Bentley’s jewel a major step forward for Atlantic Hockey, college hockey

 (Melissa Wade)
Bentley and Army West Point christen the new Bentley Arena Friday night with a ceremonial puck drop (photo: Melissa Wade).

WALTHAM, Mass.— Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob DeGregorio remembers meeting NCAA head of officials Frank Cole at the John A. Ryan Arena in Watertown to evaluate some referees.

The arena, known affectionately as the JAR, was until last Saturday the home of Bentley hockey.

“It was a February weekend,” said DeGregorio. “We went in the arena and there was frost on the wall. Between periods, we went outside to talk. It was warmer.”

There are numerous stories that now all feel like distant memories after Bentley opened The Bentley Arena and the Coach DeFelice Ice Rink Friday night. The decision wasn’t the one that the Falcons and its 2,207 standing-room only crowd wanted, a 5-1 loss to Army, but the night will be one to remember.

“It was a great environment to play a college hockey game in,” said Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist, himself a player and assistant at Bentley and, for the last 16 years, the head coach. “It’s tough to swallow that loss, but I was very excited to see the community come out and support us. It’s something we’ve been waiting for a long time.”

The 1,917-seat facility – a number that was selected to commemorate the year the school was founded – represents one of the most significant advancements for the program, Atlantic Hockey and, quite possibly, college hockey in general.

“[Tonight was] great and for our guys, it’s well deserved,” said Soderquist. “They work their tails off and are very committed to the program and very committed to the University. Tonight, it was nice to see it paid back.”

DeGregorio calls the building another “diamond in the bracelet” on what is already a beautiful two-sectioned campus splitting a hilly section of the otherwise urban city of Waltham. It has been, for quite some time, a vision of the school – the arena has been talked about in serious conversations for more than a decade – but came to fruition as part of a 10-year capital plan for the university.

As much as the new arena is a diamond for Bentley, it also could represent the final jewel for Atlantic Hockey. Founded in 1997 under the cost-containment structure of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, there really never was a strategic vision of teams playing in a modern facility such as this.

But as the league evolved and finally created a new structure – Atlantic Hockey – in 2003, facilities that house the hockey teams became a focus that continued to grow and grow.

Adding members like Air Force and Niagara brought Division I-caliber facilities. RIT, another expansion member, built the Polisseni Center to rival many top-tier Division I facilities. Canisius moved to HarborCenter. Suddenly it became almost a race to keep up with buildings.

But select programs – Bentley, Sacred Heart and American International – all struggled, each playing games at glorified youth hockey facilities. You simply couldn’t compete for recruits who were trying to decide to play at a school with a new, on-campus arena or a cold, dreary municipal rink.

Bentley, after both Sacred Heart and AIC moved into either current or former American Hockey League buildings, became the final piece to leveling the playing field.

Soderquist, who said he always showed recruits in the past the JAR (“It was our home. We had to embrace it and make it our home,” said Soderquist) admitted that in the last month finally being able to walk future recruits through the building made him realize how much this means to the future.

“I knew nothing but 16 years of showing the JAR and being off campus,” said Soderquist. “The last month I’ve learned a lot. I means more to recruits that I ever thought.”

According to DeGregorio, both Sacred Heart and AIC both are looking into following Bentley’s footsteps with a similar-sized on-campus facility. College hockey’s newest program, Arizona State, recently announced the funding for its own 4,000-seat on-campus multi-sport facility.

A number of schools, some with relatively modern buildings like UMass Lowell’s Tsongas Center, have made recent, seven-figure investments to continue to improve their home venue.

It’s clear that modern buildings, while wonderful for fans and the student body, are more than anything major chips that are used in recruiting.

“[The arena] has already created a pretty big buzz in terms of recruiting,” said Soderquist. “The hockey community is very small across the country into Canada. It already is creating quite a buzz. So we’re really excited about the future.”

Of course, with a new facility also comes pressure. This school has invested $45 million into the building. Friday’s packed house is hardly a guarantee each night going forward. There will be the need to market to the local community, a blue-collar city with a strong hockey culture surrounded by high-net-worth white collar towns.

There also is the pressure to win. Certainly recruiting the top talent is important, but translating that to wins and trophies is always the end-game best recognized by the administration.

Opening the building in mid-February isn’t ideal, but that was the timeline Bentley was dealt and that doesn’t deter Soderquist.

“It’s a tough time period to open a building this late in the year as we’re focusing on the playoff push,” said Soderquist. “But certainly there’s pressure. And that’s pressure that we’ve always wanted.

“We’ve wanted the ability to have a building and fans. We’ve wanted to have scholarships and now we’ll have both (Atlantic Hockey will allow the full allotment of 18 scholarships in 2018-19). With a $45 million facility, it’s a pressure we want on the program.”