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UConn Board of Trustees approves plan for new on-campus hockey arena

Construction on the long-awaited project is expected to begin in late May and wrap up by fall 2022.

UConn

The UConn Board of Trustees has officially approved the school’s new $70 million on-campus hockey arena. Construction on the project should begin in late May with completion expected by fall 2022, according to the school.

“We’re excited for UConn and its hockey programs. This new facility will give them a state-of-the-art arena to practice and play in,” Hockey East Association Commissioner Steve Metcalf told UConn Today.

The arena will seat 2,600 — 80 percent of which will be seatbacks. It will also include new locker rooms for the men’s and women’s hockey teams, coaches, and visitors, along with coaches’ offices, a weight room, training/hydrotherapy rooms, a press box, a dining area, an ice plant, and other support spaces.

There will also be a main video board over center ice along with ribbon video boards around the perimeter. An ice-level lounge will be situated at one end of the ice — similar to the setup at the XL Center — with a standing-room-only deck for students at the other end.

“The facilities that we’ve built here (at UConn), I have no reason to believe that the hockey arena won’t be as good as the Rizza Performance Center and new soccer stadium and Elliot Field (the new baseball stadium). UConn has proved when they’re going to build a building, they do it right,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh told The UConn Blog last week. “There’s no reason for me to believe the hockey arena is not going to be built the same way.”

The new facility will be built on Jim Calhoun Way where most of I-Lot is currently located, only a short distance from Freitas Ice Forum, the existing 1,650-seat on-campus rink which has grown antiquated. Freitas will still be used for practices, the club team, and community access.

Board of Trustees document

Even after the new on-campus arena is built, UConn men’s hockey is still expected to play most of its games at the XL Center in downtown Hartford. The women’s hockey team will play its entire schedule at the new rink.

When the UConn men’s hockey program joined Hockey East in 2013, the conference required the school to build a new on-campus facility with a minimum of 4,000 seats. Eventually, Hockey East gave UConn a waiver to build a 2,500-seat rink, which has since been increased to 2,600.

Many fans have been critical of the size, saying that it’s too small for the program. In the first six years after joining Hockey East, the Huskies averaged 4,458 fans per year at the XL Center. The highest mark was 5,396 in 2014-15 — their first year in the conference — while their lowest average was 3,638 in 2019-20 — the last season with fans.

The men’s team played all its games at Freitas Ice Forum this past year due to the pandemic.

When UConn first announced the project back in 2018, Cavanaugh didn’t have an issue with the size.

“A lot has been made with a 2,500-seat facility,” he said at the time. “Me personally, I think with the economic climate in our state, it’s fiscally responsible. We’re still going to play games in Hartford, I think we’d be crazy not to, especially with the way our attendance was towards the end of last season when we were putting 7,000 people into the [XL Center].”

Regardless of the capacity, the new arena will serve as a practice facility on par with others in Hockey East. While the men’s team finished a program-record fourth this past season and has a fair of fifth-place finishes over the last three years, they’ve struggled to attract elite American talent. Cavanaugh is hoping that will change with the new facility.

“I think this is going to be the game-changer for us,” he said. “The one area where I think this program has lacked, that’s going to be taken off the table and we’re going to be able to recruit to a first-class, top-notch, state-of-the-art facility.”

“The kids that are coming in this year as freshmen, their sophomore year they’re gonna play in a brand new building,” he added. “It’s real. It’s tangible now.”

The cost of the building has also skyrocketed in recent months. When the project was first announced in Oct. 2018, it was projected to cost $45 million. Even in Sep. 2020, a Board of Trustees document revealed the new budget had only risen to $48 million with another $5 million allocated for parking lot improvements and upgrades.

Now, the project will cost $70 million in addition to the $7 million needed to add 360 parking spaces for the arena. It will be financed with $17 million in university funds, $20 million in private philanthropy, and $33 million in revenue bonds.

“For a time, we worked with a public-private partner to try to bring this in at a much lower cost,” UConn chief financial officer Scott Jordan said during a Financial Affairs Committee meeting. “We, in that process, did develop a design for the building with an architect, but we and the private developer both agreed that we could not build it for what they originally proposed.”

Regardless, eight years after UConn joined Hockey East as a full-time member, the Huskies’ new on-campus arena is set to finally become a reality.