New on-campus rink in the works for Connecticut, but is seating capacity an issue?

Miles Gendron (UConn - 10), Alexander Payusov (UConn - 19) and Karl El-Mir (UConn - 16) celebrate Payusov's goal that tied the game at 2 in the third. (2017 Melissa Wade)
Miles Gendron, Alexander Payusov and Karl El-Mir celebrate a UConn goal during the 2017-18 season (photo: Melissa Wade).

A few weeks ago, when Connecticut announced its plans to build a new, on-campus facility for ice hockey, it was met with cheers from some — but criticism from many.

The new facility, funded by the state of Connecticut, would include a rink with a minimum seating capacity of 2,500, a state-of-the-art workout facility to be used by both the men’s and women’s hockey teams, high-end locker rooms and a parking structure to accommodate game-night crowds.

To some, the number that stood out was 2,500, that’s because, prior to UConn entering the league in 2014, Hockey East mandated that arenas for new teams and new facilities must have a seating capacity of 4,000 or larger.

According the UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh, when the facility is finally built, he believes the arena will have a capacity closer to 3,500. Hockey East has decided to relax that mandate for UConn so, among other reasons, the facility can get built. The state has been slow in making a commitment of resources in a time when the state is cash-strapped.

All of UConn’s women’s games will be played in the new building, while the existing Freitas Ice Forum that currently houses the women’s team will remain as a second ice sheet to allow both teams the flexibility to practice on campus.

For the men, the smaller size facility will be an excellent option to create a home-ice atmosphere for games that might not draw crowds in excess of 3,500 fans. And for those where the school anticipates larger crowds, the team’s current home, the XL Center in Hartford, is still available.

“When you look around, how many teams actually average 4,000 a game?” mused Cavanaugh.

In fact, as of last weekend, only 17 of the 60 Division I teams average 4,000 or more per game, and, as many fans know who have been to regular-season games across college hockey, some of those attendance numbers are a bit inflated.

I know as a writer, I’ll sit in a 6,000-seat arena that is two-thirds empty only to see an attendance number in excess of 3,500 on the post-game box score. Seeing as there is no way to police consistent attendance reporting, it’s difficult to even say what the average attendance across college hockey is.

“I would much rather play in a 3,500-seat arena that is crowded than in a 5,000-seat arena with 3,000 fans,” Cavanaugh noted. “Any building you go to, it’s hard to feel the atmosphere, so I don’t get caught up in all that. I’m just glad we’re going to have an on-campus facility.”

Cavanaugh said the associated workout facilities are as important to him as a coach as is the ice rink portion of the building. The current facilities are extremely subpar by NCAA Division I standards and can hinder recruiting some athletes, particularly top-tier American prospects who may have had high-end fitness facilities in junior hockey or with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.

The other question people are now asking about this facility is which men’s games will remain in Hartford and which games will move back to campus.

According to Cavanaugh, Saturday games are typically strong draws in Hartford, many of them played at 5:00 p.m., and, at least for league games would stay in Hartford. Boston College and Boston University seem to be the largest draws and likely always would be played in Hartford, at least in the beginning.

But Friday night games against opponents like Merrimack, Maine, Vermont, etc., and most nonconference games that aren’t against a blue-chip opponent would be excellent candidates for moving back to the campus.

And there really is nothing wrong with that scenario.

While many have gotten in the mindset that bigger is better, what’s best for the student-athletes is always playing in a building with great atmosphere. And it’s also best for the game to be played on a campus as opposed to 30 minutes away (not including traffic) because college athletics is as much about the student fans as it is the student athletes.

For UConn, they’re doing everything they can to make this a reality sooner rather than later and for that, I applaud them.

Holiday Shopping Ideas

A quick note on a couple of hockey-related hockey shopping ideas, both in the forms of great books about the game we all love…

Great Game, by Bruce Haas, is an anthology of short anecdotes from hundreds of people around the game, from players and coaches, to officials, media and fans. It really uses so many different points of view to paint a picture of college hockey and what makes it so special.

Hockey: A Global History, by Stephen Hardy and Andrew C. Holman, draws on 25 years of research by the authors to present an end-to-end history of the sport. It maps the game from its birth in Montreal to its movement across the globe, its impact on nations and the ability of the game to grow to nearly every end of the Earth.

Both of these books are must reads for the college hockey fan!