January 10, 2014

Hockey East Journal: Time for a Fenway freeze-out

By Andrew Merritt

Last week's low temperatures put the "frozen" in Frozen Fenway, and it made for a subpar hockey experience. (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

Four years ago, I had the privilege of covering the Winter Classic in Boston. At the time, I wrote about the majesty of the event, the fever-dream spectacle that was watching hockey at Fenway Park. I, like many others, was dazzled by the whole idea, and for a time I was a huge proponent of bringing hockey to larger outdoor stages – particularly college hockey, which has a real knack for seducing the casual viewer with its tribal mentality and high quality of play.

That time is over.

When UMass-Lowell and Northeastern face off at noon on Saturday, it will be the 15th college game played at Fenway Park since 2010. A few hours later, Maine and Boston University will play No. 16. It’s my sincere hope that those will be the last games at Fenway for a while.

But I need to offer some full disclosure before I go forward. Thanks to the events at Fenway in 2010, 2012 and 2014, I have gotten to: live out a young journalist’s dream of covering sports from the Fenway press box; see something for free that a lot of people paid good money to see; and, a few weeks ago, actually play a hockey game with other media on that very ice in the middle of one of the most cherished places in Boston.

In other words, I have some great memories thanks to the Winter Classic and Frozen Fenway events, and while I may sound critical here, I’m incredibly grateful for those experiences.

Here’s the thing: Playing at Fenway was incredibly memorable. So was the Winter Classic in 2010, though that’s partly due to it being the first big moment in the Bruins’ renaissance. What isn’t memorable to me are the chilly nights spent watching college players try to navigate ice that, despite the very best efforts of the crews involved, refused to stay in suitable shape for high-level hockey. What isn’t memorable to me are the rows and rows of empty seats that create a cauldron of noise when filled for a late-summer Sox game, but are just bland and blank when left unoccupied on a cold winter’s night.

When Boston College beat Notre Dame last Saturday in the nightcap following a Merrimack-Providence tie, on paper it should have been a pretty memorable moment. The Eagles fended off the Irish, who are struggling in their first year in Hockey East but put up a heck of a fight against a first-place team. BC took a lead on a shorthanded goal by Needham, Mass., native Bill Arnold with 4:38 gone in the third, and Notre Dame’s Bryan Rust tied it less than three minutes later, setting up a great game-winner just 52 seconds later by Johnny Gaudreau, the 17th goal of the season for the sure Hobey Baker candidate.

That’s a great finish. It’s too bad there weren’t more people there to see it. I have no trouble believing that the 31,569 attendance was accurate by ticket sales, but nobody who was there would believe there were more than 20,000 actually in the stands, and there were probably even less than that.

But it had nothing to do with hockey. It had nothing to do with the interest in the game. The lack of live witnesses to Gaudreau’s heroics is a reflection of the fact that outdoor hockey, especially at Fenway Park, is a fantastic spectacle for television, and it makes for some great photo opportunities, but beyond sightseeing, it just isn’t that great an experience.

The sightlines at Fenway are great for baseball. Other than the infamous “obstructed view” seats, almost every chair in the park affords a close encounter with the game. But the geometry of baseball and the geometry of hockey are very different, and unless you’re perched in the seats atop the Green Monster, or about halfway down the foul lines, several rows back from the field, you really can’t get a good look at what’s going on inside the rink covering Fenway’s infield.

Ironically, the front row seats that most of us would consider giving an appendage to have for a midsummer baseball game are, by far, the worst possible place to be for hockey – unless you’re really into watching disembodied heads whirl around above the dashers.

But even if you do have good seats, the product you’re watching just doesn’t measure up to what you’d get in one of the many great indoor arenas in this region. Though the BC-Notre Dame game had some great moments – thanks in large part to the quality of the Eagles’ relentless attack – they were punctuated by long delays due to the ice. As I wrote after the Merrimack-Providence draw, oddly enough it can be too cold for outdoor ice, which becomes brittle and almost irreparable in the kind of frosty temperatures experienced last week. So the crew managing the surface did its best, but still had to attack a handful of trouble spots during every stoppage, and even that didn’t prevent numerous players from suddenly losing their footing.

Watching highly trained, elite athletes trip all over themselves like novices during a public skate doesn’t really add to the mystique.

So we’ve got bad ice, awful sightlines and a cavernous atmosphere. Not exactly a boon for the game.

"Outdoor hockey is where the game started and where it was played, but there's way too much of it going on right now,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said after his squad lost to the Eagles. “They're ruining it. There's too much. It's nice to have this event for Hockey East. It's great, but there's way too many outdoor games right now. It's great for shinny, but there's just too much.”

Jackson’s first statement echoed what he had said before the games. Hockey’s roots are outdoors, on tree-lined ponds and great, glassy frozen lakes. But nobody pays money to watch a bunch of people play shinny on those natural surfaces. The experience is limited to the individuals on the ice. And that, ultimately, is where the outdoor hockey trend falls flat. Putting games in football stadiums may get rid of some of the sightline problems, but most spectators are still incredibly far away from a game that thrives on closeness to the point of intimacy. Nobody ever complained that they had to sit too close to the action at the old Boston Garden, after all.

Speaking of the Garden, the unspectacular Frozen Fenway experience had me thinking about college games that happen on Causeway Street. The Beanpot, specifically, is a perfect example of a special, midseason hockey event that almost never fails to deliver, even if it’s grown a little stale in the last couple of BC/BU-dominated decades. In that climate-controlled space, hockey as a spectator sport thrives.

I hate being a curmudgeon about Frozen Fenway. I think it’s been a great thing for the visibility of hockey, specifically college hockey, in the area. And it has granted a growing group of players, from the elites like Johnny Gaudreau to the bums like me, the chance to play in a very cool setting. But as an actual hockey experience for those forking over the money to watch, it falls short of its ostensible goal.

When people have asked me what it was like to watch the games at Fenway, my response is, “it was cool.” But “cool” is all it’s ever been. It’s a fun spectacle, not a particularly enriching sports experience.

Let’s say for the sake of convenience that there were about, oh, I don’t know, 17,000 people in the stands when Johnny Gaudreau scored the game-winner for the Eagles last Saturday. At Fenway, the roar from that crowd paled in comparison to what happens when David Ortiz bombs one into the right field grandstand.

At the Garden, those 17,000 would have the building vibrating with noise.

Hockey was born outside, but there’s a reason it grew up indoors.

Player of the Week

Matt Willows, jr. F, UNH

Willows practically beat Nebraska-Omaha singlehandedly last weekend, leading the Wildcats with a goal in Friday’s 6-3 win, followed by a hat trick (plus an assist) in Saturday’s 5-2 victory.

Games of the Week

Providence at Boston College, Friday, Jan. 10

With all due respect to the league clashes happening at Fenway Park on Saturday, this is potentially one for the ages. Just two points separate the first-place Eagles from the second-place Friars, and the two teams are ranked No. 4 and 6 in the country, respectively.

Hockey East power rankings

  1. Boston College (13-4-2, 7-1-1 HEA) – Though the score was close, the outcome was almost never in doubt for the Eagles at Fenway last week in a 4-3 win over Notre Dame.
  2. UMass-Lowell (14-5-1, 4-2-0 HEA)Joe Pendenza (Wilmington, Mass.) scored the River Hawks’ only goal in a 1-1 tie with Clarkson on Friday, and the next night had the game-winner in a 4-3 victory.
  3. Providence (13-4-4, 6-3-1 HEA) – The Friars are showing some cracks in the armor, after failing to beat last-place Merrimack at Fenway and losing 2-1 in overtime to a rising Northeastern squad on Tuesday.
  4. Northeastern (12-6-3, 5-4-1 HEA)Braden Pimm has had two-goal games before, but arguably none has mattered more than the one he had on Tuesday, when he tied the Huskies’ game against Providence with 34 seconds to go, and then scored the game winner 12 seconds into overtime.
  5. Vermont (11-6-3, 4-5-0 HEA) – Though defending national champion Yale isn’t quite running away with anything this year, UVM’s 3-3 tie with the Bulldogs is an impressive one for the resume, especially for a team that looks to be just inside the tournament bubble right now.
  6. New Hampshire (12-10-1, 5-5-0 HEA) – Led by Matt Willows’ heroics, the Wildcats swept a two-game set against Nebraska-Omaha for their first three-game win streak since November.
  7. Maine (10-7-2, 4-2-1 HEA) – The Black Bears ran into a buzzsaw in the form of Quinnipiac, and other than Devin Shore’s shorthanded goal couldn’t pierce the Bobcat net, eventually surrendering the game-winner with 1:03 to go.
  8. Notre Dame (10-8-1, 3-5-1 HEA) – The Irish’s struggles continued at Fenway, where they lost their first game in 28 days despite tying it with 12:31 to go. Ten penalties certainly didn’t help Notre Dame’s cause.
  9. UMass (6-14-3, 2-7-2 HEA) – The good news from UMass’ loss to Northeastern on Saturday is that it was a non-conference game, which takes some of the sting off of giving up a 2-1 second-period lead.
  10. Boston University (7-10-2, 2-4-1 HEA) – Coach David Quinn’s first year behind the bench may have hit its nadir. The Terriers are winless in their last five (0-4-1), and dropped a 4-2 decision to Dartmouth on Tuesday, handing the Big Green only its third win of the season.
  11. Merrimack (4-9-3, 1-5-2 HEA) – It didn’t count in the league standings, so it won’t help their playoff positioning, but the Warriors’ tie with Providence at Fenway Park was an impressive one, and Merrimack is now unbeaten in its last three (1-0-2).

Twitter: @A_Merritt

Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com