This Week in the ECAC West: Jan. 16, 2003

Old-Time Hockey

With campuses located just nine miles apart, Utica and Hamilton are natural rivals. This year, the coaches of the two teams decided to schedule a home-and-home series to extend that opposition to men’s ice hockey. From all accounts, it appears that a new rivalry is indeed budding.

The first matchup was December 10 at Hamilton, which the Continentals won 1-0 in a closely-fought contest. Hamilton also won the second game, at Utica last week, 6-1. Even with the wider margin of victory, it appears that the spirit of rivalry has taken hold.

“It was a great hockey game. We played very well, but the score didn’t indicate how the game went. We just couldn’t score,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan. “We’re still looking for consistency. With Hamilton, we played 40 minutes of great hockey, and then they scored four goals in the last period to kill us. Consistency through 60 minutes of hockey and in the key situations is the main thing.”

“The game was very old-school hockey with a great atmosphere. Hamilton gave half the rink to our fans and half to their fans, and they were going back and forth with chants at each other all night long. It was a great, great hockey game.”

Utica was hampered by a shortened bench. Three Pioneers were missing due to DQs earned during a scuffle at the end of the consolation game in the Times-Argus Tournament against St. Thomas. Jimmy Sokol, second on Utica’s scoring list, was the most glaring name sitting out of the lineup. Jeff Tittensor and Geoff Brandt were also out for the game against Hamilton.

“[The scuffles] were really blown out of proportion,” said Heenan. “[St. Thomas] was frustrated and was upset. It was more of a mauling, there weren’t any gloves on the ice or any real fights.”

Even with the suspensions, Utica was happy on the bus ride home from Northfield, Vt. The 4-2 victory over then-No.6 St. Thomas was a huge win for the young Pioneer program.

“We played just a flawless hockey game,” said Heenan. “We scored when we had the chances, and had great goaltending. That was the biggest win against a ranked opponent in our program’s history.”

Some fans around Division III hockey look at Utica’s 5-9 record and think that the sophomore jinx is dragging down its season. After all, at this time last year Utica had a 7-7-2 record. But that’s not how the Pioneers are viewing things.

“We’re playing with the top teams out there right now, where last year we were getting blown out by them,” said Heenan. “We are 5-9, but my guys aren’t frustrated because we are playing with everyone and if we get a break here or there, then we’re going to nail them. Many people have criticized me for making such a hard schedule this year. They say it is too fast. Even some of my own players think I am nuts. But I believe these are the kind of games we need to be involved in, in order to grow.”

Tiger Blueliners

After a relatively healthy first half of the season, the injury bug has hit RIT hard over the last two weeks, particularly in its defensive zone. Three starting defensemen and the backup goaltender all have gone down with injuries recently.

Some injuries are more serious than others are, but at this point, none appear to be season-ending. Ryan Franke and Mike Walling, two key defensemen along with freshman defender J.R. Holmes, are all on the injured list with various body parts dinged up. Depending on how rehab goes this week, the Tigers might see none, some, or all three back this weekend.

Also out with a freak injury is freshman netminder George Eliopoulos. He tore off part of his index finger on his blocker hand in practice last week when a puck hit it hard at a bad angle. A local hand surgeon sewed the fingertip back on, and the prognosis for a full recovery is very good.

The Tigers felt the impact of these missing players in two losses against the USA Under-18 Team this past week. Blame for the losses can’t be placed on the missing players, but RIT looked uncomfortable in its own zone during the greater portion of both games as three freshman defenders tried to settle into their new starting roles.

Team USA used speed and determination to beat RIT to rebounds, scoring seven of its 11 goals that way.

“These are games that we need to set a whole mindset for later in the season,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “We took a lot of positives out of the weekend, but there are still things that we can improve on.”

Luckily for RIT, the games against the USA squad were only exhibitions.

Around the Rinks

We continue our tour around the rinks of the ECAC West this week, heading southeast from Geneva, N.Y., where we visited Hobart last week to the oldest rink in the league in Rye, N.Y. Send me an email, and let me know your thoughts about the rinks in the ECAC West.

Playland Ice Casino – home of the Manhattanville Valiants

Grades:
Home Locker Room: A
Visiting Locker Room: D
Spectator Seating: D
Game Atmosphere: C
Concessions: B
Press Facilities: D
Game Facilities: B
Rink Aesthetics: C

Overall Grade: 77.5% (C+)

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As one approaches the Playland Ice Casino, the building exudes history. Built more than 70 years ago, the art-deco style fa硤e and park landscape transport you back to the 1930s. Once inside, the time warp continues. A spacious foyer looks more like the entrance to an old theater than an ice rink. The architecture continues into the rink itself, with a high, curved, wooden ceiling arching over a large ice surface framed by balconies on both sides.

There are three rinks within the complex: a full-size rink on the main level, a half-size rink upstairs on the second level, and a one-quarter size rink for small children. For the past 20-plus years, the main rink was the home of the New York Rangers’ practices. However, when the Rangers announced plans to build a new state-of-the-art practice facility, the future of Playland looked ominous.

The local county government and Manhattanville College worked out an agreement to save the classic rink from the wrecker’s ball, and provide the burgeoning men’s and women’s hockey teams of Manhattanville a home near campus.

Manhattanville invested $150,000 in capital improvements in the rink, and committed to a five-year lease. That is a total commitment by the school to the rink of over $1 million. The administration of Manhattanville is definitely investing in the future of its hockey programs.

The capital improvements to the rink centered on the locker rooms, creating the best home locker-room complex in the ECAC West. From the training room equipped with a whirlpool, sauna, and steam room, to the players’ room, where they can relax, playing ping-pong or pool, this locker room is better than some Division I facilities I have seen.

The only room not completed is, of course, the coach’s office.

The locker room itself is huge, with top-class cubicles for each player. It was a hoot walking through the locker room with coach Keith Levinthal as he pointed out, “Gretzky sat there, Lindros sat over there, …”

But like many old facilities, Playland is a story of the great, the good, and the ugly.

The good category features areas like concessions including an ample snack bar, the rink facilities, and the ambiance of the old building. While the ice surface is a strange 208’x77′, the player benches, boards, and ice surface are all large and well-maintained.

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Unfortunately, Playland wasn’t built for large, modern spectator events and the shortcomings of the building significantly take away from the experience of a college hockey game held there.

For the fans, there are three to four rows of bleacher-style seats arrayed around two-thirds of the rink at ice level. Stretching down both sides is a balcony, containing limited seating but good sight lines, which approaches very close to the ice. This balcony also overhangs both the home and away team benches and has led to some incidents with the crowd heckling and dropping things on opposing players.

The visiting locker rooms, while spacious, are a disaster waiting to happen due to their location. Exiting the locker room, visiting players have to walk the entire length of one balcony and down a full flight of stairs before reaching the ice surface. Not only can the stairs be challenging to walk down in skates, the players are not physically separated from the sometimes hostile crowd by anything. In the heat of the emotion following a hard-fought period of hockey, having the visiting players walk through a hostile crowd is a disaster waiting to happen.

Manhattanville has begun to address some of these issues as it gains experience in its new home. However, the addition of a highly-visible security team wearing easily identifiable jackets with experience in handling athletics fans would go a long way in avoiding future potential problems.

Playland is a huge step up compared to New Roc City as the home of Manhattanville hockey. As the school, the fans, and the team gain experience hosting events, the atmosphere and mechanics of game day will only get better. It shouldn’t take long for Levinthal to build the raucous and fun home rink that he desires.

Game of the Week

Plattsburgh at RIT on Saturday is a game for the “Doubters of the World” club. Both teams have had moments this season where they have looked ordinary, which is something neither team has done in a long, long time. Naysayers around college hockey are rejoicing that the powers might be knocked off the hill. Even loyal fans of these two teams doubt whether they have what it takes this year.

This game comes at a pivotal time for both teams. Within the next two weeks, each will enter the heart of its league schedule heading to the playoffs. The winner of this game will gain needed confidence and momentum. The loser may just hear those internal doubts start to echo a little louder.

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