Belfast Telegraph

US teams queuing up to compete in Friendship Four

 

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)
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)
Friendship Four project manager Shane Johnson
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

For Shane Johnson, it's a matter of pride every year when he steps up to the podium at Belfast City Hall to launch the year's edition of the Friendship Four.

The annual US college ice hockey tournament, which is staged at the SSE Arena, is quickly becoming one of the most popular tournaments, with teams lining up to compete every year.

Yesterday's launch saw the confirmation that two teams will return for their second appearances next month, with Colgate and Northeastern returning alongside debutants the University of New Hampshire and Princeton on November 28-29.

As well as that, next year's line-up was also confirmed with a new conference, Atlantic Hockey, coming on board and committing three teams for the 2020 event - Sacred Heart, Mercyhurst and Army - alongside another returning college in 2016 runners-up Quinnipiac.

It's a far cry from the first event held back in 2015 when teams had to be convinced to come over for the inaugural event. Now there's such demand that teams are having to be told to wait their turn.

"There were concerns (in 2015) about coming to Belfast and how the jet-lag would affect their players," explains Johnson, who, as project manager, has been involved since its inception.

"To go from those early days where all that convincing had to be done, to see the popularity of it grow across all of college hockey is amazing."

The addition of the Atlantic Hockey conference is the biggest coup for the Friendship Four, hard evidence that the tournament is held in high esteem across the States.

Indeed, the desire from colleges outside of the traditional competing conferences, Hockey East and the ECAC, was so strong that Atlantic commissioner Bob Degregario had three teams confirmed within 24 hours of being asked if they'd come on board.

"There's rules on how often they can travel - once every four years - so we knew we'd have to expand the tournament out and bring some new universities over," adds Johnson.

"Really excited that Bob put the call out to see what the interest was, and the interest was exceptional. We had to turn a couple down, but we're hoping they'll compete in the future.

"It's a great thing for the student athletes to get this experience. It's great for administrators to do something different for their students. They've really bought into the tournament and everything around it.

"We make a lot of effort to take teams around the communities and bring youth groups to the game. That's something that sets the tournament apart."

The other announcement at yesterday's launch confirmed that the Friendship Series - the women's college hockey equivalent - will return in January 2020, with teams from Quinnipiac and Merrimack contesting two games at the SSE Arena.

This year's edition, which saw Northeastern and Clarkson go head-to-head in Belfast, was a massive success, and that, in turn, led to immediate plans for a second series - and there was plenty of interest for it too.

"It's something that, after the first tournament ended, talks started immediately," says Johnson, who is also heavily involved with organising and running the Friendship Series.

"We got calls from women's coaches wanting to be part of the tournament. It's been fantastic to see how they've responded, and they want to do the same thing for their players.

"It's great for Belfast that we're the only international destination for college hockey. Of all the places they could have chosen, they chose Belfast. It's great for hockey and the profile of the sport in Northern Ireland."

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