It has been more than a decade in the making but finally, UConn hockey has a new on-campus home. Both the UConn men’s and women’s hockey teams have practiced at the Toscano Family Ice Forum and their first games are this weekend.
The 2,600-seat rink will host its first game on Friday when UConn women’s hockey takes on Merrimack. On Saturday, the new arena will host a double-header featuring the men’s and women’s teams.
How did we get here? The tale starts before UConn was even a member of Hockey East.
As part of the men’s program’s admittance into Hockey East in June 2012 for the 2014-15 season, the school was required to build an on-campus rink within four years. As we all know, it ended up taking much longer than that.
The Freitas Ice Forum was woefully unequipped to meet league standards: an on-campus arena of 4,000 spectators, half of which are chairback seats.
Opened in 1998 as part of the UCONN 2000 initiative, Freitas Ice Forum seats fewer than 2,000 spectators on narrow benches and players warming up in the lobby. This was a vast improvement from the previous rink, which was only partially enclosed by a roof and was technically outside.
The conference would not allow the men to play there and even if it did, the facility would have been way out of its depths when the Huskies hosted some of college hockey’s bluebloods like Boston College and Boston University. Once in Hockey East, the program hosted games at the XL Center in downtown Hartford while practicing on campus.
The upper bowl of the XL Center was closed off with curtains to lower the capacity from 14,750 to 8,089, but the arena that also hosts the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack and formerly the NHL’s Hartford Whalers was often too cavernous for the Huskies even though their attendance often ranked towards the top of Hockey East.
Even when 5,000 people attended games, it could feel empty and quiet, while the drive of 30+ minutes from Storrs meant there were rarely more than 50 or so dedicated students, if that, at one end of the ice.
Additionally, the team is low on the priority list for this venue. The Wolfpack, both of UConn’s basketball squads, and traveling shows all fought with men’s hockey for premium event times. This often meant Saturday afternoon games after Friday night road games to complete a home-and-home series in Hockey East.
This made XL Center untenable in the long term, even if ticket sales were high. Back in Storrs, the team’s practice facilities were also by far the worst in Hockey East and the Huskies were the only team in the conference to play off-campus.
But it took much longer than four years for UConn to even break ground on the new arena. The process to get this building up hit plenty of roadblocks along the way.
The early plans
Despite the shortcomings of UConn’s existing facilities and the June 2012 agreement to eventually move back to Storrs, the next six years were all quiet on that front. The Associated Press article about the announcement noted that non-league games were to be played at Freitas Ice Forum and the arena would be renovated at a cost of almost $11 million.
Neither of those things ended up happening and UConn men’s hockey hasn’t played at Freitas Ice Forum in a regular season game — aside from the COVID-19 pandemic season — since March 15, 2014.
In October 2015, then-athletic director Warde Manuel indicated to the Hartford Courant that he hoped a renovation of Freitas would be complete by 2019. In a Daily Campus article a few weeks later, this renovation was revealed to seat 4,000 and even though a new facility at the site of Mansfield Apartments was part of the 2015 UConn Master Plan, university officials said that this was the least likely option.
UConn made upgrades to other athletic facilities during this time. The Board of Trustees approved the soccer, baseball and softball stadiums in November 2017 after a feasibility study was made public in February 2017.
The Board of Trustees had not made any approval for Freitas renovations, though the feasibility study recommended renovating the building at a cost of $25 million-$30 million, but also said a new building was best if the Huskies would be playing games in Storrs.
Between 2018 and 2021, many different plans were floated for a new arena that included different sizes, structures, and ownership situations.
The foundation gets approved
In September 2018, the UConn Board of Trustees signed off on a new arena that would seat 2,500 fans and host six or seven men’s hockey home games per season, the women’s program full-time, and also be a men’s practice facility. This building was to be connected to Freitas Ice Forum in order to use the existing administrative offices and locker rooms.
The Hartford Courant reported the following month that this facility would cost $45 million and not be owned by the university, but rather by a developer to which the school would pay more than $1 million in rent annually. The UConn Blog panned this arrangement and luckily, it’s no longer the case. The university owns Toscano Family Ice Forum.
UConn’s University Planning, Design and Construction released an Environmental Impact Evaluation in April 2020 for an arena that could be expanded as high as 3,500 seats, though this is the only time the capacity had been referenced to be this high.
UConn issued a Request for Proposals on Sept. 17, 2020 for a 2,700-capacity facility, of which 1,450 would be chairbacks. Construction would commence in April 2021 with substantial completion in October 2022. The budget was $48 million, in addition to $5 million for I-Lot improvements.
The final plan
The final plan was approved in April 2021 by UConn’s Board of Trustees. The rink cost $70 million and planned for 2,600 seats, 80 percent of which are chairbacks. They broke ground just a few weeks later at a ceremony at the future site of the rink.
“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 at the time.
The frame was completed in December 2021 and in September 2022, the arena was named Toscano Family Ice Forum after Dan Toscano, Board of Trustees chairman, donated a leadership gift. The team then held its first practice on Jan. 2 and a ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held on Thursday.
This new rink will help UConn take the next step with recruitment and more importantly, with its program. The Huskies had some of the worst facilities in Hockey East and still almost won the title last season. Now, the new on-campus home can help them reach NCAA Tournaments and potentially beyond.