By Bobby Bertagna
Over the next few weeks, each of this year’s participants in the Friendship Four will be featured in a brief exposé, helping the fans learn about the history of the teams and what to expect in November. Up first, the Providence College Friars.
Located in Providence, Rhode Island, the Friars are a rising star in college hockey. The men’s ice hockey program was founded in 1952, but until recently they had little to show for it. They were a founding member of the ECAC in 1961 and Hockey East in 1984, when seven ECAC schools branched off to form their own conference. The very year they joined Hockey East, they won the inaugural Hockey East Championship, and have won it only once since, in 1996.
However, things are looking up for Providence; they have been one of the strongest teams in Hockey East and the country in the past five years. They have qualified for the NCAA tournament in each of the past four seasons, and never had back-to-back appearances until this streak. This season, they are ranked at #6 in the country and on track to make it five years straight.
A major reason for their success is head coach Nate Leaman. Since taking over in 2011, Leaman has a .607 win percentage, and has brought the program to national prominence. Leaman’s biggest success with Providence came in 2015, when his underdog squad won their first NCAA national championship in a thrilling 4-3 win over Boston University. In the following season, the Friars won a share of the Hockey East regular season title for the first time in a wild three-way tie with UMass Lowell and Boston College. This season, Leaman hopes to reclaim the Hockey East Championship title for the first time in over twenty years, and he has a fair shot at it; his Friars were ranked third in the Hockey East coaches’ preseason poll.
Coach Nate Leaman on the bench (Credit Mark Divver)
Coach Leaman had nothing but positive things to say about the Friendship Four. “We are extremely excited to be part of the event and we’re excited for the games against great competition, but also excited to learn more about Ireland and the Belfast community. We have several players from Europe on our team in Scott Conway and Kasper Bjorkqvist and we are happy to have them playing closer to home”
Leaman’s team has many familiar faces up front this year, but there are questions about their defensive quality as they have lost three of their top four defensemen from last year (Jake Walman, their top scoring defenseman last year, left after his junior year to pursue a professional hockey career). Luckily, top point scorer Brian Pinho is still around for his senior season, and looks to lead the line along with Erik Foley, the top goal scorer. These two are in an interesting predicament; with the United States’ decision to not take NHL players to the Olympics, college players are the most likely to be selected, and these two are names that have been thrown around as potential candidates. To lose these two midway through the season for a few weeks could kill any momentum the Friars are building up going into the home stretch and postseason, making this a situation to monitor closely.
Hawkey in action this season
In net for the Friars is a man born to play hockey; junior Hayden Hawkey looks to keep his incredible late season form going into this season. He started out a bit rough last year, with his save percentage bottoming out at .880 in the first half of the season. By the end of the season, he had gotten up to a .913 save percentage. Continuing this trend will be crucial to the Friars’ success as the defense in front of Hawkey may take time to settle. He is grateful that he gets to take part in an opportunity like this. “Getting to play hockey in a different environment, that’s what it’s all about; the game takes you to different places and this is one of the new destinations its taking us, so I think a lot of the guys are excited about the trip”.
Providence is just one of four schools on display November 24th and 25th in the Northern Irish Connections Friendship Four at the SSE Arena. Tickets can be purchased at the arena or through ticketmaster via friendshipfour.com.