Wrapping up Frozen Fenway, where the weather didn’t want to cooperate

Maine’s Cam Brown and Boston University’s Matt Lane splash through the puddles during last Saturday’s Frozen Fenway game (photo: Melissa Wade).

The grounds crew working at historic Fenway Park last Saturday looked more like they were working to get the greens playable at a rain-soaked U.S. Open golf tournament rather than a crew trying to clean wet ice.

And that the last sentence referenced three sports tells you just how crazy Saturday was at Frozen Fenway.

But that’s exactly the image that was put forward near the midway point of the first period between Boston University and Maine.

After massive claps of thunder accompanied bright flashes of lightning, rain poured down upon the ice sheet in buckets, putting a layer of nearly a half a foot of water on the temporary rink. And just when everyone thought the game would be halted because of the rain, out came a crew of seven with large brooms that you typically see rink crews use to remove a little bit of excess water after a flood from a Zamboni.

This time, these brooms were being used to push gallons of water toward an opening behind one of the goals onto the third-base line of Fenway Park.

The surreal scene was what was necessary to even give the crew a shot at keeping the ice playable. After removing as much water as possible, the two Zambonis did the rest of the work, providing a dry scrape that took most of the remaining water away.

At the end, it was the single strangest moment in hockey most will ever witness.

The torrential rain brought to an end two weeks of Hockey East’s attempts to stage outdoor hockey when Mother Nature had no plans to cooperate.

Week one was made difficult by more than a foot of snow that fell two days in advance of a doubleheader pitting Merrimack against Providence and Boston College against Notre Dame. Although the Fenway crew removed most of the snow, the frigid temperatures that followed on game night made the ice so brittle it was cracking.

It took seven-and-a-half hours to play those two games without any sort of delay like Maine and BU faced last Saturday. Extended intermissions and lengthened TV timeouts allowed the ice crew to mend as many holes as possible in the Fenway ice.

When the original weather forecast was presented for this past Saturday’s doubleheader, there was optimism as the temperatures were predicted in the high 40s, ideal conditions for players and fans alike.

Then came the rain. Hockey East wisely moved up the game times from 3 and 6:30 p.m. to noon and 3 p.m. But forecasts showed even that might not be enough.

Given a difficult decision to postpone the two-game slate to Sunday, something that could have made it difficult for ticket holders to attend, and try to squeeze the games in between rain drops, commissioner Joe Bertagna chose the latter.

“You have a lot of people who bought tickets for [Saturday] and maybe they can’t come Sunday,” said Bertagna. “We were trying to have that balance between accommodating people and juggling the elements.”

Once the commitment to Saturday was made, it was up to Bertagna’s ice crew to provide the best conditions possible. That included dry scraping the ice at times, taking breaks to clear away standing water and yes, moving gallons of water off the top of the ice surface during what amounted to a 69-minute rain delay.

Bertagna, who admirably faced the media during the second intermission of the BU-Maine game, was clear that he knew they could never provide the conditions that would be found at a campus rink. But they also knew that they could provide conditions that made the ice playable.

“It was a matter of maintaining the ice to playable conditions,” Bertagna said. “Not typical conditions, but playable conditions.”

In the end, both games of both doubleheaders were finalized and, even though conditions were difficult, those involved maintained as positive of an attitude as could be expected.

“[The spirit] of the coaches was pretty good,” said Bertagna. “Coaches are driven and these are league games. In the context of our new schedule, when you reduce the number of games, one point has a lot of weight to it.”

One coach who was a bit critical of Frozen Fenway was Notre Dame’s Jeff Jackson. After his team’s loss to Boston College in the first week of the event, Jackson said that there is an oversaturation of outdoor games resulting in a lack of interest.

In a way, that showed both weeks at Fenway. The first two versions of the event, played in 2010 and 2012, sold out each single-day doubleheaders.

This time, Hockey East took a larger bite of the apple with two separate doubleheaders. The result was two dates where games were played in front of a half-empty-looking stadium. According to Bertagna, the first week’s games drew more than 30,000 in ticket sales but only about 24,000 fans in the seats. Last Saturday’s announced paid attendance was 25,580, and Bertagna estimated about 17,000 fans walked through the turnstiles.

The attrition can mostly be attributed to the poor weather of both dates. But the reality was more than 55,000 fans purchased tickets to the event.

So the question comes: Should Frozen Fenway continue?

Not surprisingly, Bertagna wasn’t going to answer that question last Saturday. He said speculating would take away from the hard work of everyone involved, something that easily can be overlooked. The truth is, most involved closely with this event put in countless hours of overtime to pull it off.

So what should the league do moving forward with what has become an every-other-year event?

There are a number of options. The most obvious might be reducing the Hockey East portion of the event to a single game. Though the original event in 2010 featured a men’s and women’s doubleheader, most of the tickets sold were related to the men’s game, thus creating a sold-out feel to the ballpark.

One of the challenges to this is financial. The cost of putting a rink at Fenway Park or any other venue is significant, and one single game cannot in any way recoup those expenses. But the league could consider allowing other leagues/teams to use the ice, similar to what was done this year (women’s, Division III, high school, prep school, alumni games, etc.), but market to the masses the single Hockey East game.

At the same time, there could be a consideration of a change in venues for the event. While Fenway Park and the Red Sox have been gracious hosts, the simple fact is the sight lines are poor. Any seats in the lower box levels of the park block the ability to see the puck. The top seats at Fenway in club/luxury levels and on top of the Green Monster were cost-prohibitive for many. Thus, most of the fans crushed themselves into the tight grandstand seats, far enough away from the action to remove much of the atmosphere.

One potential venue for the event in the future could be Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., the home of the New England Patriots. There has already been some rumor that the NHL might be looking at Gillette for a future outdoor game, and piggy-backing that event would make sense. There would be considerably more seats that would have a clear view of the play (albeit from far away).

Regardless the future decisions, the 2014 version of Frozen Fenway is over. Bertagna can breathe a sigh of relief and maybe spend some time thawing/drying out.

Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau (right) has six goals and six assists in five games since the winter break (photo: Melissa Wade).

Gaudreau takes over national scoring lead

A couple of weeks ago, I noted in this space that Johnny Gaudreau was playing some pretty impressive hockey.

In the last two weeks, that has hardly ceased. We couldn’t have known, though, that in a short period of time, he would become the nation’s scoring leader.

Entering the holiday break, Gaudreau had 28 points, eight behind St. Lawrence’s Greg Carey. Between BC’s return on Dec. 28 and now, Gaudreau’s Eagles have played four more games than Carey’s Saints.

And just like that, the explosive Gaudreau now leads the points race, 40-37.

Gaudreau has potted six goals and six assists in the five games since returning from the break, with the Eagles posting a 4-0-1 mark in that time. Last Friday night, Gaudreau factored into four of BC’s five goals (2-2–4) in a key 5-2 league victory over Providence.

Saturday, when Gaudreau played in his 100th collegiate game, he registered a single assist, his 21st of the season to collect career point No. 136, passing his coach Jerry York (to his credit, York got 135 points in 81 career games).

At this point, Gaudreau has scored in 16 consecutive games and 20 of 21 contests.

As impressive as the 5-foot-7 forward has been throughout his career at BC, York said his current play is something college hockey hasn’t seen in quite a while.

“Johnny has had an incredible career here at BC, but right now he’s at the very top of his game,” said York. “He’s improved every year. But right now, this is the best I’ve seen him play. Practices, games. People last year were saying, ‘What else can Johnny do?’

“Johnny wants to get better at every facet of his game. He’s better defensively. I think he’s stronger on the puck. He’s shooting the puck better.

“It’s an awful lot of fun for us to watch him play.”

Here is a stat to put on display Gaudreau’s clutch play: He has scored five game-winning goals, just one short of his career high set last season. But he’s also factored into four other goals that either won the game or tied it in the third period.

You have to go back to 2009 and BU’s Matt Gilroy since Hockey East has had a Hobey Baker Award winner. But if Gaudreau keeps on his current pace, he could easily be a unanimous choice for that award.

Hockey East and the PairWise

With USCHO debuting this year’s PairWise Rankings, we see how Hockey East stacks up against the rest of the nation.

Right now, it’s pretty impressive.

As of Wednesday, five Hockey East teams rank in the top 16 led by Boston College at No. 2. Northeastern (t-6th), Providence (t-8th), Massachusetts-Lowell (t-8th) and New Hampshire (13th) and Notre Dame (16th) all sit above the PairWise line (though, if the season ended today, Notre Dame would lose its position in the NCAA field to the Atlantic Hockey champion).

And while having six teams above the bubble line is impressive, what’s more eye-opening is that the 17th and 18th ranked teams are Vermont and Maine, respectively.

There’s a lot of hockey to be played, but imagining as many as six Hockey East teams in the NCAA field is an absolute dream scenario.