Ice-Hockey could become as popular in Northern Ireland as other home grown sports due to the investment now taking place at junior level, according to a Belfast-born professor and ice hockey coach from the University of Massachusetts (UMass).

Professor Joseph Hamill hailed the Stena Line Belfast Giants for the organisation’s development of young ice hockey players as student athletes from UMass prepare to compete in Belfast at the NI Connections Friendship Four tournament in November.

Dr. Hamill is a Professor of Kinesiology at UMass and a co-founder of the Learn to Play programme, which develops ice hockey players as young as 6 years old in Amherst, Massachusetts. On a recent visit to the SSE Arena, he said the Belfast Giants were going about attracting young people to the sport exactly the right way.

“I have been impressed with the Belfast Giants and Northern Irish Connections approach to promoting ice hockey to young people here through the Friendship Four tournament,” he said. “The tournament is promoting the game to school children and bringing young players into the Junior Giants development programme. It is this early stage coaching that many of the sport’s top players have experienced in the NHL in the Canada and the US. The programme is lending significant support to the development of local stars here in Northern Ireland.”

Steve Thornton, Director of Hockey Operations at the Stena Line Belfast Giants also said: “The Junior Giants programme has more than 160 young players in development and its intake is growing by more than 10% each year.”

He added: “We expect the NI Connections Friendship Four tournament to be a great advertisement for the sport here. For the second year running we have four top American university teams competing here and are engaging young people through a series of educations events while distributing 10,000 free tickets to schools and youth groups across the country.”

Andrew Cowan, Chief Executive of NI Connections stated: “Working with the Northern Irish abroad to develop sport and culture in Northern Ireland is one of the key elements of our work. Professor Hamill’s endorsement will be a real boost to the game here in the build up to the NI Connections Friendship Four tournament this November.”

The NI Connections Friendship Four will see four US National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ice hockey teams compete for league points and the Belpot Trophy over Thanksgiving weekend. The teams competing in the 2016 tournament are University of Massachusetts Amherst, Quinnipiac University, University of Vermont and St. Lawrence University.

Following the inaugural event in 2015, the tournament returns to Belfast with Northern Irish Connections as its headline sponsor on Friday 25th and Saturday 26th November.