The UMass Lowell River Hawks are competing in a foreign venue that witnessed one of the great triumphs in program history.
After a two-year hiatus brought on by the global pandemic, the Friendship Four hockey tournament is back with two semifinal matches on Friday night in SSE Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
No. 4 Quinnipiac (9-1-2) takes on its ECAC travel partner Dartmouth (1-4-1) in the opener while No. 14 Lowell (8-5-0) engages Hockey East rival No. 17 UMass (6-5-1) in the nightcap. The winners advance to the title game while the losers compete in the consolation match on Saturday.
“It is exciting to come back to a tournament that you are a little bit familiar with but they have made great advances in hosting the event,” said UML coach Norm Bazin. “In the seven years since they started the event, they have crossed a lot of those T’s and dotted a lot of those I’s.”
Boston and Belfast are sister cities and the original premise was cultural exchange through college hockey. The plan gained traction former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Arder Carson, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, got behind it. The Friendship Four was originally dubbed the “Belfast Beanpot” and the championship trophy is the Belpot.
The four teams invited to the first Friendship Four in 2015 were Lowell, Northeastern, Brown and Colgate and they set a competitive standard that might never be duplicated. The River Hawks were No. 4 in the nation going into the tournament but that didn’t matter much on the other side of the Atlantic
Lowell battled from behind to beat Northeastern, 3-2, in overtime. The championship match against Brown provided even greater drama.
Lowell forward CJ Smith tied the game 5-5 with an extra skater on the ice with 39 seconds remaining. Lowell defenseman Dylan Zink scored the only goal in the shootout that brought the first Belpot to the Merrimack Valley. The 2022 River Hawks have a lot of motivation to recapture that glory.
“You can use the past as an educational experience,” said Bazin. “None of these young men are familiar with the players that participated in 2015 but this can be their experience.”
In Hockey East, Boston College vs. Boston University along with New Hampshire vs. Maine were dominant rivalries when the conference was founded in 1984. But Hockey East underwent a power structure makeover in the past decade when Lowell began pushing the big boys aside. Lowell has won three Hockey East titles since 2013.
UMass moved to the top of the frozen food chain under coach Greg Carvel by winning the 2021 National Championship and the last two Hockey East crowns.
“I wouldn’t say building, the rivalry has been built and they are our rival,” said Carvel. “When I first got to UMass seven years ago, I was told that was our rival but we couldn’t beat them the first number of times we played them.
“Then we started winning some games and now it really feels like a strong rivalry. It’s definitely a rivalry and they are a really good hockey team.”
Carvel was in his first season at Amherst when UMass was invited to compete in the 2016 Friendship Four. Vermont beat the Minutemen in the opener and went on to beat Quinnipiac in the title game.
UMass skated to a 2-2 tie with St. Lawrence in the consolation game but lost in a shootout. The game carried a lot of emotion for Carvel because he had been both a player and a head coach at St. Lawrence.
“I enjoyed every part of it except I had to coach against my old team,” said Carvel. “That was difficult because all the kids on the other bench were kids I recruited.”