There was definitely a special buzz inside Webster Bank Arena for the first day of the inaugural Connecticut Ice tournament on Saturday. The stands were pretty full for both games, and the media room was even fuller.
“Look at this room right here,” UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh said after the game. “We haven’t had a room in Connecticut packed with media like this in a long time.”
It was a different atmosphere for sure, and it didn’t have as much to do with the games themselves as it did the overall event. Quinnipiac beat UConn 3-2 in the first game and Sacred Heart clobbered Yale 6-2 in the second. But more importantly, perhaps a new college hockey tradition was born.
Coaches from the schools were very pleased with the turnout, and they expressed a desire for the tournament to continue for many years.
“I hope it’s infinite,” Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold said. “I think we should run this tournament every year for the next 30, 40, 50 years … I think it’s great for the state.”
“This is something that needs to happen every year,” Cavanaugh added. “I’m really thankful that SNY was able to get this off the ground, and I want to make sure we continue to grow it and grow it.”
In addition to the college tournament, the weekend also provided youth hockey players in Connecticut an opportunity to participate in games and clinics. There were high school hockey games played on Friday as well. Pecknold said he thinks this event could really help to keep young hockey players in the sport.
“The biggest thing we battle in USA hockey right now is keeping the best athletes,” Pecknold said. “They have so many options. They can play other sports. If they’re not happy with hockey, they’ll go play lacrosse or golf or whatever. So whatever we can do to make kids have a great experience with hockey and keep them playing hockey is good for our sport.”
Quinnipiac captain Nick Jermain, who is from Norwalk, Connecticut, said he wished they held this event when he was playing youth hockey.
“I wish this was around when I was a little guy,” Jermain said. “I see all the little kids running around in tracksuits representing their teams. This would’ve been awesome to come to as a young kid, but I’m really happy to be a part of the first one … I can only see it getting bigger and better from here, and it’s just great for hockey and great for hockey in Connecticut.”
The turnout for both games was impressive. It wasn’t a sellout, but there were many more occupied seats than empty ones. For a lot of the players, including Sacred Heart senior Jason Cotton, this was one of the biggest crowds they had ever played in front of.
“I’ve been here four years and that was the most fans I think I’ve ever seen at our game for home,” Cotton said. “It was a great turnout.”
Sacred Heart head coach C.J. Marottolo said that Saturday was just the beginning of something really special.
“I think you saw a pretty good glimpse of it tonight and this is only day one,” Marottolo said. “I think this festival has so much more to grow. With the way the event was run tonight and the games, I think the sky’s the limit for this event.”
The gold standard for college hockey regular season tournaments is the Beanpot, played annually since 1952 between Boston’s four most storied college hockey teams (Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern and Harvard). Cavanaugh, who was an assistant coach at BC prior to coming to UConn, spoke previously about how he feels Connecticut Ice can emulate that.
“It’s something that’s not going to be a flash in the pan,” Cavanaugh said at the beginning of the season. “I hope it’s something that’s here to stay because I know how special that Beanpot is to the Boston area and there’s no reason why [Connecticut Ice] can’t develop into something very similar here in Connecticut.”
Being from Greater Boston, I grew up watching the Beanpot, and I’ve seen its impact on college hockey in my area. It’s something that every hockey fan, young and old, looks forward to watching every year. To the people from that area, the Beanpot means more than the Frozen Four because of the local significance.
The Beanpot doesn’t mean a lot in terms of standings and playoff positioning, but it means so much to players, coaches and fans because of the bragging rights and the idea that “We own college hockey in Boston.”
In this case, it would be, “We own college hockey in Connecticut,” a laudable achievement in a state with four programs of national recognition.
“I have no doubt that the state of Connecticut will ultimately really gravitate towards this event and make it something that we can be really, really proud of as a state,” Marottolo said.
Obviously, it will take some time for Connecticut Ice to get to that level, but it has all the pieces it needs to become a Beanpot-like tradition: Quality hockey programs, regional significance and, most importantly, a passionate fanbase. To get the type of crowd we saw in Bridgeport on the first day of the inaugural tournament shows that people in Connecticut have a real interest in this event.
If handled correctly, Connecticut Ice could become college hockey’s next great tournament.
“For years to come, we’re all going to have competitive teams,” Cavanaugh said. “If we continue to grow it and grow it, it’s only going to be great for the state of Connecticut and all the hockey fanbase here.”