I know there are detractors who will say that outdoor hockey has “jumped the shark” and that it’s time to end games played in 59-degree weather.
I politely disagree.
Didn’t the Frozen Fenway event sell out in what amounts to the blink of an eye? Those fans who bought tickets didn’t have guns pointed to their heads. They did so because they were excited to see their team play at Fenway.
Did the sight lines compare to an indoor game? Of course not. But the outdoor contest offered compensating values that 38,456 thought worthy of attending.
Were there lots of empty seats early in the first game and late in the second? Sure, just like there are at the Beanpot and most any non-playoff doubleheader involving four teams.
In short, the fans voted with their ticket purchases and gave Frozen Fenway an unambiguous thumbs up.
As for the players and coaches, Frozen Fenway became the thrill of a lifetime.
First, let’s hear from the losing locker rooms (ummm, make that clubhouses).
“The whole thing was absolutely fabulous,” said New Hampshire coach Dick Umile. “Congratulations to Hockey East and the Red Sox. We had two overtime games here tonight at Fenway and 40,000 people. It doesn’t get any better than that.
“I’m thankful we had an opportunity to be part of it.”
“It was unbelievable,” said the Wildcats’ Kevin Goumas. “As a kid you just dream about playing college hockey, much less playing at a ballpark in front of 30,000 fans and playing against a rival like Maine. The atmosphere was unbelievable.”
Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon, whose Catamounts fell to 1-11-1 in Hockey East play with the loss, talked of how his downtrodden players had been all smiles leading up to the Fenway game and how “We have to find our Fenway” the rest of the way.
As for the winners …
“We treated this like another Hockey East game,” said Massachusetts coach Don “Toot” Cahoon. “[But] we knew it was more and you couldn’t help but feel it, given the intensity of the crowd and the party-like atmosphere. It was a great event from my perspective.”
“You can’t help but notice you’re at Fenway Park,” said UMass goaltender Jeff Teglia. “I’ll never forget it. I found out this morning [I’d get the start] and I can’t tell you how much it meant to me.”
“What a great night,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “The fans were unbelievable, really a great atmosphere. It was electric out there. It was great experience for all of our guys.”
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said the Black Bears’ Brian Flynn.
Last but not least, check out what Joey Diamond had to say about playing at Fenway. Diamond, by the way, is a Yankees fan.
“I thought it was the coolest thing playing in a venue like this,” he said. “It was very special.”
I repeat, a Yankees fan.
So what, may I ask, is the problem?
I look forward to another Frozen Fenway in another few years.
Toot and Fenway
While Cahoon has already commented in the preceding section on the event, he holds a special place among hockey people and Fenway Park. He’s thrown out a first pitch, coached UMass to Saturday’s overtime win, and …
… well, let’s let him tell it.
“I know there are 70,000 people that have said they were at Ted Williams’ last game when he hit a home run, but I actually was,” Cahoon said. “I was 11 years old and my dad brought me in. There might have been 14,000 people there because I know it was half empty.
“I can remember when Ted Williams hit [the home run], my dad jumping out of his seat, [yelling], ‘He did it! He did it!’
“I love this park. I love this city. It’s exciting for the team first and foremost and for the school, but on a personal level it’s very exciting.”
When asked once more about his Fenway notoriety, Cahoon turned humorous.
“It’ll be something they put on my gravestone, I suppose,” he said. “But I’d rather stay alive and not have that written real soon.”
Beanpot teams often tell of how their success in early February propelled them on a strong stretch drive. Arguably, the four Frozen Fenway teams were looking for a comparable springboard, albeit one several weeks earlier than the Beanpot.
UMass and Maine now have chances at that springboard effect.
“I think time will tell,” said Cahoon. “That’s something that will have to wait.
“I had people asking me earlier in the year whether our BC win at home was going to be the springboard for the team taking off and I said, why don’t you wait a month? We went ahead and lost three or four in a row and then we won three.
“This team is going through some type of evolution and there are pieces of this team that need to improve for sure and there are probably a couple of parts that we’re still missing.
“We need to take what we can from this event and grow from it. I think there’ll be some growth for sure. There better be.”
For Maine, the springboard may have occurred well before Frozen Fenway. The Black Bears have won four straight and eight of nine.
“We’ve been on a pretty good run here, so I think it’s more just continuing to do what we’re doing now and playing hard for each other,” said Whitehead. “Guys are taking hits for each other, blocking shots.
“So I think in our case it’s not so much a springboard but more of a reaffirmation that the work the players are putting in is really starting to pay off for them.
“They really stuck together through a tough start. Sometimes it’s a little sweeter after difficulty and that’s what it’s been for us this year. It was a tough opening, but we knew we had the nucleus and the leadership in our senior class to turn it around, and they’re starting to do that.”
Maine’s momentum, however, will be tested in its next six games, all against Hockey East foes ranked in the top 10 of the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. Two at Merrimack, two back home against Boston College and two at Boston University.
“We have a tough stretch here,” said Whitehead. “So I’m not so much thinking about a springboard as I am making sure we don’t fall back because of the emotional high of tonight. Let’s enjoy it for tonight and then we’ll worry about that next week.”
Of hard noses and harnesses
A key factor in Maine’s resurgence has been Diamond, a junior forward. His two goals in the Frozen Fenway contest gave him 14 on the year, tops among all Black Bears players. He’s scored goals now in the last four games, six of seven, and has failed to register a point only once in the last 12 games.
“I’m proud of Joey,” said Whitehead. “I sat him out for the second North Dakota game [early in the season]. He had a couple of penalties in the third period [of the first game] that hurt us.
“We’ve had Prestin Ryan and Robbie Bellamy — some real hard-nosed, tough kids. Not all of them end up being able to harness it, but I’ll tell you, Joey [has]. I think that’s seven out of the last eight games that he hasn’t had a penalty.
“Prestin was an All-American after he harnessed everything and Joey’s the same. He’s playing unbelievable now and he’s playing with discipline. It’s been a little bit of a road to get there, but he’s a great kid. He’d do anything for his teammates. I’m proud of him.”
Two more quotes from Fenway
“Toot” Cahoon on his team’s overtime win:
“I can relate to Big Papi when he hits a walk-off home run in the 11th because that’s what it felt like.”
Sneddon on Michael Paliotta’s penalty in overtime:
“I didn’t see it. I saw him standing over a body. That isn’t usually a good sign.”
A peek at the PairWise
It’s way too early to be looking at the PairWise Rankings but …
If the season ended today, Hockey East would get four teams into the tournament. They’re two familiar faces in Boston College (fourth overall seed) and Boston University (fifth), a recent addition in Merrimack (tied for ninth) and a new face in Massachusetts-Lowell (tied for sixth).
Northeastern would be on the bubble (tied for 16th) while three more teams would at least be under consideration: Maine (tied for 24th), Massachusetts (28th) and Providence (32nd).
Only New Hampshire and Vermont are at this point out of the picture entirely. Considering UNH’s second-longest active streak of tournament appearances (10) and Vermont’s recent trip to the Frozen Four (2009), those two results certainly rank as the most eye-opening.
Cracking the Ice
My hockey novel Cracking the Ice is finally hitting the shelves this weekend and I’d encourage you to check it out. I’m very proud of it.
Set in 1968 during the height of the Civil Rights struggle, it depicts Jessie Stackhouse, a 15-year-old, black hockey player who is recruited to break the color line at an all-white prep school. While the headmaster is very idealistic, Jessie finds that neither his coach nor his teammates want him there. He must not only battle opposing teams but his own.
I talked about it with Jim Connelly and Ed Trefzger on USCHO Live! It’s appropriate for teenagers 14-years-old and up as well as adults.
Here’s what two award-winning writers have said about the book:
“Cracking the Ice scores the literary equivalent of a hat-trick: funny, harrowing and finally, heartfelt. This book is a winner.” — Greg Neri
“I started Cracking the Ice and could not put it down. Jessie Stackhouse’s generosity, hope and intelligence touched my heart … I kept reading until the last page!” — Joyce Carol Thomas
In these perilous publishing days, it’s hard to predict what brick-and-mortar bookstores will be stocking any title, so if you don’t see it at your local favorite, please consider ordering (or pre-ordering) it at Amazon or Barnes and Noble online.
I’ll also be holding a book release party sometime in the next few weeks, so if you’re interested please drop me a line. I’m not sure yet about the date, but it’ll be in downtown Boston (with free parking). Email me at [email protected].