When the UVM men’s hockey team travelled to Belfast, Ireland over the 2016 Thanksgiving break for the second annual Friendship Four Tournament, players got more than an early-season trans-Atlantic road trip. They also got a seminar in the culture and history of Northern Ireland, and a deeper understanding of the sectarian rivalries that still divide the country.
Belfast was ground zero for “the Troubles,” a violent period during the Northern Ireland civil rights movement lasting from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Belfast Agreement in 1998.
“We wanted to treat this as more than just another tournament, but to help the players understand why participating in the Friendship Four meant something more than hockey,” said Dr. Pablo Bose, director of UVM’s Global and Regional Studies Program, who developed an online course for the team.
“The idea came from discussions I had had with outgoing Athletic Director Bob Corran, who is from Belfast, and the current AD Jeff Schulman, who wanted to create study-abroad experiences for student athletes.”
Bose’s interdisciplinary three-credit class “Geography of Peace and Conflict in Belfast” was broken down into five modules woven from history, geography, and Irish cultural studies.
“Essentially, I wanted them to understand what lay behind the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, including the partition of Ireland, the role of British colonialism, why violence between the Catholic and Protestant populations in Northern Ireland erupted later in the twentieth century, how peace was finally achieved, and how lasting (or not) that peace has become since,” Bose explained.
Building on the success of a Boston Bruins exhibition game held in Belfast in 2010, Friendship Four Tourney organizers saw hockey as a vehicle to bridge the still simmering divisions in Northern Ireland and to introduce the sport to a new market.
Four Division I schools competed in the first tournament in 2015 and UVM was one of four teams to compete for the “Belpot” (the name is a nod to the famed “Beanpot” Tournament in Boston, where area colleges and universities vie for Beantown bragging rights each February.)
Hockey is still more of a curiosity than a passion in Ireland, but the tourney attracted thousands of fans who packed SSE arena in Belfast November 25-26. UVM beat Quinnipiac 5-1 in the championship game to claim its first Belpot.
Despite the challenges of a transcontinental flight and separation from family and friends during the holiday break, UVM head coach Kevin Sneddon had no qualms about participating.
“I’ve always felt like it’s important to give our student-athletes an experience when you’re looking at scheduling,” Sneddon said. “We want to play hockey games, but we want to help these guys grow as young men. It was exciting to make the trip and play two great teams in a different country. ”
Between games, the student-athletes toured the city and encountered the still visible scars of sectarian violence. Side by side with players from the other participating schools (Quinnipiac, St. Lawrence, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst) Catamount players visited local schools, held hockey skills clinics and shared a Thanksgiving Dinner with a Irish twist—the venue was the Stangford Castle Ward Estate, film locale for Winterfell in the Game of Thrones television series.
Several Catamount players have roots in Ireland or have family who still live there, including UVM senior forward Tom Forgione, a history major from Burlington.
"My mom's side of the family is Irish and she still has family living in Donegal," Forgione said. "Irish heritage is a big part of my life; my sisters grew up learning Irish step-dancing and they still do it competitively.”
Forgione knew something about the region’s history, but the travel experience gave new depth and meaning.
“There are still walls that separate Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in the city,” he said. “They were called 'peace walls' for the purpose of preventing street violence. At one police station we visited, there were huge chain link fences 50-60 feet high to prevent people from throwing Molotov cocktails.”
Many of the walls have become de facto art galleries promoting messages of peace and unity. A highlight of the trip, Forgione said, was when members of the team signed the peace wall.
The experience was also eye-opening for Bose, who taught a similar online course, trimmed down to two credits, over winter break.
“The students were really engaged, it was as enjoyable for me to teach as the one with the hockey team,” he said. “I want to make this one of my regular courses as it has been really fantastic.”