In an effort to bolster recruiting, evade stigmas and maintain the functionality of the rink, the University of New Hampshire has decided to both fix the Whittemore Center’s refrigeration system and shrink the ice’s surface from an Olympic-sized sheet to the standard 200-foot-long, 90-foot-wide dimensions.
UNH will be fully funding the 4.1 million dollar project that will begin next week and presumably be finished in mid-August assuming there are no structural setbacks along the way.
While there were many factors that contributed to the university’s decision to renovate, the most urgent was the fact that much of the refrigeration system and piping below the surface of the ice was not performing at the ability that was expected of it.
After a late-season loss to UMass Lowell, UNH men’s ice hockey coach Mike Souza stressed that fixing the cooling apparatuses has been the main priority of the project.
“One thing to be clear about is that the arena has just been hanging on here from a functionality standpoint in terms of the refrigeration under the ice. So, that needed to be replaced. It’s 25 years old now and it’s corroded, and we’ve had some issues with it.”
UNH’s Director of Athletics Marty Scarano echoed Souza’s sentiment, and admitted that it was getting to a point of embarrassment for the program.
“It has failed 11 times and we’ve lost two games. So, now is the time that we have to go replace that… We are going to take the floor up and take all the piping out, all the compressors attached to it… Replace all of that. That part will be three million dollars and that has to be done. That was a non-negotiable.”
The rink’s system overhaul has been in the works for years now according to Scarano, but the decision to limit has been a recent development in the project.
“It was an opportunity that we had in front of us to make an adjustment in terms of the size of the ice. It wasn’t like that came before the deferred maintenance issue,” Souza said.
What ultimately led Scarano and UNH’s president James Dean to carry out the plan to shrink the ice was the conjecture that the NCAA is looking to return postseason games to home arenas.
For the past few decades, the Hockey East tournament has been held in various neutral environments like Manchester, N.H. and Boston, Mass. If the NCAA did in fact change the rules to allow conference tournament home games, UNH would not be allowed to do so with their current dimensions. This has been a fear for everyone involved.
“I think that someday the NCAA will look at continuing back to campus sites for regionals. We’ve heard a lot of chatter about that over the last several years, and as of now we wouldn’t even be compliant to host here at UNH,” Souza said.
Scarano added that the Olympic rink is going extinct in college hockey and that has contributed to the decision as well.
“The NCAA has not allowed a postseason tournament game on an Olympic sheet since 2001, and there probably never will be one again. We were getting to the point where we wouldn’t be able to host a postseason game in the Whittemore Center and to me, that was a non-negotiable.”
What will persuade the NCAA to change the postseason structure is the revenue that they are able to generate on a year-to-year basis, and that source has been lacking in the past few years which made it more urgent for UNH to make changes.
“The NCAA has seen a diminished attendance in the regional postseason. We host it in Manchester every two years, but across the nation the attendance has been dipping down…It’s only a matter of time before the NCAA brings postseason play back to campuses,” Scarano said.
When the Whittemore center was constructed as it is currently, there were 11 schools in college hockey with an Olympic-sized sheet, but now there is only three remaining. Colorado College and the University of Minnesota both recently announced plans to renovate their rinks as well.
Souza and Scarano feel as though the Wildcats’ larger home ice has held them back in terms of recruiting in recent years, as opposing teams have used the hinderance against them on athlete visits.
“Behind the scenes, it has always encumbered recruiting. The issues are basically around defensemen who see the big ice and obviously have a lot more ice to cover,” Scarano said.
Due to the new dimensions of the ice, Souza has faced questions as to whether he will target players with different skill sets to play for his program, but he has stressed that he recruits a certain type of person on top of their skills on the ice.
“It doesn’t change necessarily who we’re going to recruit. It changes sometimes what we say to them. The first thing that teams do with players that we are recruiting is say ‘why would you go play for them? They play on an Olympic sized sheet.’ So, they won’t be able to say that any longer.”
He also doesn’t think that the change will force his team to convert their playing style and he thinks that it will make the games easier for the ‘Cats to execute their game plans on the defensive side. The descension of surface area will allow defensemen and defense women to close gaps faster and more efficiently.
When recruiting, Scarano and Souza are looking forward to being able to tell incoming players that they will be able to put them in the best positions to make them successful now that their ice will support that claim.
“Every player that comes here thinks that they’re going to play in the NHL and we want them to think that. So, you get into the scenario where they can best exhibit their skills, and if you are a defenseman that doesn’t have the best speed or feet, you might elect not come here because the ice size is so big.”
Scarano and Souza both informed the current men’s hockey team about the project six months ago and he said that the reception was mostly positive.
Fans of UNH, both hardcore and casual, have expressed concerns as to whether the changes are necessary or if their seating will be affected, and because of this, there has been a lot of effort by Scarano’s team of athletic directors to ensure that the seating will not be an issue for the 2020-21 hockey season.
“We had a plan to renovate the seating because the sight line is going to be compromised in some of the seats. President Dean said that all of them will be, but we don’t think that all of them will be and it will just be the lower seats,” Scarano said.
NHL-style boards are going to be installed that have more give than the prior ones that caused multiple injuries, and after those are put in, UNH is going to have a day where season-ticket holders can observe their seats and choose whether or not they want to select different seating. Five-foot voids on either side of the boards will leave seating space unoccupied, but UNH has contemplated with engineers as to whether or not they should put portable seating in the front row and a decision has not yet been made.
Scarano originally had a proposed plan to raise the “rise per row” so that they would be able to fill that void, but the funds to do so were insufficient.
“We had engineered a plan to have the rise per row changed. We were hopeful that was going to happen as well, but it proved to be too expensive and the university decided that they weren’t going to go forward with that,” Scarano said.
The only thing that has given Scarano reservations about the plan is the time frame, as they are going to have to squeeze a lot of work into a short period of time.
“One of the only fears that we have is the turn around. We have to have this done by the third week of August because the guys are on the ice as soon as they get back.”
It is just the start of a six-month process, but Souza expressed gratitude towards Scarano, his staff and President Dean when talking about the transparency of the project as a whole.
“We were fortunate enough that the university has been very helpful to us to not only make the deferred maintenance happen but also to bring the size of the ice down which gives us the opportunity to not talk about why we play on an Olympic sized rink…helping us in recruiting and being more aligned with our competitors.”