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Friendship Four: I can't wait to welcome US colleges back to Belfast, reveals Robert Fitzpatrick

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Friendly fare: Action from the last US colleges event in the SSE Arena in 2019. Credit: William Cherry

Friendly fare: Action from the last US colleges event in the SSE Arena in 2019. Credit: William Cherry

Friendly fare: Action from the last US colleges event in the SSE Arena in 2019. Credit: William Cherry

Odyssey Trust chief executive Robert Fitzpatrick claims the Friendship Four is essentially starting all over again after the Covid-19 pandemic but is thrilled at how eager figures Stateside were to get the tournament back up and running.

The old saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ could easily have applied to the college ice hockey tournament — the only NCAA ice hockey event to be held outside of North America — which brings four of the top colleges in the States to the SSE Arena to compete for the Belpot Trophy.

But as soon as Fitzpatrick, along with the Belfast Giants’ head of hockey operations Steve Thornton, began discussions to bring the tournament back for 2022, they found things progressed very smoothly.

There were discussions to play the tournament in Boston this year, although that fell by the wayside due to scheduling issues, and last night it was confirmed the tournament will return to Belfast on November 25-26 next year.

There’s a rivalry for fans to look forward to as University of Massachusetts campuses Lowell — who won the first ever Friendship Four in 2016 — and Amherst clash in one semi-final, while Quinnipiac and Dartmouth meet in the other.

Even more encouraging is that the tournament and Belfast as a city still holds its appeal as only Dartmouth are first time competitors, with the other three jumping at the chance to return.

“You might find there is a big chunk of relief when the puck drops and, to a certain extent, it will be like starting again because we’ve had that break. It’s very fortuitous we’re starting all over again with a team that was here in year one. That’s a nice little segue into what would essentially be the recovery tournament,” says Fitzpatrick.

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“The experience we deliver when teams come here and the workings of our ambassador in Boston, Ralph Cox, has ensured we are not far from the hockey calendar.

“When it was mooted that both Amherst and Lowell were going to come, and with Amherst being national champions, it wasn’t a hard sell.

“We had a significant amount of interest in our launch in the games. We’re internationalising the NCAA and, for the coaches and the players and the league, that’s no bad thing.

“It’s been a passion of mine since the start. I believe in the impact that it has. I think it is a positive for Northern Ireland and for Boston. I’m very much looking forward to welcoming the teams to Belfast, all being well, in November.”


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