If you live in Utica, NY, the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night is at the Aud for a Utica College hockey game. The Pioneers led the D-III nation last year in attendance, packing 25,291 fans into their venerable rink over the course of twelve games. That average per game (2,107) exceeded attendance of 21 Division-I programs as well.
It is the culmination of a goal that coach Gary Heenan and the team have been building towards for several years.
â€œIt is something that has steadily increased since our inception, and last year became an off-the-ice goal of ours,â€ said Heenan. â€œWe keyed on some promotional things and getting the community involved in some events. We are very proud of that, and will look to improve on that again this season.â€
An important part of the equation has been success on the ice. The Pioneers have always excelled defensively, in the standings, and are one of only two ECAC West teams to have made the playoffs each of the last four years (Manhattanville is the other).
However, the Pioneers have repeatedly fallen a goal short in the playoffs and that is something that Utica is intent on fixing this season.
â€œIt is offense,â€ said Heenan. â€œIn the six years that we have been around, offensively we havenâ€™t been a huge juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination. That is where we have suffered. We have never been a team to put in a ton of pucks. Weâ€™ve always been top of the league in defensive play and penalty kill. We need to focus in on getting the power play going and capitalizing on more chances to get more offense out of our team.â€
A key to helping the offense lies in the 20 returning players and the addition of five freshmen skaters.
â€œIt is a unique class from all over the place,â€ said Heenan. â€œThere are some guys with some very good junior hockey numbers, so we are optimistic for some production from them.â€
Four forwards — Sean Timkey, Nathan Brummitt, Nick Kulas, and Sean Farley — join the team, each of whom put up solid numbers last season. The lone addition on defense, Kregg Guestin, also will be looked at to add to the mix.
â€œGuestin is a great skater, can move the puck well, and has a bit of an offensive flair to him,â€ added Heenan.
However, there were also three players from last yearâ€™s team that played significant minutes but failed to return to the team this season and will be missed for their contributions.
â€œWe had three no shows, Brandon Laidlaw (8-8-16), Scott Phelps (3-5-8), and Zach Gieszler (1-3-4),â€ said Heenan. â€œIt was a bit of a surprise. All three did well here academically and played significant minutes for us, so we expected to get them back but for whatever reason they decided to go a different way.â€
Utica is a solid hockey town, and the Pioneers hope to whip the community into a frenzy this season by putting up big offensive numbers.
â€œWe are in a unique situation here, and are privileged to play in a city that really values the product we are putting on the ice,â€ said Heenan. â€œFriday night in Utica means going to a Utica College hockey game. That is a great place to be. Our players feed off that energy in the building.â€