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Thursday, June 3, 2010

On Hockey

A Whale of an opportunity

Unlike the debate over the merits of a Super Bowl in metropolitan New York –a full-scale quarrel with no ending in sight even with the event already set in place- no visible breath can be considered wasted when speaking in favor of the occasional outdoor hockey game.

The Providence College women’s team, which based on longevity was probably the only Hockey East team left out of Frozen Fenway that could claim it was snubbed, got rapid reparation yesterday. The Friars will be reeled in to Rentschler Field in East Hartford next winter, when they shall tangle with rival Connecticut on February 13 as part of a 10-day celebration of hockey in The Nutmeg State.

Yesterday, the people in charge of a new movement to revive the Hartford Whalers –an endeavor just as controversial as proposing a Snowglobe Super Bowl- proved they have this much going for them. The committee, led by seasoned NHL executive Harold Baldwin, will stage the so-termed “Whaler Hockey Fest” with, to the best of their ability, every available trimming to match the unique week everyone had in Boston last January. With further details still yet to be finalized, events will reportedly range from a Bruins-Whalers alumni clash, to an AHL Hartford Wolf Pack game, to innumerable youth hockey contests.

Whatever this might ultimately do to bring The Show back to the area, the countless remoras coming over to Rentschler are sure to get the goods they desire.

Of the event’s impact on his group, Friars’ head coach Bob Deraney said in a statement, “Not only does it showcase the sport of women’s ice hockey, but it also features two formidable Hockey East teams that have developed a fierce rivalry with one another.

“Every team wants to play in an outdoor event like this and we are grateful to have this opportunity for our student-athletes, staff and fans.”

For the Friars, who will be in their thirty-seventh year of operation, this is a chance to breathe the same kind of pond hockey air as what the 30-year-old Northeastern and 33-year-old New Hampshire programs soaked in at the Yawkey Yard. It is PC’s chance to reassert itself as being among the grassroots girls of Division I hockey.

And in this particular sport, few methods of seizing attention are more highly recommended than pitting two institutions that are already prominent in the more privileged sports. So for both participating clubs, this will be an unprecedented opportunity to flaunt the flair of the PC-UConn rivalry and let more people know the animosity is hardly confined to basketball. Some novice spectators might even agree to take a history lesson and learn that, unlike in hoops, the two hockey teams have routinely met in the postseason, including each of the last three years.

For the women’s hockey world in general, this will be a helpful follow-up on what was likely the most publicly progressive season in at least a decade. There will be no Olympics in 2010-11 (although plenty of world class players are coming to study and skate around these parts), but there is now another bonfire to be stoked.

Barring any announcements elsewhere in the nation akin to that made yesterday in East Hartford, this will be only the third event of its kind in NCAA women’s history. The other two have happened within the last five months, those being the UNH-NU clash and Wisconsin’s home date with Bemidji State back on February 6.

Predictions are precarious, and there isn’t a whole lot of history to help shape one’s speculation, but this game is sure to draw extra eyes. The Fenway women’s game, which was largely looked upon as an opening act to the BC-BU men’s battle, had a listed audience of 6,889 fans plus an indefinite number of regional TV viewers on NESN and national watchers on the NHL Network. The Badgers played in front of a reported 8,263 fans at Camp Randall Stadium before their male counterparts arrived on the scene along with a much heftier mass of 55,031 rooters.

There is no certainty of live TV coverage for the Friar-Husky game. And unlike the previous doubleheaders, this one will not follow the classic “ladies-first” policy. Rather, it will be the UConn men’s game versus Sacred Heart preceding the Friars’ tangle with Heather Linstad’s pupils.

The difference between seeing who shows up early and watching who sticks around as a courtesy to the female athletes should be interesting. The difference it makes in terms of attendance, if it does make any difference, will only be certain come game day.

But it will be, at the very least, a small plus if the Huskies can play before a crowd bigger than what their full-time home, Freitas Ice Forum, can accommodate. That dinky barn, which in terms of size and atmosphere is far better suited for a Junior B program, seats a mere 2,000 fans. Once they shuffle things over the Rentschler, the maximum capacity will instantly swell up to around 40,000.

Cue the cliché tempest. This means that the limits are astronomically high. And on the eve of the next Valentine’s Day, some new people might learn to love women’s puck.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com