The Union men’s hockey team has been exploring new territory in Northern Ireland this week as part of the annual Friendship Four tournament in Belfast.
They’ll be Irish rovers on the ice, too.
With an Olympic (or international) sheet of ice at the SSE Arena, there will be more room to roam laterally, a dimension ECAC Hockey teams like Union usually don’t see much unless they reach the conference semifinals in Lake Placid.
Based on the fast style the Dutchmen prefer to play, they’re looking forward to a little more skating room when they open the Friendship Four against Yale at 10 a.m. ET Friday (3 p.m. locally).
“Maybe you have an extra split second or so to make specific plays, so maybe it could open things up for us,” Union captain Cole Maier said last week before the team left Schenectady. “But it’ll be that way for the teams we’re playing against, also, so it’s just a bit different twist to the weekend.”
“I am looking forward to it,” said junior wing Anthony Rinaldi, one of the fastest players on the roster. “I have played on Olympic ice a few times before that. For fast guys, it’s an advantage. I’ve never played in Europe, but Olympic ice, I’m very excited for that. We’re a fast team, so I think we’ll do well.”
Union traveled from Newark International Airport Sunday to Dublin, followed by a two-hour bus ride to Belfast, and had its first practice at SSE Arena Tuesday morning.
Besides practice and the games, the Dutchmen and their traveling party were scheduled to visit Crumlin Road Jail and the Titanic museum, as well as conducting clinics and visiting schoolchildren. The Friendship Four began as a cultural exchange between Belfast and its sister city, Boston, four years ago.
The SSE Arena, which seats 8,000 for hockey, is home to the Belfast Giants of the Elite Ice Hockey League, the top pro level of the sport in the United Kingdom. As an Olympic-sized rink, its ice sheet is 98 feet wide and about 200 feet long, whereas most college rinks are 85-by-200 (Union’s Messa Rink is officially 86-by-201).
There is also about 2 feet more space between the goallines and the endboards on the Olympic sheets, giving skaters more room to maneuver behind the net.
“There’s really two different games when you play on an Olympic ice sheet,” Union head coach Rick Bennett said. “There’s the games inside the [faceoff] dots and the games outside the dots. And we want to make sure we’re winning the games inside the dots, because, eventually, you have to get inside the dots to score.
“That’s something we’ve always prepared for when we went to Lake Placid, or back in the day at St. Cloud. We even talked about it at Northeastern, which is 5 or 10 feet wider. Dartmouth is like that, as well. We have discussed it, but until you get on that big sheet over there, that’s an area we really have to focus on.”
As much as the wider ice could benefit the Dutchmen, Bennett said he expects it should help speedy Yale, too.
BU and UConn will play the second game on Friday at 2 p.m. ET, and the four teams will follow the same schedule Saturday, with the Friday losing teams facing off at 10 a.m. followed by the championship game to hoist the Belpot Trophy. All four games will be livestreamed via ESPN Plus for a small signup fee.
“What it does is allow your skill guys to make more plays,” Bennet said of the big ice. “It gives them more time and space. You can’t be so focused on that puck, you have to be focused on what’s away from that puck. We’ve faced some teams recently that are really skilled away from the puck, and hopefully that’s helped us.”
While the Belpot Trophy championship game is being played Saturday night, the EIHL host team will be on the road at the Coventry Blaze.
The Giants’ roster comprises a sprinkling of European and American players, but mostly Canadians, including Kyle Baun, who played three seasons at Colgate before a cup of coffee with the Chicago Blackhawks from 2014-16.
Theo Fleury spent one season with the Belfast Giants in 2005-06 after getting kicked out of the NHL for good in 2003.
So far, Union has played four mutual opponents with UConn, one with BU and none with Yale, with similar results between BU and Northeastern (5-5 tie, 4-1 win) and Union and Northeastern (4-3 overtime win, 3-1 win).
UConn has beaten Army, lost at Quinnipiac, won at RPI and lost at Northeastern. Union beat Army and Quinnipiac and was swept in two games against RPI.
Yale is 2-2-1 (all ECAC Hockey games), BU is 3-5-1 overall and 3-3-1 in Hockey East and UConn is 5-6-1 overall and 2-5-1 in Hockey East.
For Thanksgiving, the Friendship Four teams will all meet for a 5:30 dinner at Titanic Belfast, the museum dedicated to the ill-fated luxury liner.
The Dutchmen are scheduled to have a separate dinner at their hotel afterward at 7.
“I think the first one is finger foods or something, then after that we’ll have a team meal, and I think the Cowboys are playing, so it’s going to be a quick meal,” Dallas Cowboys fan Bennett said. The Cowboys kick off against Washington at 9:30, Belfast time.