot of the things they do in NCAA hockey, the Giants don't do. Their protocols are a bit more tight, the expectations are a bit higher, so it's trying to bridge that gap from what we do to what they were expecting.

First year it was just get it done, and then as we were halfway through - I think it was after the very first game - we started to think, actually this might work and what would it look like if we did it next year? Because of all the partners we have involved in this tournament, we had to speak with them and see if this tournament could happen next year. Thankfully we have some great partners and we got the confidence to approach the commissioners and say let's do this again.

I remember back to the first year of doing this tournament, and I've been living here long enough to know what Belfast is like, it's a great place to live, but some of those teams needed convincing about safety, quality of ice, quality of the city and their experience. So the teams took a massive leap of faith coming over here, they didn't have to come over here and some of them were giving up their home dates to come over here, so they had to know it was the right thing to do.

After that they've gone back and they're now our ambassadors for the tournament, so now every time we have a tournament we have another group of universities who go back singing the praises of the tournament, of Belfast, of the people, and it makes our job easier as it goes on in attracting teams to come over here.

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Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 24th November 2017 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Clarkson Golden Knights Aaron Thow with RPI Engineers Brady Wiffen during Friday afternoons Friendship Four 2017 game one at the SSE Arena, Belfast.

Q: And now you're in a position where you have two teams coming back for their second appearances in 2019 - Colgate and Northeastern.

SJ: Yes! There are rules in college sports that you're only allowed to travel internationally once in your collegiate career - so once every four years. So we knew every team that came here would have to wait four years to come back, so next year is the first year that any of our teams are actually eligible to come back.

We wanted to give the opportunity for all those teams who took the leap of faith the first year to come back, while also opening it up to more teams to experience a trip over here, so we wanted a balance of teams that backed us by coming over here, while also continuing to grow and expand the tournament. There are sixty teams in college hockey and they're all potential teams to come over here.

Q: The tournament came about because of the sister city link between Belfast and Boston - are you wanting to expand it beyond the colleges around that area?

SJ: We're at a point where we're going to have to expand beyond Boston - we have already. Northeastern University and Boston University are Boston schools and there are two other Boston schools we want to get over: Harvard and Boston College - due to schedules we were hoping to have both of them over at an earlier stage, but both are still hopefuls for future years.

But with the four year restriction on travel we are going to have to go outside the Boston area. The tournament may have started on the back of the Belfast-Boston city relationship, and that was the connecting relationship that made it possible, but now we're at the point where we're thankful for it starting and for Belfast and the strength of the tournament we have to be looking at expanding the tournament to more conferences in years to come, that's inevitable that will happen with the number of teams that are eligible to come across.

We have aspirations for this tournament to keep going for at least the next twenty years, so we have to look at ways to make that happen. More people to travel to Northern Ireland, more people to experience Northern Ireland and Belfast with their family.

Q: So what are your plans to keep it going for the next twenty years?

SJ: We want to dictate who can come. Some of the decision making will be done for us, some teams won't be able to come over, some teams won't want to come back, and that'll force us naturally to start expanding. But we're in a fortunate position where we have forty universities plus who haven't been here and can still come, so there are plenty teams who can come over in the future.

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Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - Photo by William Cherry Vermont Catamounts celebrate winning the Friendship Four Final and lifting the Belpot Trophy after defeating Quinnipiac Bobcats' during Saturdays Final at the SSE Arena, Belfast. Photo William Cherry/Presseye

Q: How big has the support been of ECAC and Hockey East, the two competing conferences?

SJ: The tournament has been structured around ECAC and Hockey East, so Joe Bertagna and Steve Hagwell (commissioners of the respective conferences) have been our ambassadors for the tournament, they're the ones who approached two schools in their conference and, I wouldn't say convinced, but gave them the opportunity and reassured them it would be a great experience.

In subsequent years it's been those two who have reached out to their universities, based on schedules and willingness, and decided who's next to come, who's the next two, who's the next two. But naturally there'll come a time where we have to expand it and I guess we'll see what happens.

Q: Has the Friendship Four become easier to organise over the years?

SJ: Surprisingly not! Every year it's a different group of teams coming over so it's a different group of people to work with that don't know where the hotels are or the tournament, or the media side of it - they're organising their own alumni each year and doing their own thing. For instance, Clarkson brought their band one year, we have mascots coming from teams, different things.

We don't want to stand still with the tournament and make it all about the hockey, it's not really about the hockey. The hockey is the excuse to go a whole other bunch of great things. We have teams visiting schools around the Belfast area, we've got students from the universities meeting with our universities to try and get some international students to study here. We're working with businesses in Northern Ireland who have connections in America and try and do things for them. It's Thanksgiving, which is a cultural holiday.

We want to constantly evolve the tournament and make it bigger and better every year.

Q: Making it about more than the hockey, that's something you pushed from the start, isn't it?

SJ: Yeah, I remember as a player I was in similar tournaments in the past where you would go to another country, whether it was Poland or Switzerland or wherever it was, and as a player you'd fly in, go to the airport, eat your food, go practice at the rink at the back of the hotel and do it again the next day and then play your game. So you can say you've been all around the world in all these different places, but you haven't really experienced it. You haven't met the people, shared a laugh, you haven't been off the beaten path, you've just done one or two tourist things and seen hotels and hockey rinks.

What we wanted to do is make it an experience coming over here. It needs to be an experience, it can't just be another hockey game for them, and the fact that they're here a bit longer than they would in their other tournaments, they can acclimatise and get over their jet lag, they can do some touristy things with their friends, family and alumni and, by the time the games come they're hungry. They've come a long way and they want to go home with wins - in the games I've seen in the last few years, the teams that play in them look hungry and they want to win it.

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Boston University are playing in this week's Friendship Four

Q: As a former Boston University man, you must be finding it tough to be impartial this year!

SJ: (Laughs) We're doing our best here! Yeah, Steve (Thornton) and I went to Boston University, and obviously we have a very close affinity for them, but we're very aware that we're respectful of all the teams and we want their experience to be very special as well. We want them to go back and be those ambassadors for us as well.

Joe Bertagna has a really good perspective on these types of tournaments, they have them all the time back in college hockey and in other sports, and in four-team tournaments you'll have one team that wins both their games, one team's going to lose both their games and two teams will split. So only one team will go home truly happy, two teams will go back okay with things, depending on the university, and one team will be disappointed, so it's got to be more than the results that the teams go back with - we want them to go back thinking 'okay, so we lost a game, but we had a great experience and we want to go back again'.

Q: There are some great teams coming this week - what are you expecting from this year's tournament?

SJ: We've had some ranked teams in the past, like Providence were a highly ranked team last year, and the hockey has been great each year of the tournament, so we're going to get the same standard of hockey. Boston University have a lot of young talent - they may not be the highest ranked team coming into the tournament but they have some very high-end youngsters, and it'll be interesting to see how those guys shape up in a tournament like this.

Q: Boston have 12 NHL draft picks in their team and Union have seven - it's a great chance to see guys who will make it at the elite level at a young age.

SJ: There's loads of talent, and we've already seen it in previous years like Adam Gaudette (Northeastern, now with the Vancouver Canucks) and Erik Foley (Providence, now with the St Louis Blues), so we've had players in this tournament who are now in the NHL, and we're going to see it again and there will be players people will see in this tournament who you'll see in three or four years in the NHL. That's quite a special thing for fans in Belfast to see.

Q: And you get some guys coming to play for the Giants too!

SJ: Yeah! To put it into perspective, we did a little thing looking at all the players who have played for the Giants who have come from college hockey and it came out there are 67 players who have played for the Belfast Giants that can trace their roots back to college hockey from 39 different universities. There are only sixty Division I universities in America, and we have players from 39 of them. I think that's a pretty impressive total.

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US ambassador Ralph Cox presented the Most Valuable Player Award to Clarkson Golden Knights Player Jake Kielly

Q: Is this still a week you look forward to every year?

SJ: It's funny, I was speaking to Steve earlier and any time the Giants are playing we're nervous about how they're doing, especially if it's not going our way, but with this we're just hoping for a great game as hockey fans! No matter who wins, as long as it's a good game of hockey then we're happy.

Q: In some ways are you a little happy when it's over and you can take a break for a bit?

SJ: I wish it was as simple as that! There's a lot of post-event evaluation going on to capture all the content that went out - media content, social media content, special people who were at the game like VIPs. So we want to take a full snapshot of everything that went on during the week and document it so we have a benchmark for next year, and so we can see it getting bigger and bigger each year. Now we're in year four we can see there's more and more people here and it's our biggest event so far.

Q: And finally, you're not getting away without picking a winner for this weekend!

SJ: (Laughs) In all honesty, Boston University are an alumni, we wish them the best and that's a given! But it's going to be a great tournament. Union are the best ranked team coming in here, but Yale are a solid hockey team and it's going to be a tight game either way in that. Both Boston University and UConn are young teams but with a lot of high-end talent - neither of those teams will be giving up on that game so that could go either way. It's a wide open tournament!

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