New arenas put spotlight on Connecticut college hockey

By Pat Eaton-robb
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

FAIRFIELD, Conn. (AP) – Located just 9 miles apart in Connecticut, Yale and Quinnipiac played for a national hockey championship a decade ago.

It was also just over a decade ago that UConn made the decision to upgrade its men’s program and leave the Atlantic Hockey conference for nation’s premier college league, Hockey East.

This month, both UConn and another Connecticut school, Sacred Heart, opened new hockey arenas, each spending more than $70 million on on-campus state-of-the-art facilities.

The ribbon cuttings came the same week Quinnipiac’s men’s team climbed to the top spot in the national polls. UConn’s men are ranked No. 13 and Sacred Heart’s men’s team is receiving votes. On the women’s side, Yale is No. 2, Quinnipiac is ranked sixth and UConn is No. 14.

Once a minor player on the landscape, Connecticut now has positioned itself alongside Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts as a hotbed of college hockey.

“I think Connecticut’s profile has been raised considerably since that 2013 national championship game,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “Probably even before that, Yale and Quinnipiac were both really good, you know, the previous years to that. But I think in the last probably 15 years, you’ve seen a huge uptick in the respect that Connecticut gets in the college hockey world.”

On Friday, all four Connecticut men’s programs will meet at Quinnipiac for the third year of a tournament that the schools hope will someday rival the Beanpot, the annual tournament involving Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern and Harvard, all located in the Boston area.

What had been called “Connecticut Ice” is expected to get a new name after struggling with attendance in its first two years; the first was played during the pandemic and the second began during a major snowstorm.

The schools are hopeful that the showcase will reap benefits when it comes to recruiting the top youth players in the state, many of whom have traditionally gone elsewhere, UConn athletic director David Benedict said.

“It rankles me when there is so much that we deal with, with all the Massachusetts programs, and well-deserved on their part,” he said. “But, it’s time for Connecticut to crash the party, so to speak.”

Sacred Heart senior forward Neil Shea grew up in the Boston area and played at Northeastern before transferring two years ago.

A big part of the draw was the promise of the new $75 million Martire Family Arena, with its 4,000 seats, luxury boxes, player’s lounge complete with three big-screen TVs and a shooting room (similar to a baseball batting cage) equipped with synthetic ice for year-round use.

“When I decided to transfer, I knew that these Connecticut schools were trending upwards, and I would have been happy to go to any of them,” he said. “But I’m glad I ended up at Sacred Heart. I grew up with the four big Boston schools and I can see the four Connecticut Division I programs trending in that direction. Hopefully, one day we’ll be on that same page and I think it’s already turning that way.”

Sacred Heart coach CJ Marottolo, whose team has played its home games at several off-campus sites over the years, said the new arena will allow him to get into the living rooms of the “best of the best.”

UConn officials are expecting a similar impact from the Toscano Family Ice Forum, which can hold about 3,000 fans and contains many of the same amenities as the Sacred Heart rink – a strength and conditioning center, a training room with hydrotherapy pools and a shooting room.

UConn women’s coach Chris MacKenzie said he hopes the idea of playing in the building will inspire the next generation of players, especially young girls.

“It’s something where any young player, young female, can see strong women playing the sport they love in an amazing facility with all the amenities,” he said. “There’s nothing but great benefits to that.”

The best part for UConn men’s coach Mike Cavanaugh is that the university community will no longer have to travel 30 miles to Hartford to watch games.

“I’m looking forward to a packed student section and a crowd that terrorizes the opposing goalie,” he said.