A year ago, it began as a good idea that needed to prove itself.Four hockey teams – two from Hockey East and two from the ECAC – traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to play league games and games that counted in the NCAA. It seemed like a gimmick at best and had the potential for total failure at the worst.A year later, as the 2016 Friendship Four tournament at Belfast, Northern Ireland’s SSE Arena is on the verge of getting underway – this year featuring Massachusetts, Vermont, Quinnipiac and St. Lawrence – we realize this event is far more than a gimmick.It’s a true once-in-a-lifetime experience.Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, who successfully pulled off another ancillary event, Frozen Fenway, in past seasons and will do so again in January, probably never had trepidations whether the Friendship Four could be successful. He, of course, was in the trenches working hand-in-hand with the owners and staff of the Belfast Giants, the only professional hockey team in Ireland or Northern Ireland. He knew and understood the dedication this group had to making this a first-class event. So to be coming back for year two (and possibly years three and four), wasn’t as much of a surprise for him.”I think it’s a win on so many levels,” said Bertagna. “It’s an unbelievable experience for the athletes. Whether they go back and play there [professionally], and I think some guys will, or it’s just the first time they go to Europe or go to Ireland.”The tournament, in reality, is so much more than just two hockey games. All four of the teams spend nearly a full week in Northern Ireland. They visit local school children, learn about a new culture, and experience a Thanksgiving Dinner with teammates, staff and in some cases, friends and family in a country far different than the United States.This fall at Vermont, all of Kevin Sneddon’s players enrolled in a class that taught the history of Northern Ireland and about The Conflict, which engulfed the city and Northern Ireland in war with their Irish neighbors to the south for so many years.”We’ve actually got our guys taking a class on the history of [Northern] Ireland,” said Sneddon. “They’re taking a class on the history of the conflict and what’s going on now in a much improved area.”Says Bertagna, things like that just supplement the ability to deliver on a mission that is too often overlooked in college athletics.”It’s consistent with our educational mission which sometimes gets lost as we’re crowing about how many guys we’ve got in the pros,” Bertagna said. “But we are supposed to educate these guys and this is a great experience that combines that with hockey.”According to Bertagna, the two leagues and tournament organizers are poised to announce the extension of this event for at least two more seasons. The Lord Mayor of Belfast Brian Kingston, who this year replaced Arder Carson, a driving force behind this event’s creation, plans to attend Frozen Fenway, and at that point they hope to have the fields for the next two seasons ready to announce.Recruiting teams to head over, though, isn’t always easy. That was exacerbated a season ago when the four schools that participated – UMass Lowell, Northeastern, Brown and Colgate – struggled the following weekend when returning to league play. Only Colgate mustered a win as the bunch posted a collective 1-7-0 record.Certainly the travel and the demands on the players while there are taxing. Quinnipiac, St. Lawrence and UMass will all test that this season. Vermont has the following weekend off and instead will play games before the break right up until December 18.But for most coaches, the decision to take such a trip isn’t very hard.”It was an absolute slam dunk,” said Vermont’s Sneddon about making the trip. “I’ve always felt like it’s important to give our student-athletes an experience when you’re looking at scheduling. Whether it’s playing in a tournament or playing at Frozen Fenway or going out to play a team you haven’t played. These are things they are going to remember for life.”We want to play hockey games but we want to help these guys grow as young men. This was a no brainer, and I’ll tell you I’ve never seen a better group of people trying to put on a hockey tournament. [The organizing committee] has been outstanding. So I’m excited to make the trip and play two great teams in a different country. It will be a great experience. “There are still things to improve about the Friendship Four, though those in attendance this week likely won’t be aware. There is still a need for corporate sponsorship to help financially sustain this event.Odyssey Trust, which owns SSE Arena, the Belfast Giants and a number of additional properties and business ventures in the Belfast waterfront area, has provided significant financial support to the event thus far.There was a hope of Odyssey Trust, the city of Belfast and Northern Ireland that the Friendship Four could be a springboard to hosting t IIHF World Championship .That mission was successful as Belfast and SSE Arena were awarded the ‘B’ Group of the 2017 tournament next April. The Group will include the host Great Britain along with Japan, Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania and the NetherlandsBut that doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant financial burdens that go along with hosting the collegiate event.”They need to keep working on the corporate piece, because they can’t cover the bills [selling] the 7,000 seats,” Bertagna said. “They’re paying for hotel and plane for 37 people from every school. That’s a big price.”But for those who participate, though, that price has a big payoff: an experience that will forever be remembered.
I remember in years past, I would use this space to go team-by-team throughout the league and write paragraphs and paragraphs about what each team is thankful for. The reality is the amount of research left me more worn out than a Thanksgiving Dinner (and the year’s my colleague Dave Hendrickson did the same, he shared the same thoughts).So this year, I’m going to pick and choose a few things that people around the league have to be thankful for without the long drawn out expectations. If you don’t understand, maybe you don’t get my humor (most people don’t). Or maybe they’re simply not humorous.So here goes:
- Boston College coach Jerry York: For his team’s success in his absence, and for good eyesight once he is back to health
- Boston University coach David Quinn: For the U.S. National Team Development Program
- Maine coach Red Gendron: For the return of Blaine Byron, Cam Brown and Nolan Vesey to the players we all know they can be
- Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson: For the Big Ten becoming the Big Seven
- New Hampshire coach Dick Umile: For the goal scoring touch of Patrick Grasso
- Connecticut coach Mike Cavanaugh and UMass Lowell coach Norm Bazin: For the ability of their staffs to continually recruit great goaltenders (and let’s not forget, those two goaltending corps will match up one week from now)
- Northeastern coach Jim Madigan: For the knowledge and understanding his team will always finish strong (and for that Hockey East championship ring)
- Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna: For the new retractable roof that is being installed over Fenway Park. Oh wait, that’s not happening? Well Joe, then, will be thankful for 35 degrees and sunny in Boston on Jan. 7 and 14.
- And for myself and Dave: We’re always thankful to our readers! Let’s finish strong in 2016 and look forward to a great second half of the season!