Commentary: As RIT says farewell to Ritter, here are some of its most memorable moments

This hockey season has not been kind to the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers, who can finish no higher than ninth place and therefore will not be hosting an Atlantic Hockey playoff series.

That will be a dubious first for the Tigers since joining the league in 2007. RIT fans have been spoiled, getting to attend at least a couple of extra home games each season.

Ritter Arena has been the home of RIT hockey since 1968 (photo: Dylan Heuer).

So March 1 looms, the final men’s hockey game to be played at RIT’s Frank Ritter Arena, the last of over 600 contests played there since it opened over four decades ago. Next season, the Tigers move into their new home, the Gene Polisseni Center, which is under construction about 200 yards southwest of Ritter.

The RIT women’s team, which has played roughly 330 games at Ritter, may extend the arena’s tenure by a day. It hosts Penn State in a best-of-three CHA playoff series this weekend and if a third game is needed, it will be played on Sunday, March 2.

But in any case, history, as they say, will be made in a few days.

The 2,100-capacity Ritter Arena debuted in 1968 when RIT relocated its campus from downtown Rochester to the rural (at the time) suburb of Henrietta, N.Y. There were nine academic buildings on campus then; there are 33 now.

RIT grew around Ritter Arena, which is named after Frank Ritter, the owner of a successful dentist chair company who helped found the Mechanic’s Institute, one of the precursors to RIT, in 1885.

The original version of the arena was a monolithic brick structure with little personality. It wasn’t until the early 1980s — when RIT decided to make its ice hockey program, which had originated at the downtown campus in 1962, an “emphasis sport” — that seats started to fill at the Ritter.

Ritter Arena in its early days (photo: RIT Archives).

The Tigers came out of nowhere to win a Division II national title in 1983, putting the program on the map. Another title, this one in Division III, came two years later. Over that stretch, as the popularity of the program grew, the Ritter became one of the loudest buildings in college hockey due to its brick design, low ceiling and bench seating close to the ice, cramming fans in and putting them on top of the action.

RIT’s move to Division I in 2005 as well as the rise of the school’s women’s program to national prominence increased the Ritter’s stature. The last of several renovations of the arena was completed in 2010 and by then, the secret was out.

“One of the loudest buildings I have been in,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson, who has seen a lot of hockey barns in his career as both a player (Bowling Green ’84) and coach. His 15 seasons at the Tigers’ helm has produced a stellar 140-59-31 record at Ritter, including 71-28-20 in Atlantic Hockey play.

“It helps cement the deal [for recruits],” said Wilson. “You want to play in front of a lot of people and the atmosphere with the Corner Crew (the Ritter’s notorious student section) and band. It’s a great atmosphere.”

I attended my first RIT hockey game at Ritter Arena in 1981, eventually moving into the broadcast booth in 1995. My best estimate is that I have witnessed a lifetime’s worth of games there, about 500 in all.

With so many memories to choose from, I’ve attempted to pick 10 that stand out above the rest. I reached out to former players, coaches and fans to help me. In chronological order:

March 11-12, 1983

The Tigers made their first NCAA tournament appearance, hosting a two-game, total-goals (yes, total goals) quarterfinal series with Mankato State (now Minnesota State). RIT dominated the first night 6-1 but lost the second game 6-3. It was enough, however, to move the Tigers on to the semifinals.

The next weekend, RIT upset host Lowell (now Massachusetts-Lowell) and Bemidji (still Bemidji) to win the school’s first national title in any sport. Dave Burkholder, now coach at Niagara, backstopped the Tigers to the title at Lowell. But it started with the Mankato series at the Ritter, RIT fans’ first experience with what would become decades of postseason insanity.

April 28, 1983

The concert poster for U2’s 1983 appearance at Ritter Arena.

Not all of the memorable moments at Ritter had to do with hockey. U2 played there, the fourth stop on the band’s first North American tour as a headlining act. My most vivid memory of that show was Bono waving his now ubiquitous white flag while perched on a wobbly set of amplifiers.

Before the construction of the Gordon Field House in 2004, Ritter hosted many of RIT’s commencement ceremonies, including my own in 1984 and 1991.

March 17, 1984

Ritter hosted its first Division III Frozen Four, but RIT fell short in its title defense, losing to Union in four overtimes in the national semifinals. Overtimes were 10 minutes long back then, but each seemed like an eternity.

Gil Eagan scored the game-winner for Union, putting a wild, fluttering shot past Burkholder, who to this day will tell you that the puck was deflected. Despite a dominating history of success for the Tigers at Ritter Arena, this was the first of four national championships lost on home ice by RIT hockey teams.

March 23-24, 1989

For the 1988-89 season, the NCAA decided that each round of the Division III tournament would be a two-game series with a possible 10-minute “minigame” if teams split the series or tied both games (no overtimes were played except if tied in the minigame).

RIT hosted throughout the ECAC West playoffs and all three rounds of the NCAA Division III tournament, which meant the Tigers played a ridiculous 10 consecutive postseason games at the Ritter. They had played a typical 11 regular season home games, so for fans and players, this was a literally a second season, a marathon of thrills and ultimately disappointment, as the Tigers lost to Wisconsin-Stevens Point 3-3 and 3-2 in the championship series. Longtime St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin captained the Pointers to their first national title.

March 17, 2001

Great memories, but again great disappointment for the Tigers, who lost to Plattsburgh 6-2 in yet another Division III national championship game at the Ritter.

RIT was at the precipice of an undefeated season, entering the final game with a 27-0-1 record. This game was one of only three losses at Ritter for the Tigers over a four-season period (1998-2002).

Feb. 16, 2002

In what most RIT fans consider the best finish in Ritter history, junior forward Sam Hill scored the deciding goal with two seconds to play, lifting the Tigers to a 4-3 victory over archrival Elmira and clinching the ECAC West regular season title.

The Tigers had erased a 3-1 Elmira lead going into the third period, setting the stage for Hill’s heroics.

“That was the loudest I’ve ever heard [the Ritter],” Wilson said. “I thought the roof was coming down on top of us.”

Two weeks later in the ECAC West playoff championship game at the Ritter against those same Elmira Soaring Eagles, the Tigers prevailed 2-1 when the potential tying goal was waved off at the buzzer. It was ruled that time had run out before the puck crossed the goal line. Those two classic games became known as “Goal/No Goal.”

Oct. 28, 2005

In what became known simply as “The Guimond Game”, the Tigers got their first Division I win at the Ritter, defeating No. 18 St. Lawrence 3-2. RIT goaltender Jocelyn Guimond made 66 saves for the Tigers, the most in NCAA history in a regulation win.

St. Lawrence forward (and Hobey Baker Award finalist that year) T.J. Trevelyan had 16 shots on goal in the game, one more than the Tigers, who managed only 15.

For a program just a few games into its transition from Division III to Division I, this win set the stage for future success.

March 7-8, 2008

The Tigers hosted their first Atlantic Hockey playoff series, the first postseason games at the Ritter since 2003. The place was rocking as RIT defeated Holy Cross each night, in overtime, by identical 5-4 scores to sweep the series.

Tigers forward Matt Smith scored the program’s first Division I hat trick on Friday and repeated the feat the next night, his third goal coming in overtime to clinch the series.

April 6, 2010

Not much usually happens at Ritter Arena on a Tuesday morning, but this was truly special — a pep rally for the Tigers before they left for Detroit and the Frozen Four.

The team was 15-2 at the Ritter that season but was 2-0 at Albany’s Pepsi Arena, defeating Denver and New Hampshire to capture the NCAA East Regional title.

Coming in just the Tigers’ fifth season at the D-I level, players and fans alike were caught up in the surreality of what was taking place.

March 17, 2012

After bearing witness to heartache in several attempts for a national title, Frank Ritter Arena finally played host to its own champions, as the RIT women’s team won the Division III national title, defeating Norwich 4-1.

RIT’s women’s hockey team celebrates its win over Norwich for the 2012 Division III championship (photo: Mike Bradley).

It was a rematch of the 2011 title game, also held at Ritter, that saw Norwich triumph 5-2. A week later, RIT announced that the women’s team was moving to Division I the next season, ushering in another new era at Ritter.

Ritter Arena will be spared the wrecking ball — it’s going to be used for figure skating and high school hockey tournaments — and that makes me happy. This past weekend, the old barn hosted the local high school hockey championships and the place was crowded and loud, as it should continue to be.

The Polisseni Center will fit twice the number of fans and have more amenities, but I doubt the atmosphere will be the same. Not worse, perhaps, but different.

Ritter has always been lighting in a bottle; massive energy forced into a small space.

We’ll have to wait until the first home game of the 2014-15 season to take the Polisseni Center on its maiden voyage and see what’s she’s got. For now, there’s one final weekend to enjoy and reminisce.