The Yale men’s hockey team will compete at the fourth annual Northern Irish Connections Friendship Four Tournament in Belfast, Northern Ireland on Nov. 23 and 24, 2018. The Thanksgiving weekend event will mark the team’s first tournament outside of North America.
The tournament is run by the Belfast Giants, a professional team in the United Kingdom’s Elite Ice Hockey League, and draws four teams from the ECAC and Hockey East conferences each year. Some coaches expect that the tournament, the team’s first outside of North America, could become an important opportunity in the future for ECAC and Hockey East teams to gain exposure abroad.
“I think it will be a tremendous experience for our guys,” men’s hockey head coach Keith Allain said. “By all accounts, [the tournament] has been a first-class operation and we are excited to be heading there in a couple of years.”
The 2018 field was announced on Jan. 6 at Fenway Park in Boston during the Frozen Fenway college tournament. Two of the last four NCAA national champions, Yale and Union College, will be competing in 2018, along with Boston University and University of Connecticut.
The Friendship Four tournament provides international exposure for ECAC and Hockey East teams. Games are held in SSE Arena, the Belfast Giants’ facility, which seats up to 11,000 spectators. The tournament is also televised in the United States and Canada.
“I think ECAC teams have gotten more opportunities to play in big stages like this because of … Yale and Union’s national championships,” forward Andrew Gaus ’19 said. “It will be an exciting thing for our whole team, but especially for my class as well in our final season at Yale.”
According to Allain, the ECAC approached Yale about participating in the inaugural tournament in 2015, but he and his staff chose to wait to make sure the tournament was well-run before committing to attending.
Quinnipiac men’s hockey associate head coach Bill Riga commended the tournament organizers, citing Quinnipiac’s excellent accommodations throughout their time in Belfast during the 2016 competition, when the Bobcats reached the finals.
“We were fed well and the hotels were fantastic,” Riga said. “They treated us like celebrities.”
Riga believes the tournament will become a revolving showcase for ECAC and Hockey East teams, where programs can step up to compete in Belfast on a first-come, first-serve basis.
According to Riga, Belfast is seeking to promote a budding youth hockey culture. Many of the spectators at this year’s tournament were young players, along with schoolchildren who came to watch hockey for the first time. In addition to competing in the tournament, Yale players will engage with the Belfast community, visiting local youth groups and learning about the history and culture of Northern Ireland.
“It will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our players and staff to make a trip overseas to compete,” Yale assistant coach Ryan Donald said. “We have heard nothing but good things from players and coaches that have attended in the past.”
The Bulldogs’ next game is at Dartmouth on Jan. 20.