College hockey superfan Joe Connor now just three arenas shy of visiting every NCAA D-I men’s venue

 (photo: Joe Connor)
Joe Connor (middle, gray shirt) takes in a recent Penn State game in State College, Pa. (photo: Joe Connor).

In my last column, I noted how I’m closing in on having enjoyed a men’s game at every NCAA Division I hockey school, of which there are currently a total of 60 teams.

Well, I’m happy to report I’m now just three schools short! Robert Morris, Alaska Anchorage and Alaska, I’m headed your way in the future, as I’m now 57 down with three to go!

From mid-December 2018 to mid-January 2019, I was on one whirlwind of a college pucks roadie, driving across the fruited plain in my 2004 Oldsmobile Alero with the patriotic image of our American flag and a simple message on the back window: “Thanked a Veteran, Service Member, First Responder or their families today?”

From Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Princeton, N.J., and from Orono, Maine to State College, Penn., I’ve been a man on a mission. Since Feb. 5, 2018 – the day after the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl – I’ve enjoyed a different sporting event every day. Can you believe it?

Here are the college puck highlights from my most recent journeys (please keep in mind, this is from my most recent journeys and does not represent my visits to all 56 schools to date):

I brought some San Diego to the Upper Peninsula

I’d never been to the UP until mid-December 2018 and I’d by lying if I wrote here I wasn’t concerned about the weather. I’m a California guy and not used to driving in snow and I hate the cold. Well, thank goodness, the Mother Nature gods were with me as I brought the San Diego weather along my trek across the Mackinac Bridge from Michigan’s lower peninsula!

Not only was it sunny with temps in the 40s (balmy, for the UP in December), I had a great time visiting Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan, plus each of the schools’ old barns/former homes. Having now hit up 57 of the 60 venues in D-I college hockey, I can safely say Michigan Tech is in my top 10 favorites thanks to its stellar fan base, from the alumni to the student section. Tech rocks! Do yourself a favor and make your pilgrimage to the UP. Highly-recommended.

Favorite old barns

New arenas are nice, don’t get me wrong. I was blown away by Penn State’s crib and also impressed with Providence’s Schneider Arena, plus Bentley has a simple, yet well-designed still fairly new pad with not a bad seat in the house. Still, I’m a sucker for the old barns and a visit to each never gets old.

A breakdown of my favorites on this particular trip:

 (photo: Joe Connor)
Connor poses in front of Ingalls Rink on the Yale campus (photo: Joe Connor).

Yale: Growing up in West Hartford, Conn., when the Hartford Whalers were our hometown team, I played amateur away games on this ice and always loved this place because of its unique, whale-like design. I will always remember an early season game my junior year of high school – playing for Kingswood-Oxford in the Founders League of the New England Prep School Athletic Council – because I had missed the entire previous season due to a freak knee injury and was told I might not play again. The fact I was able to make it back and play in a college hockey arena with so much history will also have a special place in my heart.

Princeton: Walk into Hobey Baker Rink when it’s packed and you’re more or less in hockey heaven, man. Caught the Tigers hosting Maine in late December 2018 and the old barn (circa 1923) was sold out with a great, festive atmosphere. Lots of scoring, old time hockey, Eddie Shore! Princeton clobbered Maine, 7-3.

Vermont: One of my favorite college sports towns, Gutterson Fieldhouse is a gem. Clarkson spoiled the Sunday night of Catamounts fans, winning a thriller in overtime. Hey, Golden Knights brass, you might want to award me an honorary degree or something because caught three of your games on my 2018-19 travels – all wins! I’m a good luck charm!

Northeastern: Never gets old visiting the original home of the Boston Bruins. I’ve now literally lost count on the exact number of my visits to Matthews Arena. Getting here can definitely test your patience, especially if you’re driving, but it’s worth it.

Maine: As a kid, my first summer hockey camp was on the ice at Alford Arena, so I have a bias toward the place and always love coming here (the campus sprawls and is bucolic). The roof design is unusual, the scoreboard is off-kilter from center ice but I don’t care – the fans and history make this place special. Heard some chatter during my visit that a future new hockey/basketball combined venue is inevitable (the men’s and women’s hoops team play off-campus in downtown Bangor) and rumblings that the powers that be are wooing big-wig donors, but there’s no timetable. Still, hope this isn’t the last game I see at Alfond.

Favorite student sections

 (photo: Joe Connor)
Maine’s ‘Naked Five’ make an appearance at a recent game inside Alfond Arena (photo: Joe Connor).

Besides Michigan Tech (and props to Clarkson’s from my early season journey), Maine and Penn State boasted my favorite student sections. Maine’s “Naked Five” is as unique as it gets in college hockey. No, of course, five students are not completely naked. But five different students do go totally upper body commando for all home games, each sporting one of the letters of M-A-I-N-E on their front chests. But the best part is that each of the five A) sprint a circle of the entire concourse every time the Black Bears score (on this night, it was two times in a one-goal lose to Northeastern) and B) sport a “combined message” on their bare backs. With the Huskies in town from Beantown further south, the clever Naked Five naturally came up with their combined “back message” of “We-Are-More-North-East.” Dude, classic!

In Happy Valley, aka Penn State – also known as Hospitality Valley, or Pick-Whatever-Positive-Adjective-You-Want-Valley I witnessed a “White Out” as the Nittany Lions hosted Big 10 rival, Ohio State. Fantastic venue and definitely a top 10 experience for me in terms of student attendance and support, but the home team played like bleep so it wasn’t a happy valley after 60 minutes! Penn State frankly played flat most of the game and lost rather convincingly to the Buckeyes, 4-1. As I jokingly told my long-time friend who is a PSU men’s hockey season ticket holder, a hash tag synopsis for the Nittany Lions performance on a White Out Night would be #wesucked (PG-13 version) or #playedlikebleep (R-rated version if you bleep what I mean).

Atmosphere: Dudsville

I’m a positive, happy-go-lucky-person and never aspire to write “hit pieces,” yet I can’t not tell the truth, either. And as a hockey fan, it was very sad to see such paltry attendance at the likes of Colgate, Sacred Heart and American International. I counted (literally, I counted) about 50 fans in the stands for the Sacred Heart game I attended.

Mind you, some of these “fans” could have been game day staff, scouts or scratches, so the actual number of fans could have been less than 50. I’m sorry, but that’s beyond pathetic.

Yet it was even worse at AIC where fans were only allowed to sit on one side of the arena. The only humans visible on the opposite side were a photographer or two. Embarrassing.

Colgate’s fan support was also quite sad. It was the school’s holiday break, so student attendance was sparse, and in this case, that’s excusable in my book. But the alumni do not get a pass from me. Despite a close game at the end of the second period, I saw many “fans” exiting after the building for the ride home. What, each of these folks has a hot date in Hamilton, N.Y., on a Saturday night? C’mon, give me a break. For crying out loud, support your school or don’t even come if you’re only going to stay for two periods! That’s my two cents of venting – there you have it.