On November 24th, the third annual Northern Irish Connections Friendship Four collegiate ice hockey tournament will commence at the SSE Arena. College stars from two premier NCAA conferences will be competing in a one of a kind tournament, and while each team dreams of being crowned champion, winning isn’t everything with this event.

By Bobby Bertagna

The tournament focuses on bringing the community of Northern Ireland together, and the student athletes will make visits to local primary schools to teach the importance of sport and exercise to the local youth.

This year’s group of competing universities includes Providence College, the University of Maine, Clarkson University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). The Giants currently have two alumni of these schools in their roster; centre Colin Shields is a graduate of Maine, and defenseman Jeff Mason is a graduate of Providence, the two Hockey East schools in this year’s tournament.

Both played college hockey in the early 2000’s, and were key players in competitive NCAA Division I programs (Especially Shields’ Maine, who reached the NCAA Championship game in 2002 and 2004). They both spent a few years in the minor leagues of the United States before taking their talents across the pond to Belfast, where they have remained ever since.

We recently sat down with both of them and had a conversation about their experience with college hockey, the Giants, and the growth of hockey in Northern Ireland. The first thing we discussed was the difference between Elite League hockey and college hockey.

“It’s hard to compare. Hockey East is a very high level of play, probably the highest level in the U.S. at that age group. There are top players in all of those teams who will go on to play in the NHL. In the Elite League, you get a lot of veterans with more experience, a lot of ex-college players further down their career”, Mason explained. “The college game, guys are going all-out, all the time; young kids flying up and down the ice giving all they’ve got, whereas the pro game (Elite League) is a much more controlled, possession style game. I would say the pro game is more like a marathon, whereas college hockey is more of a track meet.”

Mason’s point about top players joining the NHL is backed up by Shields, who points out that a couple of his UMaine teammates went on to have successful NHL careers; goalie Jimmy Howard is currently the starting goalie for the Detroit Red Wings and just earned his 200th career win last week. Ex-line mate Dustin Penner is a two-time Stanley Cup winner.

This brought up another topic that was a bit of a sore subject for Shields. In his three years playing at Maine, they played in the national championship game twice; they lost both times. He said it was a tough way to go out, but that the experience was worth it. He made it clear, however, that although the NCAA tournament was the most important tournament, he enjoyed the experience of playing in tournaments similar to the Friendship Four just as much.

“When I played, we would always have three or four trips throughout the season. We played in Florida, went to Alaska – I think Iowa even – but never Europe. I had a great time on all these trips, they were competitive but always were more about the experience than the end result. The Friendship Four is even better for these players – Alaska is pretty far away from Maine, of course, but it’s not the same as Europe. It’s a great opportunity to come to Europe for a full week and experience Belfast and Northern Ireland. It not only gives them a taste of the culture, but they can see that there’s an opportunity to come over to Europe to play professional hockey after graduation.”

Mason’s Providence College has also seen success recently, highlighted by their first NCAA National Championship in 2015. “I was extremely excited to see Providence win it all. When I was there, and the years after, there wasn’t a lot happening, but now that they’ve brought in this new coaching staff (headed by Nate Leaman), they’ve done a great job turning the program around. From an alumni standpoint, as the program has gotten more successful, more and more alumni want to get involved. It’s great for the school in general to increase their revenues and it’s increased their investment into student athletics”.

As both players have been in Belfast for over eight years, we discussed the growth of hockey in Belfast, and both Shields and Mason had positive things to say. “I first came here in 2005, and we would always have big crowds”, Shields reflected, “but now, I think we have more consistent crowds and more loyal fans. With the emergence of social media, the game has been much more accessible and it gives the fans more of an experience than just the on-ice product. The Giants do a great job on social media which gives the fans a chance to interact with the players. The popularity is definitely increasing, and it’s great to see the younger fans coming out and supporting the team. It gives them another option for entertainment and keeps them out of trouble, and it’s a safe atmosphere for everyone in Belfast.”

Mason added on that, “because the popularity has grown so much here, it’s allowed the Giants to start bringing in more hockey events, to the point where the Boston Bruins were here in 2010, this tournament started last year, and we hosted the world championships last year. It’s great to see the sport becoming more popular.”

Both Maine and Providence can be seen in the third annual Northern Irish Connections Friendship Four, which will take place on the 24th and 25th of November. Weekend passes for all four games are on sale until October 28th, and can be purchased at the SSE Arena or through Ticketmaster via friendshipfour.com.