This season marks the second year UConn men’s hockey takes the ice as a member of the Hockey East, the best hockey conference in the country. It also marks the second year the Huskies play home games at the XL Center in Hartford instead of the 2,000-seat Freitas Ice Forum on campus, which doesn’t meet Hockey East seating requirements.
Hockey East requires that its members have an arena on campus that seats at least 4,000 fans. UConn was allowed to join Hockey East with the expectation of building an on-campus arena by 2019 and playing in the XL Center for the time being.
Originally, the new arena was slated to be built at the site of Mansfield Apartments, but has run into numerous roadblocks. According to a recent article in the Hartford Courant, the plan now is to renovate Freitas to meet Hockey East specifications while likely playing more than a few games in Hartford, similar to what the men’s and women’s basketball teams do.
This makes sense for a multitude of reasons.
First off, the Huskies need a top-notch on campus facility in order to meet Hockey East requirements and to serve as a recruiting tool in such a competitive conference. Renovating Freitas would almost certainly be cheaper than building a new stadium and would still satisfy all the team’s needs, such as an improved locker room and stretching area.
A renovated Freitas with 4,500-5,000 seats would certainly be doable and within reason. While there are smaller Hockey East schools with bigger barns, going more than 5,000 would be a waste when the XL Center is available. A 4,500 seat arena provides a small but intense atmosphere that would be energetic and likely full with students for when the Huskies play teams that don’t draw well, like UMass-Lowell, Alabama-Hunstville or Colorado College. Not to mention, it can serve as a fallback option if scheduling conflicts at the XL Center prevent big games from being played there.
These renovations could also coincide with the plans to renovate Morrone Stadium, which is located right next to Freitas. With Freitas needing as much room as possible to add a miminum of 2,000 seats, it makes a lot of sense to expand Freitas all the way to the Goal Patrol stands and add a shared ticket office and lobby that can be used for both venues. If these plans to renovate Freitas stick, it makes sense to try and save some money and have the two venues share as much as possible while still accommodating the needs of each program.
Last season, I had the opportunity of traveling to the Whittemore Center in Durham, New Hampshire to cover UConn’s first-ever Hockey East tournament series against New Hampshire. For two-straight games, the Whitt was packed, loud and rowdy. The student section was huge and filled with energy. Even as I was covering the game, the environment sent chills down my spine. It was one of the best environments I’ve ever been in for any sporting event. As great as the XL Center is, an on-campus arena at UConn would provide a phenomenal atmosphere for college hockey.
That being said, the XL Center certainly has it perks. For one, watching a hockey game at the XL Center is light years better than watching a basketball game there. With the curtains down, the XL Center usually seats just over 8,000 for UConn hockey games. In their Hockey East season opener last season, UConn beat Boston College 1-0 in front of 8,089 fans. I’ve been to hundreds of events in the XL Center during my lifetime, but I have never seen the place rocking like it was that night.
Before that game, I was in the majority of people who thought UConn hockey games in Hartford would be a disaster. I’ve sat through my share of UConn basketball games against directional Florida schools and mid-majors to know how dead it can be in there, even when it’s a full house.
But that Boston College game changed my opinion about hockey at the XL Center for good. And that turnout wasn’t just a flash in the pan either. UConn led Hockey East in home attendance and were 10th nationally with an average home attendance of 5,396.
That total even includes some terrible turnouts at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, which were poorly advertised and just a terrible environment for college hockey. Thankfully, the Huskies won’t be back there this season or probably ever.
This season, fans once again showed up in droves to Hartford, with 4,401 showing up to the team’s home opener, a 5-1 win over Arizona State on Oct. 16, the same night as First Night.
The fact that the XL Center drew over 4,000 fans on the same day as the start of basketball season is impressive, and justifies staying in Hartford even with a renovated Freitas. There’s no reason to expect future games against Boston College, Notre Dame or Boston University won’t draw upwards of 7,000 fans to Hartford, especially with head coach Mike Cavanaugh bringing in elite talent and quickly making this UConn team one of the most dangerous ones in the conference.
UConn has had success with this hybrid home schedule with other sports. With the hockey program on the rise, it makes sense to start treating them like our other big athletic programs. Renovating Freitas achieves the intimate and rowdy atmosphere that college hockey purists love and satisfy our Hockey East requirements, but keep the XL Center around for big games. It won’t disappoint.
Hockey belongs in Hartford. The fans have proved that by showing up and creating an atmosphere that rivals any other school in the conference. Even with a Hockey East-ready arena coming on campus, it makes sense to play a fair share of games in Hartford for as long as possible to keep attendance high and strengthen UConn’s presence in the state’s capital city.
That is, until the Whalers come back.