US college ice hockey chief hails Belfast tournament as 'phenomenal experience'
After watching his side become the fourth side to lift the Belpot Trophy, Union College head coach Rick Bennett led a long list of praises for the NI Connections Friendship Four.
The Dutchmen defeated the Boston University Terriers 2-1 in a fantastic final on Saturday night, thanks to a phenomenal 39 save performance from netminder, and player of the tournament, Darion Hanson.
It was another brilliant tournament, both from a hockey and an off-ice perspective, with a packed out SSE Arena treated to four cracking games across the two days in the only NCAA ice hockey tournament to be played outside North America.
Players, staff and officials of all four competing teams praised of the event yet again, with teams outside the traditional Hockey East and ECAC conferences from across Division 1 in America now eager to take part.
Delighted Union chief Bennett was perhaps the most complimentary, claiming that the event compares with the best on offer in the States, which culminated in a big week for his Dutchmen.
"From every coach I talked to previous, they said it was one of the best tournaments, and they were definitely right," said Bennett, who has been to several NCAA Championships with Union in the past.
"This is one of the best tournaments I've ever been involved with, and I'm talking from my time as a player as well, from when I was five years old.
"This has been incredible. I can't thank the people of Belfast enough - it was a phenomenal experience."
Influential goaltender Hanson concurred with his coach and revealed that he had been going the extra mile to prepare for his first trip to Northern Ireland - one that he hopes will not be his last.
"I love this country now," laughed the 21-year-old, who only conceded two goals in his two games.
"I've never been here before and it's funny actually, last spring I took a history of Ireland course to warm me up to it, and it's been great.
"The people are so nice. Obviously it was a great weekend for the guys and it's been one of the best weeks of my life so I'm hoping to come back soon."
Despite going unbeaten over the course of the weekend, only denied a place in the final by a shoot-out loss to Union in the semi-final, Yale Bulldogs had to settle for third spot by rallying to win the consolation game.
They defeated the University of Connecticut Huskies 6-3 on Saturday afternoon to head home with a strong three-point haul in their league standings.
That left head coach Keith Allain pleased with the weekend as a whole and, like Hanson, he's hoping for a swift return to Belfast in the future.
"It's been absolutely fascinating. When I came over here I hoped our guys would get a rich cultural experience as well as a great hockey experience, and it's exceeded my expectations," said Bulldogs chief Allain.
"We would absolutely love to come back."