On Saturday, UConn finally broke ground on a new, on-campus hockey arena that will replace Freitas Ice Forum. During a ceremony at I-Lot, the site of the future rink, the Huskies’ two hockey coaches both spoke of the occasion as a watershed moment for their respective programs.
“This is a game changer-type of day for our program,” women’s hockey coach Chris MacKenzie said. “It’s just humbling for me to be a part of this history where we’re breaking ground on a new building that’s going to take us to the next level. I believe this rink will bring us to the pinnacle of our sport.”
“Today is a great day for UConn hockey,” men’s hockey coach Mike Cavanaugh said.
While Hockey East required UConn to build a new on-campus facility once the Huskies joined the conference on the men’s side in 2014, it took a bit longer than expected to reach this ground-breaking, and both programs are hopeful to get a boost they were expecting a few years ago.
UConn men’s and women’s hockey have yet to reached the NCAA Tournament, though both teams have been on the cusp in recent years. The women made the Hockey East final in two of the last four seasons while Cavanaugh’s squad likely needed to beat Providence in the playoffs this past year to secure a spot in the 16-team field.
Now — or at least in 18 months when the new arena is set to open — the Huskies won’t be competing on the recruiting trail against other Hockey East programs with far superior facilities.
UConn men’s hockey has recruited well considering the current rink, the program’s lack of D1 history, and newness in Hockey East. The Huskies have made significant inroads in British Columbia, landing the likes of Jonny Evans, Carter Berger, Hudson Schandor, and Carter Turnbull as well as with international players such as Vladislav Firstov (Russia), Jachym Kondelik (Czech Republic), and Tomas Vomacka (Czech Republic), to name just a few.
The one area where UConn struggles is with local kids, namely the elite prospects in Connecticut. Though the Huskies landed rising sophomore Nick Capone from East Haven in 2019, they couldn’t even get first-round picks like Spencer Knight (Darien, CT) or Trevor Zegras (Bedford, NY) to even visit.
Cavanaugh hopes the new arena will help change that. He often says if a player has to drive by UConn to go to another Hockey East school, the Huskies want to keep that player in Connecticut. He believes the rink will help the program attract the “top-end, elite talent” they’ve been missing out on.
“I’ve tried to tell my staff, ‘Hey, we’re going to recruit players and we’re not going to promise them a new arena because we don’t know if it’s coming,’” Cavanaugh added. “There have always been talks about it but until it actually happens, I don’t think you can talk about it. Today, I can confidently tell a recruit there’s gonna be a new arena here and we’re gonna open it in January of ‘23.”
MacKenzie feels the same is true for the women’s program. He said their recruiting is “in a good place” at the moment but knows it can always get better.
“What [the arena will] do is raise the profile of our program so we’re going to have an opportunity to get a shot at those one or two players that maybe really make a difference in your program — like a difference-maker type player,” MacKenzie said. “We’re going to get a shot at them where maybe we don’t right now.”
The new arena won’t just help UConn land elite players, it’ll also play a significant role in player development. For as well as both coaches have recruited, making sure the players they bring in get better has been a foundational element for both programs.
Take Jonny Evans for example, a solid prospect who was a good role player his first two years in Storrs before transforming into the Huskies' first Division I All-American. Now, the players and staff will have even more tools at their disposal to aid player development.
“We have a vehicle now where these kids can maximize their potential,” Cavanaugh said.
Currently, UConn’s hockey facilities are spread out. The locker rooms are in Freitas Ice Forum but players have to walk up Jim Calhoun Way to go to the weight room in Shenkman Training Center, which it shares with the football team and a handful of other programs.
There also isn’t much auxiliary space outside of the ice sheet at Freitas which forces the teams to stretch in the lobby. With the new arena, everything will be in one place.
“It’s a building that they’ll want to hang around in,” Cavanaugh said. “Hilltop’s right there and most of our players live in Hilltop and the fact that they can come here for lunch or after practice, they’re not gonna be in a rush to get out of the rink because there’s a lounge, they can hang out or there’s a room where they can go shoot pucks or they can get an extra workout in without having to walk in zero-degree weather to the gym.”
In 2006, UConn built the Burton Family Football Complex and Shenkman Training Center for its football program, which had recently moved up to the FBS level. In 2014, the Werth Family Champions Center opened as a new state-of-the-art facility for its elite basketball programs.
Most recently, the school created its athletics district — or “Olympic Village,” as Benedict called it on Saturday — which included new stadiums for the baseball, lacrosse, soccer, and softball programs as well as the Rizza Performance Center, which houses the facilities for those teams.
The still-unnamed new hockey rink is UConn’s first major investment in its hockey programs since building Freitas Ice Forum to replace the outdoor rink in 1998. While facilities certainly don’t guarantee success, both coaches have found ways to win with their current circumstances.
If all goes according to plan, the new arena won’t be anything completely transformative for either program, it’ll simply be the missing piece to finally put them over the top.