Union heads to Northern Ireland for Friendship Four

Dutchmen will enjoy cultural experience, but it's a business trip, too, with games against Yale and either Boston University or Connecticut
Union's Jake Kupsky makes a save in a 5-3 loss to Yale last season. Union faces Yale in Northern Ireland on Nov. 23.
Union's Jake Kupsky makes a save in a 5-3 loss to Yale last season. Union faces Yale in Northern Ireland on Nov. 23.

Categories: College Sports, Sports

SCHENECTADY — They’re scheduled to visit a site used in the filming of “Game of Thrones.”

This carries tremendous appeal for many of the Union College men’s hockey players, who have been riveted by the HBO fantasy series about dragons and swordfights and … blood. Buckets and buckets of blood.

“Oh, yeah. I’m a Jon Snow guy,” senior goalie Jake Kupsky said.

“I feel like I’m so many hours behind the ball now, and everyone’s been saying ‘Get into it, get into it,’ so I don’t know,” senior captain Cole Maier said. “The only thing I know about ‘Game of Thrones’ is everybody gets killed at some point or another. So if I do watch it, I’m not sure I want to get too bought into one guy or another.”

The Dutchmen leave for Belfast, Northern Ireland on Sunday morning for the fourth annual Friendship Four Tournament, a four-team competition designed to celebrate “the Boston/Belfast Sister city agreement to foster stronger cultural, economic, and academic relationships between Northern Ireland and America.”

Ultimately, Union will be there to win two hockey games, but the trip is also an opportunity for an educational experience, as well as a chance for the Dutchmen to buy into each other. They’re treating it as “a pleasure-slash-business” trip, coach Rick Bennett said, a week-long excursion far from home where an already cohesive team can reinforce that element.

“We’re a very close team either way, so this will just help with the bonding,” junior right wing Anthony Rinaldi said.

“We’re going to be spending a little more time together during the week, and I think it’ll pull the guys that much closer,” Kupsky said. “I think we’ve all been looking forward to it. It’s going to be my first time overseas. I’ve got family over in Scotland, so I’m looking forward to seeing them a little bit, maybe. But as a team, it’s going to be a great trip for us. We do have a little bit of down time to venture off with the family, exploring and build chemistry.”

The other teams at this year’s Friendship Four, which RPI played in last year, will be Yale, Boston University and Connecticut. Union will play Yale next Friday and one of the other two next Saturday.

By then, the Dutchmen will have visited several sites in and around Belfast, the Northern Ireland capital that was the center of “The Troubles” in the 1970s and 1980s, a period of political violence between loyalists to the United Kingdom and republicans who wanted a united Ireland.

Since then, the political strife has been quelled, making Belfast a tourist-friendly city. Hockey may not be a big sport in the UK, but the Friendship Four has been a popular event at the 8,000-seat SSE Arena, home of the Belfast Giants of the UK’s 11-team Elite Ice Hockey League. Last year, the Friendship Four drew 20,000 fans for four games between RPI, Providence, Clarkson and Maine.

UMass Lowell, Brown, Northeastern and Colgate played in 2015, and Quinnipiac, Vermont, St. Lawrence and UMass played in 2016.

“Every coach that I have talked to has said it’s a great experience,” Bennett said. “A lot of fun, great atmosphere for the games, and everything they’ve done off the ice as well. The people were tremendous, so hopefully it’s the same for us.”

The experience for the Dutchmen will begin with a 10 a.m. bus ride to Newark International Airport Sunday, followed by a flight for a traveling party of 47 to Dublin, which is about a two-hour drive north to Belfast.

They won’t practice Monday and have a three-hour Black Cab tour scheduled.

On Tuesday, the Dutchmen will practice in the morning, followed by a tour of the Crumlin Road Gaol, where famous figures in Irish political history like Eamon de Valera, Martin McGuinness and Bobby Sands were incarcerated.

On Wednesday, Union will conduct clinics and a school visit in the afternoon after a morning practice, and on Thanksgiving, Nov. 22, the Dutchmen will have their final morning practice, followed by a dinner with the other three teams at Titanic Belfast, the museum devoted to the ill-fated passenger liner that was built on-site at the former Harland & Wolff shipyard.

“Everybody’s excited, especially because usually we’re at school for these six weeks, and it’s sort of just us here when the students wrap up for finals and then don’t come back until New Year’s,” Maier said. “It adds a pretty nice change of scenery to the winter break.”

“We’ll do our pleasure at the beginning, with the tours, and guys will get some time to spend with their families,” Bennett said. “Then we’ll get to practicing on Tuesday, visit some schools. Then come Thursday, it’s really all business as far as getting ready for Yale.”

Union will play ECAC Hockey rival Yale at 3 p.m. Ireland time, 10 a.m. ET in the U.S. At stake on Saturday is the Belpot Trophy to be contested by the two Friday winners.

The Dutchmen said they have little doubt that they’ll be able to turn on the hockey light bulb by then, after the better part of a week sight-seeing and spending time with family and friends.

Bennett and his staff will keep a close eye on that switch.

“I’m really curious to see what we have,” he said. “It’s a very basic talk. We’re here on a tour, we’re going to have fun. So you have fun. But when you get to the rink and put the gear on, well, we’re going to go to work.

“We’ve had some experience in the past with the NCAAs, or even getting ready for practices here or Lake Placid or Atlantic City. Geez, I remember our last practice in Philly [before the 2014 national championship game], we’re still giving guys push-ups on the ice for clowning around. It seems like it’s an all-day thing, and you have to focus, and that’s our job.”

“It’s a business trip as much as we’re there for a week and do have time to do other things,” Rinaldi said. “At the end of the day, we’re there to play hockey, so that’ll be the main focus.”

“I think it’ll be easy,” Kupsky said. “We have a good team that, when a job needs to get done, we can just play and get it done. We’re over there to play two hockey games, so that’s our main objective.”

“Easy? I think so,” Maier said. “It’s similar to being here in that you have to be invested in school during the week and then it goes into the weekend.”

The Dutchmen are scheduled to leave Dublin for the seven-hour flight back early in the afternoon on Sunday, Nov. 25, and should be back on campus by 8 p.m. Then it’s on to road games at Brown and Yale two weekends later.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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