Frozen Fenway finished … finally

BOSTON – The 2012 version of Frozen Fenway is officially over. Let me be the first to say, “Thank heaven.”

I know. I’m what you might call a Negative Nelly. You can say I don’t appreciate the aura of Fenway Park or the nostalgia of outdoor hockey.

To that I would disagree.

I think outdoor hockey can be enjoyable. I believe firmly the NHL’s Winter Classic is one of the most enjoyable events on the annual sports calendar.

Back when Frozen Fenway was announced, I criticized it openly. I said that it had the potential to be a financial failure for all involved, particularly Hockey East.

For that, I was massively incorrect. For those with a vested interest, Frozen Fenway was an incredible financial success. Hockey East, its members and the Boston Red Sox will all profit considerably.

But outdoor hockey, particularly when you dig back to the roots of playing in stadiums, suffered during this year’s Frozen Fenway.

Go back to 2001 when Michigan and Michigan State started what has now become an everyday occurrence. A crowd of 74,544 packed Spartan Stadium, creating an atmosphere that has been surpassed only by the 109,901 fanatics that jammed into Michigan’s “Big House” in December 2010. Those events, in my opinion at least, were what playing stadium hockey was all about.

Jam them in, create an incredible atmosphere and do something rare that can be appreciated by all those involved.

Two years ago, Hockey East did a great job replicating the Michigan-Michigan State atmosphere. When Boston College and Boston University faced off one week after the NHL held its third Winter Classic at Fenway Park, everything that was right about stadium hockey was on display.

Jam packed crowds, unmatched atmosphere, history-making experiences. Those we’re all part of the 2010 version of this event.

From a business perspective, obviously that game was a hit (a home run if you want a cheesy baseball analogy).

So, in the capitalistic spirit, both Hockey East and the Red Sox decided, “Let’s do it again.”

And if you left it at that, a single-day hockey doubleheader, I might be saying that 2012 Frozen Fenway worked perfectly.

Last Saturday’s games were compelling. The crowd, though split between two games, had decent spirit and spunk.

But the always-needing-to-make-another-buck Red Sox couldn’t stop there.
High school hockey, junior hockey, community skates, private rentals (at which organizations paid up to $10,000 for an hour on the Fenway ice), simply put, watered down the outdoor hockey experience.

For those who skated, I’m sure it was a dream come true. For those who attended, maybe it was special.

But having Harvard and Union play in front of a three-quarters empty ballpark on Friday created a Beanpot consolation game atmosphere. Saturday wasn’t much better when Northeastern and Boston College played the final of 14 Frozen Fenway games in front an announced crowd of 29,601, though reality was the stadium was about half full (Saturday’s New England Patriots game which started four hours after faceoff may have factored into that).

Taking myself out of the sportswriter persona and simply reacting as a fan, something simply seemed missing. You got the vibe of a half-empty Conte Forum or Matthews Arena for a game that would’ve created a compelling atmosphere almost any night of the week in either venue.

Add to that the fact that this is an important league game for both teams (Northeastern head coach Jim Madigan said after a loss on Friday that “every league game is like a game 7” to his team right now due to its desperation), being played on a below par ice surface with the need to factor in wind direction almost seems like a disservice to the players (on Saturday, the third period had to be played in two 10-minute segments so that each team played 30 minutes in each direction).

Trust me, not a single player in that game will complain about playing at Fenway Park. Neither will either coach. Nor will any player or coach that has been involved over the last two weeks in these games.

But if the integrity of the game of hockey, the integrity of stadium hockey or the integrity of old school pond hockey had a voice, I think it would say that something was missing.

Money makes the world go ’round, no doubt. And because of this, similar outdoor games will continue to happen (Wisconsin is already talking about hosting a game next year at Soldiers Field). But the desire to squeeze every penny out of Frozen Fenway 2012, in this writer’s opinion, contributed significantly to making outdoor college hockey games an overplayed phenomena.