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Northeastern and Clarkson are playing the first ever NCAA women’s hockey games outside North America

The two coaches discuss the implications of this historic match-up in Northern Ireland

Michelle Jay

NCAA women’s hockey will be coming to Northern Ireland, when Northeastern and Clarkson play each other twice in Belfast on Jan. 5 and 6 in the inaugural Friendship Series. The two teams are among the most exciting in the NCAA at the moment.

Clarkson’s usual top line of Loren Gabel, Elizabeth Giguere and Michaela Pejzlova are all in the top five in the nation in points per game. Meanwhile, Northeastern’s European freshman phenoms, Alina Müller and Chloe Aurard are the two top scoring freshmen nationwide and Müller was the highest scorer on any team in the Olympics. Northeastern’s Aerin Frankel is, by the stats, the best goalie in the country. Clarkson’s Canadian physicality and Northeastern’s skill and tenaciousness promise a pair of thrilling high-quality games.

Belfast does Christmas.
From Flickr user Dunphasizer, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sjdunphy/2110509365/

Hockey in Belfast, and Women’s Hockey in Belfast

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to expose another part of the world that maybe hasn’t seen women’s hockey, or hasn’t seen it too often, to let them get a chance to experience a women’s collegiate hockey game,” said Northeastern coach Dave Flint in an interview with The Ice Garden.

The games will follow in the tradition of the first four years of the Friendship Four men’s hockey tournament (or the “Belpot”, from the fact that the tournament has close links with Boston-based Beanpot teams), which attracted 23,000 fans to its four games this Thanksgiving. The Friendship Four, organized by BU graduate Shane Johnson, has a great reputation with participating teams.

Clarkson head coach Matt Desrosiers is looking forward to the event as a showcase of women’s college hockey. “Obviously the men’s tournaments have been supported really well over there with a lot of spectators,” he said in a phone interview. “Our men played in the Friendship Four tournament last year and came back and had nothing but great things to say about the whole experience, from sightseeing to the way they were treated to the support that they got from people in Belfast, and obviously they have the Belfast Giants there as well that get supported very well, so we’re certainly hoping that they’ll come out and get a first glance at what women’s hockey’s all about.”

Hockey has been a key part of Belfast’s incomplete but real reinvention as a city post-Troubles, creating a mass entertainment event that isn’t tied to the Catholic or Protestant communities, but is welcoming to everyone. The Friendship Four organization has been active in working to build an audience for this series, with team profiles, promotions aimed at school, sports or church groups, and a series of excellent Tweets. Local press has covered the event enthusiastically.

London Racers v Belfast Giants
The Belfast Giants avoid colors associated with either community in Northern Ireland in an effort to build a community of their own
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

And while Northern Ireland as a whole hasn’t traditionally been a hotbed of women’s sports — despite being the birthplace of hockey Hall of Famer Geraldine Heaney and Olympic gold medalist pentathlete Mary Peters — the less-traditional audience that hockey gets in Northern Ireland could be particularly into this less-traditional form of hockey. The NCAA ice hockey series could get an additional boost from the (all-island) Irish women’s field hockey team’s recent Cinderella run to be runners-up in the World Championships. That team had players from Northern Ireland as well as from the Republic and was celebrated in both North and South (and, incidentally, sparked some good discussion about gender equality in sports on the whole island) and there’s no harm in hockey having the same name as, well, hockey.

“We’ve talked about being able to bring women’s hockey to non-traditional markets in the US, and now it’s great that we’re getting to expand that worldwide and maybe this opens doors moving forward,” Flint continued. “They’ve been doing the Friendship series with the men, and this is kind of a tester to see if they want to keep pursuing it with the women’s game, and maybe, if it goes well enough, get the four teams like the men do. So hopefully, they’re going to see a good product on the ice, with the #3 and the #5 teams in the country going at it.”

Growing the Game in Non-Traditional Markets

In fact, this trip is part of an ongoing effort to grow awareness of the game that Flint’s been working on for eight years now.

“We haven’t previously gone to non-traditional markets outside the US,” Flint explained, “but when I was assistant coach with [Wisconsin coach] Mark Johnson on the 2010 Olympic team, we talked about how we need to bring women’s hockey to new markets that haven’t been exposed to it, to let people see how great it is.”

This led to a Wisconsin – St. Cloud – BU – Northeastern series in Vail in 2014, followed by a pair of Wisconsin/Providence games in San Jose in 2015, and perhaps most memorably the D1 in DC tournament in Washington at Thanksgiving 2017, which acted as a coming-out party for Northeastern goalie Aerin Frankel as Northeastern improbably gave Wisconsin its first defeat of that season.

Although Clarkson hasn’t been quite so forward in approaching non-traditional markets, the idea also appeals to Desrosiers, who’s been working on plans of his own. “I know in a couple of years we’re going to go out to California and play in the Anaheim area,” he said. “One of our Clarkson alums works out there with the Lady Ducks program, so we’ve set up an arrangement to play a couple of games there.”

Hopefully this will be just the first of many women’s Belpots, although, this being the NCAA, there are rules about foreign play (link is to entire rulebook, I couldn’t work out how to deep link to individual rules). All sports can play a foreign tour once every four years in which they play foreign teams and get up to ten extra practices (rule 17.29), but for hockey specifically, in addition to the foreign tour, each team is allowed to play one or more regular season games on a single trip once every four years (rule 17.13.5.1.1).

Could this be the start of a four-team Women’s Belpot? Maybe, but women’s college hockey doesn’t have either the depth or the number of Irish connections that men’s college hockey does. There are fewer programs overall and fewer in locations that are traditionally associated with the Irish. An added wrinkle is that due to controversy over mishandling of interviews with former paramilitaries, Boston College is unpopular in certain quarters in Belfast and the BC women’s team is unlikely to participate. So it may be a stretch to find 16 teams over four years to play a proper tournament, although that’s the natural direction for the event to go in. Perhaps a good way to expand the event would be to invite a pair of Swiss or Swedish pro teams to make it up to four?

Pairwise Implications

This trip isn’t just to grow the game, of course. Northeastern has outperformed already high expectations for this season and sits at third in the polls. Clarkson has been as high as first in the polls and is currently in fourth or fifth. In the Pairwise rankings, which are used to determine seedings and home ice for the National tournament, Northeastern currently sits in third and Clarkson in fifth of likely contenders.

This isn’t the first time these teams have met, but it may be the most important.
Michelle Jay

“These two games could potentially have NCAA implications down the line,” Flint noted. If anything, that’s an understatement. Since the head-to-head record is one of three equal-weight inputs into the Pairwise, a sweep here could significantly boost one team’s hopes of hosting, and significantly hurt the other’s.

So this isn’t just a vacation. This is work.

“These opportunities don’t come along so often, so you want to take advantage and take everything in and take new culture in but then at the same time you’re there for a purpose and a reason, and you’re there to get the job done with hockey,” said Desrosiers.

Flint felt the same. “I think that could be the difficult part for me – they’re so excited to go see Ireland, and have an experience like that, but also to keep them focused – you know, these are two huge games and we’re there to play hockey too,” he said. “You want to make it a memorable trip, to make it worth their while and make it an educational trip and one they’ll remember, but also to keep them focused on the two hockey games that we’ve got to play.”

Desrosiers pointed to experience on Clarkson’s part that could be helpful. “It’s somewhat similar to when you go to a Frozen Four,” he said. “I’ve always told our players in the past, when they go to a Frozen Four, they need to enjoy the experience; it doesn’t come along very often, they may not get to go there again. So you need to enjoy the banquets, you need to enjoy all that kind of stuff, but when it comes time to practice and get your focus for the games, we need to dial it in and make sure that we’re ready to go, because we’re there to get two wins at the end of the day.”

Clarkson’s record in Frozen Fours should make anyone respect Desrosier’s ability to get that focus out of his team.

International Coordination

Flint noted that the concerns even went to specific roster questions, and that international cooperation had been necessary to make the event possible.

“[Desrosiers and I] were both concerned because during that time Switzerland plays in a tournament, the Nations Cup, and Canada used to play in that tournament, too and Matt would have his top players gone,” Flint said. “He didn’t want to go there without his top kids. And then Canada pulled out of that tournament this year.”

The Nations Cup is a U22 tournament, similar to the U22 series that the Canadian and US development teams play against each other most Augusts, that plays a development role for players in their national team’s pipeline. The tournament is a good development opportunity for the players, but the US historically hasn’t participated and it doesn’t have the prestige that Worlds or even Four Nations have.

Canada skipping the Nations Cup made things easier for Clarkson, but Northeastern has been lifted this year by Swiss National Team star Alina Müller, and Switzerland also plays in the Nations Cup. To organize Müller’s availability, Flint spoke directly with Daniela Diaz, the head coach of the Swiss national team. “She was great,” he said. “She said, you know, this is a tremendous opportunity, not only for Alina but for your team and for NCAA women’s hockey, so I’m going to let her miss that tournament to go with you guys to Belfast.”

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 11
Alina Müller, Northeastern’s not-so-secret weapon
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Even when it was established that both teams could have full rosters, Flint still had some lingering concerns to overcome about the schedule.

“We had to juggle some stuff logistically, I had to move some games,” he said. “When I look at it, I go jeez, you know, I gotta go play Clarkson two games in Belfast, I fly home on Monday, and then play home and home with BC, you know, is that what I really want to do?”

(The weekend that Northeastern are playing BC, Clarkson are playing the less-terrifying Union and RPI; Desrosiers didn’t bring up this schedule as an issue).

“But ultimately,” Flint concluded, “it’s about the experience for the student-athletes and I wasn’t about to pass it up.”