The New Digs

A day after a thrilling overtime finish, one thing about the 2003 ECAC Championship tournament was clear — it wasn’t Lake Placid.

Perhaps it was the warm weather. Perhaps it was the fact Cornell actually won in the finals. Or perhaps it was the conversation, specifically the one I had with an Albany police officer Friday night:

“Officer, I need to get to the Ramada Inn, which is five blocks away, is it OK to walk?”

“Take a cab.”

Amidst all the advantages the move from Lake Placid to Albany offered the ECAC, the league failed to mention one thing — cities tend to have a bad side of town. While the Pepsi Arena proved a splendid host, it also happens to be adjacent to the proverbial train tracks, or for Albany, the Greyhound bus station.

There are two hotels within walking distance to the Pepsi Arena. The official tournament hotel, the Crowne Plaza, is a charming amble through heavily London-influenced downtown Albany to a first-rate facility. Getting to the Ramada, fifty dollars a night cheaper, requires a skulk through narrow, dimly lit, industrial lots along the most potholed street in America.

No wonder that upon entering the cab, the driver knew the flat rate to charge for such a trip. He had made several runs that evening.

After surviving the sojourn to the hotel, Albany proved a masterful host for the tournament. While the legendary, pond-hockey charm of Lake Placid was missed, the palpable excitement created by the bigger milieu more than compensated.

“Everyone at Albany and among the Pepsi staff has been great,” said ECAC assistant commissioner Steve Hagwell. “In all our time here, I don’t think I ever heard the word ‘no.’ Every issue that came up was taken care of.”

The ECAC switched venues because it wanted to grow its tournament. The Pepsi Arena, barely half full for the final game, held more people than the 1980 Rink could at capacity. The facility offered the event an extra element of professionalism, typified by the video program and laser show before the final game.

Albany’s central location made the travel much easier and surely enabled more fans to attend the event. Aside from the North Country teams, it was a long haul to the land of hockey miracles.

“We had a great time at Lake Placid,” Hagwell said. “Given our league situation, we needed to make this move in order to grow, and it is only year one.”

Albany rolled out the red carpet. Signs adorned the streets welcoming fans to the event. Local establishments created hockey displays in their windows. The city cordoned off the block outside the arena for a carnival-like fanfest, replete with music, hockey games, burgers and the Amazing Larry, an erstwhile juggler. It was a much more public event than what used to be held at the 1936 Rink at Placid.

“We can pull in the casual hockey fans,” said Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet. “The city did a great job. It was fun to walk around and see all the bars and shops with hockey signs in the window.”

As he was getting his face painted at the outdoor festival before the championship game, 10-year old Harvard fan Danny Aisenberg stated his approval more succinctly.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “I’m pretty sure Harvard is going to win tonight. Dominic Moore is my favorite player.”

Though the Crimson may have disappointed Danny (at least Moore came through with a goal), the event did not.

Aside from the travel time, Albany offered several other practical advantages to Lake Placid. If you did not mind driving to the game, it has a myriad of inexpensive hotels on the town’s outskirts. There were more options for food and drink — though Mr. Mike’s Pizza was sorely missed. And most important for the hockey, the Pepsi Arena has a standard, NHL sized rink, not a famous, but Olympic-sized, sheet.

“It was a good change having an NHL-sized rink,” Gaudet said. “It’s almost the same dimensions as ours. We don’t have an Olympic-sized rink in our league, so it was nice to play on a rink where the game didn’t change. You have to change your tactics to play on the bigger sheet.”

Not everything about the move to Albany was an improvement. The Pepsi rink may have been standard-sized, but the boards were extremely loose and pucks caromed strangely all tournament. Moreover, the glass showed an extreme propensity to break: ask Harvard defenseman Peter Hafner, who took a trip through it, begging the question how the NHL-sized sheet supports NHL-sized players.

Though Albany offered more options, at Lake Placid there was an intangible charm to attending an event in which the whole town was transformed into an ECAC capital. Jillians in Albany may have offered a larger dance floor and a blacklight that illuminated certain people quite interestingly, but it was filled as much with locals looking to party on the weekend as ECAC fans. Compare that to Mudpuddles, or more recently, Roomers, where you knew you could see almost the entire conference out having a good time.

But perhaps those are the little traditions that simply need to get established over time. The huge Cornell contingent certainly had fun.

“You look at the crowd that we had out here tonight,” said Cornell coach Mike Schafer. “I think this is the start of the ECAC becoming bigger and better. This is going to continue to grow, and we as a league and as a program hope this becomes one of the best tournaments in college hockey.”

Of course, the biggest key to the success of any hockey venue is the hockey itself. As long as the final match can consistently be a dramatic overtime battle between top rivals, then success in Albany is assured.

“I give a lot of credit to our administrators to our league for changing venues,” Schafer said. We loved Lake Placid, but maybe that was the best thing for us was to change scenery. “What a memorable way to kick off the tournament in this building, with an overtime win.”

All things considered, Albany appears to be a better location for the ECAC championship. Just make sure to stay on the right side of the bus station.

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