The new UConn hockey rink project is reaching high levels of risk for poor execution.
We already knew, at 2,500 seats, the rink is smaller than Hockey East requirements but UConn has received a waiver for it. It will give the two programs a shiny new practice facility as well.
However, there are aspects of the plan that are interesting, to say the least.
In return, UConn and the entity will enter into a 30-year lease and the university will pay an annual fee to pay down the overall project cost. The annual cost over the lease is expected to be about $1.6 million, but operating revenues could drive that down to about $1.2 million.
UConn is going to take half of the cost of the arena—$22.5 million—and pay back at least $36 million in rent over a 30-year period to a developer that will own and manage the building, while the university maintains it.
UConn is going about this in the wrong way.
The proposed capacity of 2,500 would make it the smallest arena in Hockey East, just behind Merrimack’s Lawler Rink (capacity 2,549), a school that is also the only primarily Division II school in the conference and owners of the smallest student enrollment.
Even the proposed expanded capacity of 3,500 puts the future arena below Hockey East’s 4,000 requirement but it would also make it larger than only the aforementioned Lawler Rink and Providence’s Schneider Arena (3,030.) It would be smaller than older facilities such as Alfond Arena at Maine (5,641) and Vermont’s Gutterson Fieldhouse (4,007.)
This is too small for UConn.
With barely any student support in Hartford, the smallest amount of fans through the turnstiles last season was 2,723 against UMass, the same Tuesday evening in December when the men’s basketball team played Syracuse at Madison Square Garden. The Huskies brought in more than 3,500 fans over 50 percent of the time, for 10 of their 17 home games, delivering more than 5,000 spectators four times.
Supply and demand is important, but only seven crowds out of 17 would have fit inside even the expanded arena. The place will be too small the day it opens.
This doesn’t take into effect the other concerns brought to light, namely the lack of ownership. Funding the arena is important, but owning it and doing it right is more important.
The cost, including rent, of a few low-interest men’s ice hockey games a year and a new home for the women’s team will be $56 million.
The Whittemore Center Arena on the campus of New Hampshire, which seats 6,500 for hockey and has the ability to host concerts, cost $30 million when it opened in 1995, or $50.3 million today.
Bentley also just opened a rink of its own that cost $45 million, has capacity for 2,000 seats and more standing room options. No seat is more than seven rows off the ice and there is no bleacher seating.
The UConn arena will have only 500 chair backs, which is 20 percent of the non-expanded capacity. That is the bare minimum for Hockey East regulations and once it expands, that decreases to 14.3 percent, assuming they don’t add more.
If 2,500 seats meant that there were 2,500 chair backs and the arena was state-of-the-art, that would be one thing, but this is just the Frietas Ice Forum — capacity of 2,000 and deemed not fit for the men’s hockey team to compete at all — with 500 chair backs added in.
I’m not saying UConn needs to spend an insane amount of money on a huge project, like the cherry wood-framed seats and granite entryways of North Dakota’s Ralph Engelstad Arena with seating for over 11,000 fans. But they are not getting the value they should be out of this project.
If the administration is committed to bringing one of their most promising programs back to campus, where they could develop an elite program and atmosphere on par with the best in the country, then this is not how the new rink should be built.
Getting this right is especially important considering the uncertain future of the XL Center and its long-term viability. If they cannot play at the downtown Hartford arena in the near future, UConn can’t bring elite Hockey East programs into a 2,500-seat arena, they would just be leaving too much money on the table, and going any farther away than Hartford for home games would be doing a disservice to the players and to the students, more so than is already being done.
If the university and state can’t afford it, that’s completely fine. They shouldn’t spend beyond their means to accommodate two athletic programs at one public university. But if they’re going to do it, they should do it right.
That means starting at 4,500 seats and forcing every team that comes to play UConn to play in front of a raucous crowd with lots of students, like all of the successful hockey programs out there do.