January 11, 2012

From NEHJ: Hockey East embraces Fenway showcase

By Andrew Merritt

For two weeks in January, the most popular pond in New England will be one sitting not among a green forest but in front of the Green Monster.

The organized outdoor hockey craze comes back to the region for the first two weeks of 2012, with 14 games featuring high school and college teams spread across the fortnight, in addition to public skating time as part of the second Frozen Fenway hockey festival. 

It started with a trio of high school games Jan. 2, then a four-game slate for Jan. 4. But the main course is Jan. 7, when Vermont plays UMass, then Maine and New Hampshire meet in an all-Hockey East doubleheader. A week later, Boston College takes on familiar foe Northeastern.

It’s a follow-up to the January 2010 NHL Winter Classic, after which the colleges got in on the act for the first Frozen Fenway. The Northeastern and UNH women and Boston College and Boston University men squared off on the same ice that had captivated the region a week prior, in what was by all accounts a huge success for the college game in New England.

“The first one was so smooth from an operational point of view, the sellout, the weather, everything was a hit,” said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.), who worked with his staff and Fenway Sports Group president Sam Kennedy (also the Red Sox COO) to bring outdoor hockey back to John Updike’s “lyric little bandbox” on Lansdowne Street.

“Sam Kennedy is a huge hockey fan,” Bertagna said. “He played in high school at Brookline High, and he probably skated on the ice more than anybody. His first responsibility is to make money for the Red Sox, but I think it was a combination of an event that was close to his heart, and a chance to make it a financial success for them.”

When Kennedy and the Fenway group came to Hockey East with the idea to stage more outdoor games, Bertagna said the league was all ears but wanted to ensure that the love would be spread outside of the hockey stronghold known as the greater Boston area.

It was meaningful, he said, to have the four state schools that play in Hockey East be involved this time around. In fact, Bertagna said that was one of his only demands. The BC-BU game in 2010 was an obvious success, and putting the area’s most heated rivalry in the spotlight was a sensible solution to the question of getting as many tickets sold as possible.

But this time around, Bertagna said, it was time to share the love. And the coaches and players on the teams that were left out of the cold in 2010 are feeling it.

“Oh, yeah, I mean, we were obviously all pretty excited when that news finally did come out,” said Maine senior Brian Flynn, a Lynnfield, Mass., native and Red Sox fan. “I go to a ton of games every summer at Fenway, and to play in a historic park in front of so many people, it’s pretty special. I know I’ll have a ton of family and friends there too, which is exciting.”

Unlike in 2010, when the NHL brought its traveling road show to town, this year’s event comes at the expense of the Fenway Sports Group, so it wanted to make sure it got the most bang for its frozen buck — an estimated $1 million just to install the rink, Bertagna said. That’s why the schedule is littered with games, including the BC-Northeastern clash that was added after the official announcement of the Hockey East doubleheader.

It will make for a two-week revival for the religion of hockey, which has many churches in the area. In addition to the college teams, some of the most renowned high school squads in New England will get their star turn at the ballpark, including Mount St. Charles Academy, Thayer Academy, St. Sebastian’s School, and Catholic Memorial and BC High, who play the matinee before the BC-Northeastern game on Jan. 14.

For the players, it’s a dream come true — at least if they had any crazy fever dreams where they played hockey on a baseball field. But it’s also a game that counts — especially for the players on the 12 college teams involved — so what Maine coach Tim Whitehead called the “awe factor” has to be overcome once the clock starts ticking.

“You try and not really think about it, and concentrate on who you’re playing,” said Northeastern junior Alex Tuckerman (Orleans, Mass.). “It probably won’t be easy with all those people, though.”

The benefit of the games also has lasting effect, beyond the thrill of playing in front of the biggest crowd most of the players will ever see for a hockey game. It’s also a showcase, particularly for the college teams that will play in the main events each night. NESN is broadcasting the Jan. 7 doubleheader, with the 1 p.m. Bruins game as the first leg of “Hockey Day in New England.”

That means an awful lot of eyes seeing the teams play, and the coaches are hoping some of those eyes belong to future college players.

“Everything you do, recruiting is always at the forefront of what we do,” Northeastern coach Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.) said. “It’s good because the recruits get to see that our program and our institution is one that’s considered to be significant enough for people to want us to play at Fenway Park.”

Even for a program such as Maine, which has plenty of name recognition throughout North America, it’s a potential visibility boon.

“We’ve been in a lot of Frozen Fours and (NCAA) regionals and things like that that give us exposure,” Whitehead said. “This is the kind of thing that’ll give us some airtime not just here, but up in Canada where we actively recruit.”

The spotlight also falls more broadly on Hockey East, and it’s a good time for some good exposure. After a year of shakeups in the college hockey universe, and some noteworthy departures from college teams to the junior ranks, the image of two college teams playing on New England’s most hallowed sporting stage has some powerful potential.

“Anytime you get a lot of television coverage and media coverage, not to mention 37,000 people coming out to watch games, it’s a good thing,” Bertagna said. “Hopefully — it’s not going to duplicate this — but they’ll take an interest in coming to see our teams on a Friday or Saturday night, and hopefully young players will see that our games command this kind of attention.

“I think from a marketing and branding angle, it’s hard to beat the image of a hockey rink at Fenway, with the wall behind it. There’ll be a lot of pictures being taken. It’s a marketing windfall for us.”

Still, even if none of the casual fans who come to Fenway just to check out the spectacle end up as diehards who crowd rinks from Boston to Orono every weekend, the sheer delight of getting to participate in Frozen Fenway is enough of a gift for the players and coaches.

“It’s a great experience when you’re playing outside,” Whitehead said. “You really feel connected to winter, the outdoor experience.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com