Belfast Telegraph

"This thing is going to be talked about 50 years from now": Friendship Four pioneers discuss ambitious plans for college ice hockey tournament

Ralph Cox (left) with UNH Wildcats' Liam Blackburn at this year's Friendship Four at the SSE Arena, Belfast (William Cherry/Presseye)
Ralph Cox (left) with UNH Wildcats' Liam Blackburn at this year's Friendship Four at the SSE Arena, Belfast (William Cherry/Presseye)
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

As an ice hockey player, Ralph Cox's resume reads like one that most people could only dream of achieving.

Two call-ups contributed to 40 caps for the US national ice hockey team, which included appearances at the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

He spent seven years as a professional, playing in the highest leagues in Finland and Austria, as well as a stint in the Switzerland second division before retiring in 1986.

Even after his playing career, he was hired as a scout for NHL side the Pittsburgh Penguins. One of the first players he ever watched, and encouraged the Penguins to sign, was an 18-year-old from the Czech Republic called Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr would turn out to be one of the greatest ice hockey players of all time, winning the Stanley Cup twice, the World Championships twice and the Olympics, while also winning TEN individual awards in a 24-year career that will surely see him inducted into the Hall of Fame when he first becomes eligible.

So when Cox says that being part of the Friendship Four in Belfast is the highlight of his career, above all of those achievements, and says it with a perfectly straight face, you take the man at his word.

"It's the truth," insists the 62-year-old, who hails from Braintree, just 13 miles south of Boston.

"Those were great things. I had great moments with the US national team, and even going back to college and with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but there are few things you can do in life, to me, like the Friendship Four tournament, what it aspires to be with the healing and the peace process and the connection between two cities.

"We give away eight or nine thousand seats to Protestant and Catholic kids and they get to come and see that they're all the same. They're all human beings. That's better than any one accomplishment in sport, right?

"There's just so many things that this tournament could grow into. That makes it very special to be a part of."

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Northeastern's Zach Solow celebrates scoring against New Hampshire during Friday afternoon's Friendship Four semi-final at the SSE Arena (William Cherry/Presseye)

Perhaps the best part of having Cox as an ambassador for the annual college tournament is not his resume, but the fact that he gets it.

Sure, he could promote the hockey side of it no problem given his storied past and contacts within the game. But from the educational, economic and cultural side of things too, he gets it.

The Friendship Four is not just an ice hockey tournament, far from it. If it was then there wouldn't be the bells and whistles around it, the trips to the north coast to see the Giants' Causeway or the ability to spend the day in Dublin and see the sights before travelling up north.

Or there wouldn't be the cross-community work the players do, like going into schools across Belfast to meet kids and teach them about hockey. And, in turn, they learn something about our culture too. If it was just about the hockey, they wouldn't do that. But they do, and it's an enriching experience for all involved.

For to call the Friendship Four just a hockey tournament would be so far of the mark. The impact it has beyond that is widespread on Belfast and its people, but also Boston and its people, despite being separated by 3000 miles of Atlantic Ocean.

"In the last few years we've been trying to focus on other things outside of the hockey, such as cultural, education and economic exchanges as the Sister Cities Agreement aspires to," adds Cox.

"My hope is that we can start getting more people from Belfast on student exchange, going to school in Boston or Vermont and really promoting that more so there's more educational exchanges. We'd like to get some professors from American schools coming over here and teaching for a semester.

"Economically I think we can do more by promoting it even more. I think there were 1,000 people came over this year, which is pretty good, it fills up hotel rooms and restaurants. But it would be nice if we got two or three thousand people, and I think if we expanded to a Wisconsin or a Notre Dame or a Minnesota or a Michigan, we could challenge them a little bit, you know?

"If you want to be in the tournament, you have to commit to bringing 200 people, you have to bring these people with you. Not only that, we want you to have an alumni event. Every single one of these schools has graduates living in Ireland or the UK or Europe, and if they just promoted it more then I think more people would fly in for the weekend, and then we could do some fundraising around that. The economic impact of the city of Belfast we could grow a bit.

"But educationally it's so important and we've been working with companies who have an office in Belfast and Boston to try and help us think what can we do? What offshoots can we do from this tournament that would help their business and boost our economic development?"

To the four: Representatives from the competing sides at the Friendship Four and Friendship Series at yesterday’s launch at Belfast City Hall. From left: Stavros Paskaris (assistant coach, Princeton), Steve Hagwell (commissioner, ECAC Hockey), Robert Fitzpatrick (CEO, Odyssey Trust), Cllr John Finucane (Lord Mayor of Belfast), Steve Metcalfe (deputy director of athletics, University of New Hampshire), Marshall Foley (executive senior associate athletics director, Northeastern)

In fact, the tournament has expanded such that not only are more schools lining up to get involved from the hockey side of things - some colleges are being made to wait to participate, such is the interest - there are also colleges getting involved beyond that.

La Salle College sent over 12 students to assist with the event, who helped with stats and with the sports science aspect of game day, and are already talking about what they can do next year. In previous years, colleges have brought over some business students to work for a week in Belfast, while Clarkson paid for their pep band to fly over and attend the year they won the tournament.

Of course, the impact within Northern Ireland is massive as well. The players from the participating colleges make school visits throughout the week within both Protestant and Catholic communities, and schools from both communities are also provided with free tickets for the weekend's games.

Runners-up Colgate learned how to play hurling at St Mary's. Princeton were treated to Irish dancing at St Patrick's. All four of the colleges were cheered on by schools throughout the weekend who adopted them as their 'home' teams.

Players rave about the tournament when they go home, as do the staff. But it's not only the fact that they're treated like kings when they come to the arena. It's getting to connect with kids who look up to them as sporting idols. For most, that's the part they head back to the States most delighted with, not what they achieve on the ice.

This is what the Friendship Four is really about. Bridging gaps. Reaching new audiences. Making new connections. Discovering that things really aren't all that different between you and me, whether it's between someone from Boston and Belfast or even two people from Belfast.

"One thing we were always keen on was the outreach work and the engagement work between the teams and schools. We saw that as important, firstly as role models from a sport and city that is so close to our own," says former Lord Mayor of Belfast Arder Carson, who was one of the tournament's biggest drivers in the early days and was in attendance over the weekend.

"We're a sister city with Boston but we wanted to make that real connection between hope and opportunity and ambition for our young people in this city, so that connection between the college students and our young kids was crucial.

"I'm delighted to be here and to see it go from strength to strength. Now the challenge is to see how it can grow going forward."

Friendship Four project manager Shane Johnson

In that vein, on the Friday night of this year's tournament, visiting dignitaries and the brains behind the Belfast side of operations - including Carson - gathered together to reflect on the past five years of the tournament and to look ahead to the next five.

Indeed, the cross-community aspect of the Friendship Four doesn't even stop at the school children in attendance, it goes further. Politicians from the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance who have backed the Friendship Four in the past were all in attendance at the event to hear what the tournament can accomplish going forward.

It was led by Odyssey Trust CEO Robert Fitzpatrick, who was the man behind the tournament's inception and has been at the forefront of everything good it has done since. Were it not for his persistence, drive and think-big mentality, the event would have never gotten off the ground let alone be where it is now.

He described it as putting a ribbon on the first five years and getting ready to move into the next phase of what they're trying to do. The teams have been announced for 2020 and 2021, but plans are already in place all the way up to 2024. This tournament is here to stay.

And why wouldn't it be? The only thing limiting this tournament is its own imagination.

Take for instance, the fact that only 18 colleges within the NCAA system have competed so far, when there are 60 altogether. Some of the top schools are yet to compete, your Notre Dames, your Michigans, your Wisconsins, as Cox explained. Getting them to come to Belfast would be a major coup.

And there is still plenty that can be done off the ice too. Fitzpatrick has made no secret of his desire to have another ice rink in Belfast given currently there is only one in Dundonald. Now he's put a date on when he hopes to see it by: 2024.

"We're only measured if we can generate some of the off-ice promise that we made," says Fitzpatrick, who has been brainstorming where the tournament can go even beyond the next five years, even if that's just a starting point.

"You couldn't get a hotel room in Belfast over the weekend. There have been over a thousand people have travelled with these teams. The economic impact on this city is tangible.

"I would argue that most of the heavy lifting is done. We had an event here (on Friday) night where we had the founding fathers (of the Friendship Four), (Mayor of Boston) Marty Walsh, (Odyssey Trust chairman) Eric Porter, (Hockey East commissioner) Joe Bertagna, (ECAC commissioner) Steve Hagwell and Ralph Cox. Those five guys were instrumental in shaping this tournament.

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Thrilled: Huskies captain Ryan Shea with the Belpot Trophy

"Now, those guys still come to me and ask 'what do you want?' I've made no secret of the fact that I want another ice rink in Belfast and I won't stop until that happens. However, we have a unique cultural opportunity here to tie up a city that has hockey in its DNA in Belfast on a once, twice yearly basis.

"Do we have the ambition to have four girls' teams playing in Belfast? Have we the ambition to do qualifying rounds in Boston to bring the champions here? Those are the ambitions we're talking about here, and it's only because for the first five years we've done the heavy lifting.

"Will any of those translate? I expect all of them will, in some kind of form, if more than just the Trust are willing to share in that ambition. For me, I set out with a dream of getting the colleges here. That became a reality. I've now set out my stall by 2024 I want a rink."

Connections between Belfast and Boston can be strengthened. Mayor of Boston Marty Walsh, a phenomenal advocate of the tournament from the beginning, was in town at the weekend and saw first hand the impact the Friendship Four has had, and he was suitably impressed.

"This is about relationships, collaboration and cross-culture. I think it's going to continue to grow stronger and it's going to continue to grow hockey in Belfast and Ireland," praised Walsh.

"It's great for relationships, it's learning for everyone. The world today is so small because of travel we can learn from each other and I think that's one of the biggest takeaways from this.

"The Friendship Four is more than just about the teams on the ice, it's about connecting cities and towns in both the States and Northern Ireland."

Looking ahead, there is so much more this tournament can achieve. Cox, who has his own construction company, says that in his experience it takes a business around seven or eight years for a business to really hit its stride before it can see some real growth.

In that regard, the Friendship Four has just passed year five and is already being talked about as one of the best experiences a college hockey player can have in the US, while in Northern Ireland it is pulling together kids from communities in Belfast that ordinarily would rarely mix.

With still two or three more years to go until it hits that mark Cox is referring to, this is some starting point to build off. So the only question is, where is the ceiling for this?

"I'm so pleased, we all are, with the first five years. I feel like it's the beginning. The foundations have been laid. And now the world is our oyster, it's up to us to do it right and create some wonderful things," adds Cox.

"We already have a great hockey tournament. Now what is it we can we pull into and around culturally or educationally, which is what we're going to focus on.

"I have no doubt this thing is going to be talked about 50 years from now. But in the next five years we are going to set the foundation for growth over the next 10 to 15 year period."

"The Friendship Four is here to stay," adds Fitzpatrick. "The validity of what the Friendship Four stands for is here to stay. The impact that it has on the city is undeniable. For us, it's all about what we can do next."

One suspects it won't be something small. Stay tuned.

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