On the eve of the Friendship Four college hockey tournament in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the players and coaches from all four competing schools will break bread in Winterfell Castle, home of House Stark on the wildly popular Game of Thrones series.
How cool is that?
No word if Tyrion Lancaster, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen or any of the cast or fire-breathing dragons will show up, but the experience is a bonus added by tournament officials after last season’s highly successful inaugural tournament.
Both opening round games will be televised on ASN on Friday beginning at 11 a.m. ET as well as the championship game for the Belpot Trophy on Saturday. More than 20,000 spectators filled the stands last season as UMass-Lowell topped Brown, 6-5, in the title game. The tournament is part of sister program relationship with Boston and last year’s tournament marked the first time an NCAA hockey game was held on European soil. Northwestern and Brown also competed.
Four new ECAC and Hockey East teams get the chance to experience Ireland’s culture this week.
Besides having a special dinner hosted by Belfast’s Lord Mayor at Winterfell Castle, the teams will take a historic cultural tour of Northern Ireland and, among other things, visit the Titanic Museum and take Black Cab tours.
“This trip is very important for many reasons,” Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon said. “Team building, learning a new culture and history of an amazing place, competing with three other very talented and well coached teams, playing on national television. Lastly, it provides memories for our players and staff — moments they will never forget.”
Many of the Vermont players are using the trip as a class project and will be doing reports of their experience. St. Lawrence is planning multiple blog posts at saintathletics.com during the trip from Saints’ captain Alexander Dahl, assistant coach Matt Deschamps, St. Lawrence athletic director Bob Durocher, longtime radio play-by-play announcer Greg Lapinski and St. Lawrence alumna Carol Hill.
In return, hockey fans in Ireland will be treated to one of the top holiday tournaments that is rich with storylines.
Three of the four teams — Quinnipiac, St. Lawrence and Vermont — are all ranked in the USCHO’s Top 20 and the fourth team, UMass, is led by former Saints head coach Greg Carvel. Carvel left UMass after last season and is trying to duplicate his success with the Saints.
He took over an 11th-place team in 2011-12 and guided the Saints to eighth, fifth, second and fourth place finishes. All three ECAC teams that finished ahead of SLU advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
UMass sophomore Austin Plevy is the team’s leading scorer with three goals and four assists and realizes this weekend’s tournament likely offers the lone chance this season for the Saints and Minutemen to matchup.
“Obviously our first game is a Hockey East game against Vermont, which are always important,” Plevy said. “But with Coach Carvel coming from St. Lawrence I think the chance to play them would be a great motivator for our team. He’s been a great coach for our team thus far and his commitment to us and the time and effort he puts in is something we could really rally behind to try and get him that win.”
Last year, Northeastern used the Belfast tournament as a launching pad for an incredible season turnaround. The Huskies started the season 0-8-1 but credited the Northern Ireland experience for building team bonds. Following the trip the Huskies didn’t lose a conference game and went 20-1-2 in its final 23 games. Their incredible run ended in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional with a loss to eventual champion North Dakota.
“Anytime you have an opportunity to leave campus for a weekend or extended stay like this trip, you offer your team the time necessary to bond, learn about each other, and grow as a team,” Sneddon said. “International travel poses some challenges to your preparation but in a very good way; it gets you out of your comfort zone.”
Quinnipiac enters Friday’s game against St. Lawrence looking to avenge a 2-0 loss earlier this season. The Bobcats are ranked third in the country, the Saints are ranked 19th. Quinnipiac is riding a four-game winning streak and looking to take that final step toward its first national title. Last season it lost to UND in their first-ever title game appearance. The Bobcats have gotten a huge boost from junior goalie Chris Truehl, who sat out last season after transferring from Air Force. Truehl is 7-2-1 with a .918 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average.
St. Lawrence is now led by coach Mark Morris, a former assistant with the Saints who has them ranked 19th with an 8-4-2 record and riding a 5-0-1 streaking heading into Friday’s showdown.
The Saints are buoyed by Richter Award contender Kyle Hayton (8-3-2) who is regaining last season’s form and has a .927 save percentage and 2.30 goals against average.