Yale Athletics

The Yale men’s ice hockey team returned home on Sunday after a third-place finish at the Northern Irish Connections Friendship Four tournament in Belfast last weekend.

But for members of the team, the trip was about more than just hockey.

“We had a great time in Ireland,” forward Dante Palecco ’21 said. “It was a really good experience for all of us, one that most of us would not have been exposed to without this opportunity. It was very interesting being exposed to the different culture and [being] able to see things in a new perspective. It makes you realize some of the things we take for granted on a regular basis.”

Founded in 2015 to honor a sister city agreement between Belfast and Boston, the tournament annually features four NCAA Division I hockey teams who compete for the Belpot Trophy. Though held on international ice, the matches still count towards the teams’ regular season record.

This year, the Bulldogs joined fellow top-tier teams UConn, No. 11 Union and Boston University in a clash for the coveted trophy. Yale concluded the semifinals with a 1–1 overtime tie against the Dutchmen, who advanced in a shootout, before proceeding to crush Connecticut 6–3 to claim the third place spot. The trophy went to Union, the 2014 NCAA National Champions, who defeated Boston University in a dramatic 2–1 victory.

“The trip to Ireland was awesome,” defenseman Phil Kemp ’21 said. “It was a great experience to share with my teammates, something we’ll remember forever. I would have a good time with my teammates anywhere. We all like shooting the breeze. These guys are my best friends on campus, and it was a bonus we got to do what we usually do in Ireland.”

Every year, the stands are filled with local fans, school groups and tourists who make the trip just to catch the action. The 2018 tournament featured a record numbers of watchers; over 23,000 fans crowded the SSE Arena for over four games while millions watched at home. The two-day event is an opportunity for communities to come together in support of amateur sports.

The Bulldogs’ trip to Ireland marked the first time the team played outside of North America during the regular season. Before last week, the farthest the team had gone was Canada. Logistically, competing in the capital of Northern Ireland required extensive planning.

“We were asked to go the first year they had the tournament,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “I thought it was a really cool idea. Logistically, it’s very difficult, so I put it off for a couple years. I let them run it for a few years so I could see how things go and talk to teams that have gone. I have spoken with several people who have competed in the Friendship Four and everyone speaks highly of the total experience for their student athletes. So that’s what we did.”

The six-day itinerary was packed with activities, including a sightseeing tour of Dublin, a visit to the Guinness storehouse, a day trip to the scenic countryside of Wicklow and a tour of Belfast. On Thursday night before the big game on Friday, the team feasted on a Thanksgiving dinner gala prepared by Belfast Hotel.

Along with setting the stage for highly competitive games and sightseeing, the trip gave the team a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience new cultures and forge stronger bonds with teammates. For captain and defenseman Anthony Walsh ’19, the trip was a rare chance to not only tour a beautiful region but also to explore part of his own identity.

“I’m 50 percent Irish,” Walsh explained in an interview before the break. “A lot of people will be joining me on this trip. My mom’s side is all coming and my dad, and some of his cousins are going over too to visit his homeland. We’re all very excited.”

The Bulldogs head to New York this weekend, where they will face off against St. Lawrence and Clarkson.

Lucy Liu | l.liu@yale.edu