US colleges back in Belfast as Friendship Four event continues to grow
Friendship Four project manager Shane Johnson says he's eager to expand the tournament over the coming years as the annual college ice hockey event continues to grow.
This year's competition begins at the SSE Arena tomorrow, with Boston University, Union College, the University of Connecticut (UConn) and Yale the four competing teams from the NCAA's highest division.
The Friendship Four, which is now in its fourth year, has grown substantially since its first edition in 2015, with two dedicated US broadcasters in Massachusetts and Canada and teams now lining up to take part.
Next year will see the first time two colleges have returned to Belfast for the tournament, with Colgate and Northeastern both signed up, and the tournament has now become one of the most eagerly anticipated events in the US collegiate hockey calendar.
And Johnson, who formerly played for the Belfast Giants, has big ambitions when it comes to taking the Friendship Four forward by wanting to take it to new teams outside of the two competing conferences, Hockey East and ECAC.
"We're in a fortunate situation where we have another 40 universities plus who haven't been here and can still come. There are plenty we can approach about coming over in the future," says Johnson.
"We don't want to stand still about the tournament, we want to make it bigger each year.
"We don't want to make it all about the hockey either, the hockey is the excuse to do other great things, like the teams visiting schools around the Belfast area.
"We've got some students from the universities meeting up with students from universities here to get them to study internationally, we're working with businesses in Northern Ireland with links in America to try and do things for them. It's Thanksgiving, which is a cultural holiday.
"We're trying to expand the tournament to make it bigger and better each year."
This year sees Boston University, one of the top collegiate hockey programs in the NCAA, make their Friendship Four bow, boasting no less than 12 NHL draft picks, including four first-rounders.
They take on UConn tomorrow (7pm) in one semi-final, while Yale face off against Union College, who have made a very impressive 7-3-1 start to the season, in the afternoon game (3pm).
The winners of the two games will meet in Saturday's final (7pm), while the two losers will face-off in a consolation match on Saturday (3pm).
All of the games are competitive, with tomorrow's game both hotly contested conference match-ups, while Saturday's doubleheader will also count towards the teams' overall record at the end of the season.
While Johnson, who is a former BU alumnus, as is the Belfast Giants' Head of Hockey Operations Steve Thornton, hopes his former school come out on top, he thinks there are no guarantees on what promisies to be a competitive weekend.
"We've had some highly ranked teams come here in the past, Providence were highly ranked coming in last year, and we've had some great hockey in the past," he says.
"In all honesty, Boston University are an alumni so I wish them all the best, that's a given! In terms of who'll be the favourite, it's going to be a great tournament.
"I think Union are the best ranked team coming in here, Yale are a very solid hockey team so it's going to be tight; and Boston University and UConn are young teams but with a lot of high end talent.
"It's a wide open tournament."