I was skeptical of the Friendship Four tournament in Belfast, Northern Ireland a few years ago when it was introduced to the college hockey landscape, and honestly many coaches and programs didn’t want to subject their teams to the travel, either. But three years have passed and over the weekend I quickly learned why Hockey East and ECAC coaches should be flocking in droves to do this. It has become one of the most successful holiday tournaments.
The Friday afternoon match that pitted Clarkson and RPI saw probably 4,000 people. Most of the crowd was comprised of school children from local schools that hosted the players during the week, where the teams taught them about hockey and why it is a great sport to play.
Then of course the nightcap, which didn’t have the school children, neared 5,000. Find me a college hockey rink last weekend on the east coast that had that attendance, I am sure you won’t find many.
The Belfast community lives and breathes their Giants, which is the local hockey team that plays in the SSE Arena that the tournament took place in. The Giants have many notable NCAA alums, like Sprio Goulakos, Darcy Murphy (Colgate) and Colin Shields (Maine) just to name a few. They play in the 8,000 seat arena and are usually near the top of the Elite League, which is comprised of just teams from the UK.
During the games over the weekend most in attendance wore their GIant’s jersey and it appeared the community just loves hockey; they look forward to following and coming to this tournament because of the level of action that they see.
“We came here to play hockey,” said RPI coach Dave Smith. “But the life experiences our team gained here will never be forgotten. This what life is all about. We wanted to lay on the line for these fans but we also needed to take a breath and realize how special this was.”
On Saturday, the droves hit new levels. The early game saw probably near 5,000 people for the Consolation game that pitted Maine and RPI, while the nightcap was close to a sellout (at puck drop there were only 100 tickets remaining). For the weekend, tournament officials thought the weekend would eclipse 20k in attendance when everything was counted and put together. Each game was a separate ticket or someone could buy a weekend pass.
“I have been coaching college Hockey for 25 years,” said Clarkson coach Casey Jones. “Afternoon games don’t draw anywhere and the two afternoon games showed that the people of the city are behind this and two great environments in the game. Tonight’s (Championship) game environment was unbelievable.”
Putting those attendance numbers in perspective, it eclipses the ECAC tournament championship weekend and most other league final fours, as well. Oh and the more baffling one, is it far surpasses NCAA tournament regionals that struggle to hit an attendance of 12k in most cases. I jokingly tweeted they should apply for a regional because of this… but of course that is hardly feasible.
The arena was packed on Saturday, the environment was great and most people picked a favorite. The biggest hit of the weekend was the Clarkson band that became the first to go to the tournament and the locals loved the addition.
Players play college hockey for the experiences. Belfast is a great city, with great people and they fill an arena with excited hockey fans. I of course loved it because I have loved studying the titanic as a lover of history.
“The off-ice experience was terrific,” said Maine coach Red Gendron. “Everything we have done has been great. It was particularly good in the schools, because the kids were amazing. It was good for our players to teach them what hockey is about in America and to teach the crowd about how univeristy sports are a big deal. I think the biggest thing was the amount of energy their smiles and humor brought our team. It was a magnificent experience for us.”
It is a long week for the players, which was one of the main concerns when the tournament began, but the life experiences of visiting and playing in a foreign country are endless.
“We didn’t have a practice or lift on Monday, we just got out and did our touring” said Jones. “We did more of that on Tuesday and went to schools on Wednesday then dialed in to hockey after that. For us we knew we were going to see some nice places and meet some great people, we just didn’t realize how hospitable everyone would be everywhere we went. It is unbelievable life experience for our guys and we have a great feeling about being here.”
Of course one of the biggest parts of the experience was visiting schoolchildren in the city.
“The kids were awesome,” said Providence’s Brian Pinho. “We actually went to a school the other day to play street hockey with them and answer questions. They all raised their hands when one us asked if they had been to a Giants game.”
Another thing I realized is how much the teams were able to bond during the week, which is an often understated advantage of long road trips.
“This is definitely a week we shouldn’t take for granted,” said Clarkson’s Josh Dickinson. “We have gotten a week together, as a team, to see a country none of us had ever seen before. It is a beautiful city and we are all thankful we got this experience. It is a cool experience in front of that crowd.”
The attendance, outside experience and in-game experience that Belfast provides is untouched for one of these in-season tournaments. This is why I say this a must for any college hockey enthusiast. I was certainly happy I went.