Romney Remembered

“It’s a great, classic college arena,” Fredonia coach Jeff Meredith says.

If you look up the word experience in a dictionary, one of the definitions you will find is along the lines of “the apprehension of an object, thought, or emotion through the senses or mind.”

My first experience — in the true sense of the above definition — with the Golden Romney Field House came in my senior year at college. It was Potsdam’s first-ever postseason appearance and the Bears were to play in the first round of the ECAC West playoffs (this was before the SUNYAC hockey league was formed) at number one-seeded Oswego. As a member of the Bears’ broadcasting team, I went to cover the game.

I had heard about Romney. I knew that Oswego had a huge home-ice advantage (the Lakers had lost something like two home games the prior two years) thanks to the peculiarities of the place. But I didn’t take much stock in it.

After all, I was familiar with Walker Arena, having attended many a Clarkson game, including contests against St. Lawrence and Cornell, two of their fiercest rivals. Talk about a wild time. How could you top a college hockey experience like Walker especially since it had what one opponent, Ken Dryden, called in a Sports Illustrated interview “that damn bell.”

Boy, was I wrong.

The first time I saw Romney, my initial impression was, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” As the game progressed, my second thought was, “You’ve really got to be kidding me.”

There was nothing like it.

First, there is the building itself. Like anything with Romney, the deeper you go, the more fascinating the place is. The building started out as an old airplane hangar. Nothing too strange with that — there is a reason why hockey slang contains phrases such as “the old barn” or “in the hangar.”

With Romney, however, this particular hanger wasn’t originally in Oswego. It was part of the Sampson Air Force Base in Romulus, N.Y., near Geneva, about 60 miles away, and dated back to World War II. The base had been decommissioned (it is now a state park next to the Seneca Army Depot), and the government was selling off the place.

Gardner “Tully” Wells joined the athletic department in 1959 and wanted to start a hockey program. Hearing of the building’s availability, he bought it — and moved it.

How do you move an airplane hanger? Simple. Disassemble it. Put it on lots of trucks. Reassemble it.

Named after the former Dean of Athletics, Golden Romney, it was the first rink in the SUNY system, and the first year a team played in it was 1964-65. The first two years, it was a club team before going varsity.

Then, there was the shape of the rink. Since Oswego wanted it to be an all-purpose facility, they put an indoor track around it. This forced the rink, which was inside the track, to be small and egg-shaped. Yes, egg-shaped.

This was part of the reason for their home-ice advantage.

“With the original Romney with the funny-shaped rink,” Potsdam coach Glenn Thomaris says, “they were very good, very aggressive. They put a lot of shots on net. They were very entertaining for the home fans, very frustrating for the visitors.”

Once you got over (well, at least accepted) the shape of the rink, there is the issue of no glass. They were still playing with chain-link fencing. I’ve seen NHL pictures of referees climbing the fence above the boards while Gordie Howe laid a check on an opponent, but that was from the ’50s.

This was 1982, and I wasn’t aware Oswego had invented a time machine.

Finally, there is the seating arrangement. “Loved to play in that place because of the energy in the building,” Cortland coach Tom Cranfield says. “The large crowds — they are right on top of the ice, and they yell at you when you come off.”

“Tremendous home-ice advantage,” Plattsburgh coach Bob Emery says. “Loud with the low ceiling. Tough rink to coach in because the players can’t hear you.”

The seats on the sides were so close and so cramped, you stood the whole game. Seats behind the goals offered the ability to sit down, so the town’s people occupied those. The students took the seats to the sides. They stood and cheered the whole game. When Oswego tied that playoff game in the last minute to send it to overtime, the eruption reverberated off the walls. I have never heard before or since a noise louder than that one at a hockey game.

However, all of this paled compared to the feature that simply blew my mind. When I asked Oswego coach Ed Gosek, who also played for the Lakers in the early 80s, what was his greatest memory of the old version, he didn’t hesitate: “The penalty box.”

That’s because there wasn’t a penalty box. Seriously, it did not exist. The players, when they were sent off to the sin bin, sat in the bleachers, right next to the fans.

You can’t make this stuff up.

No protection from the fans spitting on the visiting players (which happened often). A space between the front row of the bleachers and the boards wide enough that fans walked right in front of the players. A state trooper — a very large, armed state trooper — sat between the two penalty boxes, or should I say penalty areas.

“The people walked in front of you,” Gosek says. “That’s okay if you were the home team, but the visitors, there were a lot of issues especially when the players had to return to the ice. Just imagine that today.”

The benches weren’t much better. “No glass behind the benches,” Gosek says. “Just a little railing separating the fans from the players, so the fans would stand behind the visiting bench and give them abuse all game. It was intimidating.”

It still is. The rink finally went through an extensive renovation. The shape matched a proper rink. The size was enlarged. Plexiglas was erected above the boards. Real penalty boxes and benches were built surrounded by glass. The ice surface was improved.

“Ice is second to none,” Cranfield says.

“I still think we have the best ice,” Gosek says. “It’s fast ice. The right temperature. The boards and the deep corners have given us an advantage.”

The new rink size, shape, and ice surface changed the way Oswego recruited. And since the Lakers recruited especially for these attributes, there was still a huge home-ice advantage. Oswego has had just seven losing seasons in over 40 years of play.

A lot of that is thanks to Romney.

The crowd is still virtually on top of the ice. The sound travels and echoes very well with the low, curved roof. It would be an acoustical nightmare for a concert hall, but just what you want for a sports arena. Many a time, I’ve witnessed bantering back and forth between the home and visiting fans who despite being on opposite sides of the rink, were able to hear each other perfectly.

“The crowd was very hostile,” Thomaris says. “Very tough to go into Oswego and establish yourself. One of the toughest places I have to play at. To come out of there with a win at any time is an achievement.”

“It provided a unique atmosphere,” Gosek says. “Not the finest facility, but it fit the team’s personality very well — hard-working, blue-collar. And the students bought into that. It got pretty crazy at times. Hopefully, that atmosphere and feeling will transfer to the new building.”

No question, the new building will be a beauty, the best in Division III. Designed by the same firm, Cannon Design, that built brand-new Agganis Arena at Boston University, it will contain all the amenities of modern rinks.

“It’s beautiful. There’s lots of seats. All individual seats with cup holders. Large lobby area. Full snack bar,” Gosek says.

But then he adds, “Now you pack the students in shoulder to shoulder, and they don’t care.”

That’s the enigma. The new rink will be beautiful, but will it really be better?

“I liked going to Romney,” Meredith says. “It’s got a lot of tradition. You think of guys like Herb Hammond and Don Unger (they used to call the hot dogs at Romney “Ungerdogs”) and all the great players they’ve had there. The people are so close to you. I don’t know if they will be that close in the new arena.”

“I think whenever someone moves to a new rink, you lose some of that home-ice advantage,” Emery says.

“I’m sure a lot of people are looking forward to the new building,” Geneseo coach Jason Lammers says. “But there are a few who are probably wishing the old place wasn’t going away. There is a lot of culture there. A lot of charisma in that place.”

“Great, great history for Oswego,” Cranfield says. “Romney has great character. When you walk into the place, you get awed.”

“A lot of tremendous history in that building. A lot of great hockey in that building,” Thomaris says, but he realizes it’s going to be a big help. “It’s already helped them in the recruiting wars. It’s going to help them get better. Being able to host a junior team will be a huge advantage. I think their freshman class this year, and even their sophomore class, is a result of the new building. Being near the dorms, I think they will have huge crowds.”

I don’t believe in the “good old days.” Never have, never will. People only remember what they want to remember, and every generation has its own good old days — which means there cannot be any good old days.

I also love modern technology, new inventions, and creature comforts. I don’t like when people want to go backwards.

However, just because there are no good old days does not mean there is nothing good from the old days. And, just because I love the new and modern, doesn’t mean every new and modern thing is good.

“On the one hand, sad to see it go,” Cranfield says. “On the other hand, it is a new chapter for Oswego.”

This weekend, the last regular-season games will be held in Romney against Plattsburgh and Potsdam. Interestingly, depending on how the playoffs develop, my last experience at Romney could be a Potsdam-Oswego game.

One thing I can state unequivocally. A college hockey fan will never, ever again have an experience like the one at Romney.