Last week The University of Connecticut announced plans for a new 2,500 seat ice rink to be constructed on campus. This would allow the men’s ice hockey program, which currently plays all of its games at the XL Center in Hartford, to move several games back to Storrs. Additionally, the program would receive approval by Hockey East based on arena standards as a part of their acceptance to the conference back in 2014. While some felt the move was overdue, the decision to build a low capacity space connecting to Freitas Ice Forum did receive some blowback from fans and those in the college hockey community.
The Daily Campus was able to get the reaction of three media members who cover hockey in the region, Mike McMahon of The Mack Report and College Hockey News, Chris Boulay of the Eastern Bias Podcast and College Hockey News and Mark Divver of The Providence Journal.
1. What was your initial reaction/response to the plans UConn has unveiled for their new facility?
Mark Divver: I was underwhelmed by the size–2,500 seats. Like a lot of people, I was under the impression that something bigger was in the works.
Mike McMahon: Honestly, I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around it. I'm not an architect (obviously), but it seems to me that they're essentially building a 2,500-seat practice rink. I can't imagine it would cost much more to put 1,500 additional seats in the building (making it fully compliant with Hockey East) and then the Huskies could play all of their games on campus. This feels like a bandaid, and Mike Cavanaugh and his players deserve better. I would assume a lot of the infrastructure (parking, locker rooms, etc.) are in place with Freitas, so if the only issue is more seats and some aesthetics, I think this is a waste of money. Either spend the money necessary to make a nice 4,000-seat on-campus rink, or don't. This feels like it's the university going 50 percent of the way there, which doesn't do its program any service and it falls short of what it promised Hockey East. It's a lose-lose.
Chris Boulay: I heard they were building the arena before I learned of the details. My first thought was that an arena on campus is a great thing for UConn, its fans and students. However, once I read the details of the plan, I really don't think it's the best long-term solution for the school. Overall, it acts as a bare-minimum attempt by the UConn athletic department to fulfill the Hockey East requirement of an on-campus arena. A total of 2,500 seats is too low-level for the type of program UConn is and the type of program UConn wants to be in the future. Also, only holding a handful of games in Storrs does a disservice to the students who are passionate about this hockey program.
2. The Hartford/Storrs predicament is a real problem, but it doesn't seem like this was the best solution. If you were consulting UConn, what would your recommendation have been (or would be, seeing as they haven't really broken ground or anything)?
Boulay: There should be a 4,500 to 5,000 seat arena in Storrs to properly accommodate current and future student attendance demand. Also, every home game should be on UConn's campus. I wouldn't necessarily have a problem with a game or two in Hartford, but as we know with football, it's difficult for students to reliably get to the Greater Hartford area for games. College hockey is at its best when the students are fully engaged and participating in the experience.
McMahon: Like I said above, I would just build what you promised Hockey East you would build. The XL Center is fine, but it's not a good fit. It's old, for starters, and while you are able to get some attention for being downtown, it's not like they are packing 13,000 people in there for a college hockey game. Environment is what is most important when you bring recruits to games, and XL's environment (on nights that I have been there) feels OK at best. Now, I'll concede that many Hockey East issues have this problem (UMass, BC and even BU), but UConn had a chance to differentiate itself and they're dropping the ball.
If I were consulting UConn, and money wasn't an issue (maybe that's the problem here?), I'd advise that they build a suitable rink on campus, using as much of the existing Freitas infrastructure as possible, which would attract more students and make for a better student experience (both from the player standpoint and the student body).
Divver: To me, playing every home game in a 3,500 to 4,000 seat rink on campus that you can pack with students is the way to go. Atmosphere can be such an important part of going to a college hockey game. Having said that, Hartford is a great place to watch a game. It's just that you will never pack that place.
3. UConn has drawn well and recruited well even in their current state of affairs. How do you think these changes could impact the programs outlook down the road?
Divver: I think the program will be fine. A new rink–even one with 2500 seats–will be a boost as long as it has the bells and whistles that some other schools have. By that I mean the off-ice facilities–players lounges, weight room, shooting room, etc. Things are in good hands with the current coaching staff, regardless of whether the games are in Storrs or Hartford.
McMahon: I don't think it changes it much. It's not a negative, because at worst it's the same as it has been, so there's really no change. This isn't about the program taking a step backwards as much as it is a lost opportunity, in my view. Mike Cavanaugh and his staff has done a tremendous job recruiting kids to UConn despite playing home games 30 minutes away (without traffic) and sometimes at weird times (weeknights and Saturday afternoons) in order to accommodate an AHL franchise. You give Cavanaugh an on-campus rink with a great atmosphere and he'll bring UConn championships. Four thousand, which is the seat minimum Hockey East requires for new members, is just under what UConn averaged at the XL Center last year. An on-campus rink that's sold out with 4,000 kids every night would make for (potentially) the best atmosphere in Hockey East. It’s an opportunity lost with the plan that's been announced.
Boulay: The plan has been to build toward the future since UConn joined Hockey East. Part of that future was recruiting players who would eventually play on campus in front of a passionate, dedicated student base. A 2,500-seat arena on campus is something I'd expect for a lower-level Atlantic Hockey school. It's a step back from what UConn said they wanted to be. While strides have been made since joining Hockey East, it feels like the program is stagnating (in my opinion, through no fault of current head coach Mike Cavanaugh). Cavanaugh, or whoever is coach down the line, may have struggles convincing players to come to UConn, knowing that they will have an inferior setup compared to both in-state (Yale and Quinnipiac) and Hockey East opponents.
Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.