The 3,500 seats in the quaint but epic Ingalls Rink—with its small seating bowl but breathtaking arch overhead—were sold out a week before the matchup. Box office tickets cost $18 at most, but many quickly found a home on resale websites like StubHub, where tickets were posted for nearly $200. Though college hockey has been in Connecticut for more than a century, it seems that only now are Nutmeggers starting to wake up and smell the Zamboni fuel.
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy was one of the fans in attendance that Saturday. “This is great hockey. This is great Connecticut hockey,” he said to WYBC’s Konrad Coutinho as the Bulldogs got bounced 6–2 by the ‘Cats. But don’t worry—the Elis have another shot at reclaiming Toad’s next Friday, when the Bulldogs make the return journey to Quinnipiac’s TD Bank Sports Center. It’ll be another 3,400-fan sellout and another raucous atmosphere, this time bathed in Bobcat Gold instead of Bulldog Blue. Hockey fever has officially reached a new high in New Haven.
While 3,500 fans for a college hockey game may be an achievement in Connecticut, those attendance figures for a local rivalry game in Boston would mean a quarter-full arena and a disappointing evening. Because over in Boston, college hockey is a big deal. It’s highlighted by the “Beanpot,” an annual hockey tournament contested at the 17,500-seat TD Garden (also the home of the NHL’s Boston Bruins) among the four Division I hockey schools in the city: Boston University, Boston College, Harvard, and Northeastern.
“I have a good friend who ended up playing for Harvard and I know a large part of his decision to go [there] was the opportunity to play in the Beanpot,” said Nick Maricic, DC ’13, Yale goalie.
The Beanpot was created without any expectations of grandeur as a stopgap measure to fill the old Boston Arena on otherwise untouched weekday winter nights, according to an article written by Jack Grinold, the Beanpot’s secretary, on the tournament’s official website. Today, as though it were a federal holiday, the Beanpot is ordained to take place every year on the first two Mondays of February.
“Look at where the Beanpot is now—the tradition, the history; it’s on national TV,” C.J. Marottolo, Sacred Heart men’s hockey head coach, and, until 2009, a 13-year Yale assistant coach, said.
From its small, revenue-driven beginnings in 1952, the Beanpot has become one of those I-only-attend-once-a-year city sporting traditions, as much a draw for hockey fans as for regular Bostonians, not unlike the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, or the Indianapolis 500 in…Indianapolis.
Yale rookie Stu Wilson, SM ’16, posted a picture of the Beanpot festivities on his Twitter account on Feb. 4 with the comment “Well… I’m jealous.”
It’s easy to see why other teams might be jealous. In Boston, a city with four professional sports teams, even college hockey gets its two Mondays in the spotlight. “Playing in a big building in front of a lot of people in a rivalry game is why you play. Those are the most fun games to be a part of,” Maricic said.
So why not bring the Beanpot to Connecticut? Connecticut also has exactly four Division I men’s hockey teams: Yale, Quinnipiac, the University of Connecticut, and Sacred Heart. Call it the “Nutmegtree” for identification purposes. Marottolo has already felt the pressure: “A lot of people who aren’t involved with college hockey are always asking me, ‘Why don’t the four teams do something like the [Beanpot]?’”
“Tim Taylor [former Yale coach] and I had agreed on getting a Connecticut 4 team tournament going about a month before he retired. We had UConn and Sacred Heart on board,” said Rand Pecknold, the men’s head coach at Quinnipiac for the past 19 years, adding, “It was something that had been discussed for years.”
Connecticut college hockey is experiencing unprecedented success, fueling thoughts of bringing the state’s teams together once a year. Sacred Heart and UConn have climbed the ranks to earn places in more prominent conferences. In 2003, after several years as a Division I independent, Sacred Heart found itself a conference home in Atlantic Hockey, one of five Division I conferences. In 2014, UConn will make the big move from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East—the holy grail of all hockey conferences, with elite members including BU, BC, UMass Amherst, and New Hampshire.
Yale and Quinnipiac, as comfortable residents of ECAC Hockey, can point to continued strong attendance and winning seasons. Over the last five years, both teams have filled their rinks above 80 per cent capacity on average—this season, they’re both running above 90 per cent capacity (according to the United States College Hockey Organization). Yale has made the year-ending NCAA Tournament three out of the last five seasons and is on the verge of another. The Bobcats have risen from .500 mediocrity over the past few seasons, culminating in their current 21-game undefeated streak, a No. 1 ranking, and a dominant run through the ECAC.
Pecknold also offered academic and logistical reasons behind a Connecticut tournament. “My primary reason to support this All-Connecticut tournament is travel. [Having] more local games is better than traveling to Alaska, Minnesota, Alabama or elsewhere for games. It would allow our student-athletes to focus on their academics and lessen lost class time,” he said.
A “Nutmegtree” Connecticut tournament could also impact more than just the players on the ice. “I think it’s a very unique idea. I think it would help grow Connecticut hockey. Kids could say, ‘I remember Sacred Heart vs. Yale. I want to go to Sacred Heart, [or] I want to go to Yale,’” Marottolo said.
The chance to create a Connecticut version of the Beanpot fizzled during Yale’s transition between head coaches. In 2006, Yale hired Keith Allain, DC ’80, who is unconvinced by the idea: “I’m not a Beanpot guy. I don’t live in Boston. It’s a provincial tournament for Boston area people,” he said. “One of the things that makes [the Beanpot] endearing is, it’s got…I don’t know…60, 70, 50 years of tradition. So if you create a tournament in Connecticut, maybe 50 years from now it’ll be big.”
Allain is not the only skeptic. Even Maricic, who thinks “it would be fantastic if it could happen,” adds that the tournament probably wouldn’t work at the moment. There seems to be some consensus that Connecticut college hockey simply hasn’t had enough of a gestational period for something like a Beanpot to be successful. “A Beanpot-esque tournament could definitely happen,” said Andrew Sobotka JE’15, a co-founder of The Whaling Crew, a Yale fan group that made its name promoting Bulldogs hockey. “[But] the rivalries aren’t that strong—yet. UConn and Sacred Heart, frankly, aren’t well-renowned hockey programs, Quinnipiac is kind of emerging right now, and Yale has been consistently solid throughout the history of its program but doesn’t have too much of a rivalry with the other schools.”
Sobotka makes a valid point. UConn basketball—men’s and women’s—may be perennially powerful, but the men’s hockey team hasn’t had a winning season since they joined Atlantic Hockey. Sacred Heart is in an even more unenviable situation. The young, growing program is winless on the 2012-13 season. In a college hockey world where scheduling difficult non-conference opponents is essential for high rankings and tournament qualification, Yale players and fans share the opinion that Sacred Heart and UConn don’t pass muster—at least not yet. “[The men’s team] would benefit from playing a more geographically scattered group of teams who are at a higher caliber of play than the surrounding CT teams,” Jamie Haddad CC ’16, a member of the women’s hockey team, said.
Maricic also pointed to attendance and success as major issues. “BC, BU, Northeastern and Harvard are large schools with bigger fan bases. For a tournament like that to pick up any steam, there has to be a large enough following to keep attendance consistent even in years where the teams involved aren’t having great years, and I don’t know if all the potential teams involved have that.”
Sacred Heart currently shares the Milford Ice Pavilion and its mere 1,000 seats with a number of high school teams, and average attendance has hovered around the 400 mark for the last five seasons. UConn draws fewer than 1,000 fans on average. Combining turnout at the four college rinks wouldn’t bring an organizer close to matching the capacity of Connecticut’s two major arenas, the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport and the XL Center in Hartford. But as Maricic mentioned, “playing in a big building” is a huge part of the atmosphere and the excitement of the Beanpot. So if you can’t play at the XL Center, why play at all?
Marottolo thinks the arena atmosphere is essential to a new Connecticut tradition. “We’d be selling ourselves short—Connecticut is hungry for hockey—if we weren’t at Webster Bank Arena or the XL Center. It would create some tradition, some history,” he said.
There may be other possible formats for the Nutmegtree. In fact, Connecticut women’s hockey has played the annual Nutmeg Classic for the last nine years. It’s a similar four-team tournament held at a participating college’s rink between Yale, Quinnipiac, UConn, and another invited team from outside the state. This year, the Classic was held at Ingalls. The Nutmeg Classic is small, but it could be a good model for the fledgling Nutmegtree.
“With the Nutmeg Classic taking place over the course of just one weekend, the first place trophy seems like a much more tangible goal and each game holds that much more significance,” said Haddad. “Our sense of competition is heightened and everyone plays harder because of it.”
While there are vocal Connecticut advocates for a Nutmegtree, the consensus among those in the Yale hockey community is that the state isn’t ready—yet—for its own Beanpot. At its core, the Beanpot is successful because it’s local. “It really is a regional Boston area thing,” said Maricic. The entire state of Connecticut may be too big to foster the same type of good-natured hatred seen in New Haven’s “Cats and Dogs” battle (Quinnipiac’s Bobcats vs the Bulldogs), though it’s certainly a smaller space to cover than the trips to Alaska and Alabama that Pecknold wants to avoid.
Sobotka summarized the concerns by reflecting on the Beanpot’s success: “The fact that the Beanpot schools are all in Boston, all accessible to each other by public transportation and have well-established, deeply ingrained rivalries in more than just hockey and athletics—that’s probably what makes the Beanpot as well-loved and well-regarded as it is. People have more invested in it.”
Yet it’s worth remembering Marottolo’s view on the topic—“deeply ingrained rivalries” have to start somewhere. “Coaches have to build some momentum,” he said. “They have to keep moving [the idea] up the flagpole.”
While some coaches and fans may not seem as anxious to get the ball moving, that doesn’t mean players aren’t dreaming big. Maybe Connecticut isn’t ready for an indoor Beanpot, but what about bringing Yale’s biggest rivals outdoors? “We do kick it around amongst players in the locker room…an outdoor game at the Yale Bowl,” Maricic said. He went on to name Quinnipiac, Harvard, and Cornell as possible opponents. The message is clear—great rivalries aren’t about proximity. They’re about tradition.