UConn is headed to Hockey East, you know this by now. UConn is also going to struggle in Hockey East, at least at first. I am generally excited about the move to Hockey East, and while I am not excited about watching UConn struggle, the fact that they will have the opportunity to improve and become a real challenger in the conference makes me hopeful. But the key word in that last sentence is "opportunity" because success is far from a guarantee and without the right support from UConn's administration it might well become an impossibility.
On Friday afternoon in Hartford the school celebrated its move to a new conference. By all reports it was a jovial affair with politicians, administrators, alums and coaches saying all of the things you would want them to. Here's Dan Malloy, Connecticut's Governor:
"Quite frankly, as a hockey fan ... this is about elevating UConn to where it should be. In the No. 1 premier hockey league in the United States. ... This is good for Hartford. This is a major draw."
And here's Warde Manuel, UConn's new athletic director:
"It would be like when we were I-AA, if we were invited to SEC football. When you get invited to participate with the best and you're a competitor ... you make every opportunity to make that happen. If we're going to play these sports, we want to play against the best. We do that in the Big East in many of our sports and we want to do that in hockey."
Finally, here's UConn coach Bruce Marshall:
"This is exciting. Our challenge [at the XL Center] is to make it feel comfortable and intimate. We'll need people to want to go to Storrs when we get there down the road. For now, the important thing is, you can come from Glastonbury, you can come from Avon, you can come from Farmington, you can come from Springfield ... we'll be right here in Hartford."
The words of Malloy and Manuel are exactly what you want to hear from UConn at this stage of the game. We're excited. We're going to big places. We want to compete. Etc. But that's not what's most important. What's most important is what Marshall said.
Frankly, I am not worried about talent coming to UConn. Connecticut is stocked with prep hockey players and if UConn supports itself adequately, those players will come. I am not worried about the coach either. I know some of you -- and I'm sure you'll make yourselves heard in the comments -- are not wild about Bruce Marshall, but the man's led UConn hockey for 25 years and I'm willing to give him a shot now that he'll have the Hockey East name (and scholarships) to recruit with.
What I am worried about is Hartford, because if UConn thinks the XL center is a realistic permanent home for UConn Hockey than UConn Hockey is in a world of trouble. You do not need me to rant about the XL Center. Just by your reading this far I take it as a given that you hate that godforsaken mess of an arena. UConn struggles to fill it for the basketball team, so you can imagine how empty and lifeless it will be for what might as well be a brand-new hockey program.
If UConn wants to be attractive to recruits, it's going to have to do so on campus. That is where they'll be able to create the sort of exciting environment that college hockey is known for. I'm picturing soccer's Goal Patrol moving inside and creating the type of rowdy environment that recruits will enjoy playing in front of and fans will enjoy being a part of. I spent four winters in Storrs and if I wasn't at a basketball game I was just sitting around being cold. Hockey, especially played in front of a nice 4,000-5,000 person crowd, can work there. In Hartford? A 30-minute drive for students who would barely make a dent in the deafening silence of a 14,000 seat arena? No way.
I understand why UConn is starting in Hartford. Reason one is that they do not have an arena on campus now. Reason two is that basketball practice facility fundraising makes planning for an arena now impractical. Reason three is that Malloy, who is as responsible for this move as anyone, wants it there. But Malloy is thinking about more than a team, he's thinking about a city too, and if UConn wants to do well they'll need to focus on the team.
Luckily, that might be in the cards. There were rumors before the move that UConn wanted to build a new on-campus arena. Even better, Marshall's comments from Friday indicate that those plans might still be floating around in the background. Again:
"Our challenge [at the XL Center] is to make it feel comfortable and intimate. We'll need people to want to go to Storrs when we get there down the road. For now, the important thing is, you can come from Glastonbury, you can come from Avon, you can come from Farmington, you can come from Springfield ... we'll be right here in Hartford."
Note that "down the road." Sure, he's pitching to Hartford now as UConn tries to build a base (and this might be a smart approach, it worked for basketball pre-Gampel), but the "down the road" indicates that UConn's Hockey East future might be back on campus. Let's hope so, because while the start might be in Hartford, real success will be found in Storrs.