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‘Are we really here right now?’: UConn finally breaks ground on long-awaited hockey arena

The Huskies finally broke ground on their new on-campus facility Saturday morning.

Ian Bethune - The UConn Blog

UConn women’s hockey coach Chris MacKenzie used to say he wouldn’t believe that there would be a new on-campus hockey arena in Storrs until he saw shovels in the ground and went to a ceremony for it.

On Saturday, MacKenzie got his wish when UConn officially broke ground on its new, on-campus hockey arena during a ceremony at I-Lot, the site of the future rink.

“Are we really here right now?” he said with a gesture of disbelief. “I’ve been here for eight years and we’ve been talking about building a rink forever. I see the shovels and now I believe it.”

“Today is a great day for UConn hockey,” men’s hockey coach Mike Cavanaugh added.

The project, which began when the Huskies’ men’s hockey program joined Hockey East in 2014, was approved by the school’s Board of Trustees in late April.

“Once all the earth has been moved, and all the construction has been completed, this space will be occupied by one of the finest ice hockey facilities in the country,” UConn athletic director David Benedict said.

Specifically, Benedict highlighted the team areas — which will include new locker rooms, a weight room, team lounges and more — as well as the fan experience, which will feature two lounges — one at ice-level and another along the concourse — and a student deck.

“It’s really the attention to detail our coaches have had as it relates to the student-athlete development piece. Everything is going to be in place like we have over here with the Rizza Performance Center for our students to reach their potential,” Benedict said. “Then obviously when we’re competing on campus, we want our fans to have a great experience.”

UConn and JCJ Architecture incorporated input from Cavanaugh and MacKenzie into the design as well. Both coaches wanted the amenities for the players and team as a whole to be first-class — Cavanaugh hoped they would have a “wow feeling” — while Cavanaugh also pushed for a club lounge, something he’d seen first at Notre Dame.

“Donors and alumni are going to be able to go up to a club lounge in between periods, before games to grab something to eat, grab a drink, enjoy the game there, socialize, mingle and make it a social event,” he said. “It’ll also double as a room where we can have pregame meals or if we have a guest speaker.”

One of the biggest criticisms of the new arena has been the seating capacity of 2,600, which will make the rink second-smallest in Hockey East. Though the league used to require men’s teams to play in an on-campus arena that seated at least 4,000, Benedict said that requirement no longer exists and the league’s athletic directors were supportive of the size.

“We talked to a lot of our peers in Hockey East and in this region, and the people that I spoke with, the athletic directors at all these different programs, I think we’ve picked a size arena that’s going to be appropriate for our location and our program,” he said.

Cavanaugh echoed that support and believes the smaller capacity will lead to a better game-day atmosphere, something which will only help the program and its fanbase grow.

“They asked ‘Can you sell atmosphere?’ and I said no, atmosphere sells itself. When you bring a recruit in or if you’re a kid growing up in the area coming to UConn games, the atmosphere is going to sell itself, you won’t have to tell anybody about it. They love to tell people what a great experience it is,” he said. “I think the fact that it’s just going to be under 3,000 with students and our fan base, we’ll have a packed building every night we play.”

UConn also plans to continue to play men’s games at the XL Center, where it’s hosted every home game between the 2014-15 season and the 2019-20 season. The Huskies played at Freitas Ice Forum this past year due to COVID-19 but will return downtown for the 2021-22 campaign.

As of now, the school hasn’t decided what percentage of games will be in Hartford compared to Storrs.

“We’re certainly hopeful that there’s going to be an investment made at the XL Center to make some improvements there and once we know that, it’ll allow us to better determine exactly what the split is as well as seeing what our schedules look like over the next couple of years,” Benedict said.

Construction is expected to take roughly 18 months, with completion targeted for fall 2022. Benedict admitted there could be delays, especially with the pandemic, along with a shortage of some construction materials. But overall, he believes the timeframe is “reasonable.”

For his part, MacKenzie offered to help with the construction.

“I’d like to say to Turner Construction: I’m willing to help,” he said. “In the past calendar year I’ve built a treehouse, I’ve installed vinyl plank flooring in my basement and I recently put together a dresser from IKEA. I can do that, I know I can help.”

When Cavanaugh took the podium soon after, he made it clear that MacKenzie was speaking for himself alone.

“I’m happy helping raise money but I’m not building anything,” he quipped. “My wife can attest to that.”

The new arena will cost $70 million with $20 million expected to come from private philanthropy. On Saturday, Benedict announced two new gifts for the project. Frank Longobardi, a former UConn hockey player and recently-retired CEO of CohnReznick LLC, donated $1 million while Peter J. Werth, whose name is on UConn’s basketball practice facility as well as a dorm, gave $7.5 million to UConn athletics, $2.5 million of which will go to the rink.

With the shovels in the ground and the money starting to come together, the arena is finally becoming a reality. Though it's not completed yet, Cavanaugh has an idea of what to expect after walking through a newly-finished Elliott Ballpark with UConn baseball coach Jim Penders one day.

“He’s like ‘Can you believe this?’ I was like ‘Nah, this is — it’s awesome,” Cavanaugh relayed. “I have a feeling I’m gonna have the same feeling when the first day I walk into that arena and it’s there. And we open up that night in front of a packed house, it’s gonna have that same feeling, probably very similar to opening night in Hockey East against BC. That was such an electric atmosphere that you never forget and I think it’ll be very similar.”