When Toscano Family Ice Forum opens this weekend, UConn hockey will have a proper, state-of-the-art home for the first time in its history. The new arena will replace Freitas Ice Forum, a budget project built in 1998 that has long since become outdated.
Freitas itself represented a significant upgrade at the time, though.
Before it, the Huskies used to play outdoors at the UConn Ice Arena, a sheet of ice covered by a giant wooden roof with no walls, opening it up to all the elements. By the end of its life, the rink had become an embarrassment for the university that had capped the program’s potential for years — even decades. But when it was built, it gave the hockey team something it had previously lacked: A home.
The beginning of the UConn men’s hockey program can be traced to the late 1950s when a student, Charles Mitchell, started a club team. After a couple of seasons, John Chapman — who also worked as a backfield coach for the football team and a tennis coach — became the first head coach. UConn officially recognizes the 1960-61 campaign as the program’s inaugural season.
However, the Huskies were a team without a home in those early days. All their games were on the road and they’d only practice on the ice once a week at Loomis Chaffee School — about an hour's drive away from Storrs in those days.
After a few seasons, the administration began an effort to get its hockey team a place to skate on campus. In 1963, then-president Homer Babbidge asked Connecticut’s General Assembly to restore $11 million to the university’s budget, some of which would be earmarked for a hockey facility. On Dec. 11, 1963, the Hartford Courant reported that the school solicited bids to build a $300,000 (equivalent to roughly $2.75 million today) skating rink in Storrs.
Eventually, the firm of Wescott and Maples was selected as architects and engineers of the project, which was initially slated to be completed by December 1964.
Not everyone wanted UConn to build an entirely new hockey facility, though. In a Jan. 26, 1964 edition of the Hartford Courant, Frank Keyes wrote a column pushing for turning the school’s field house (now Hugh Greer Field House) into a rink. Keyes even claimed that “there’s more than two or three Storrs officials who agree with that line of thinking.”
That didn’t matter, though. The rink eventually opened in March 1965 — four months after schedule, which meant UConn didn’t play a single game there during the 1964-65 campaign.
Still, the Huskies finally had a home.
On Dec. 1, 1965, UConn hosted Nichols College in its first-ever home game in what the Hartford Courant called an “excellent facility.” Tom Richardson scored the opening goal at the rink and the Huskies followed it up with nine more en route to a 10-1 victory in front of an estimated 200 people as well as “a lone pigeon already settled in the rafters,” according to the Courant.
For a while, the Huskies were just happy to have a home. The rink was as bare-bones as it gets — there were no locker rooms and instead of glass above the boards, they just had chicken wire. In 1980, then-freshman Dave L’Ecuyer needed 20 stitches after his face got caught in said wire.
Lighting also proved to be a problem. The contrast between the darkness of the roof and the bright snow outside during the day caused issues. For a while, UConn used sunglasses or eye black during practice. Eventually, someone came up with the idea to put canvas tarps along the openings to block out the light.
But most of all, the rink was cold. Without walls, the wind cut across the ice and could often slow the teams down when they went in a certain direction. Though it had enough seating for an estimated 1,500 according to one source, crowds were typically much smaller. Those who did show up often didn’t come for the entire game, either.
“Some people stay for two periods then leave,” senior co-captain Gregg Hutchings told the Hartford Courant in 1980. “Some come just for the last period.”
There were benefits, though. Since UConn practiced outside every day, it was used to the elements and gave the team a home-ice advantage.
“Some teams don’t like coming down here to play because of playing outside in the cold,” Hutchings said in the same story. “It’s worth at least a goal a game for us. We don’t mind playing at this rink at all. In fact we love it.”
The players put vaseline on their ears and nose, wore a second pair of gloves, and used baby powder in their socks in an effort to stay warm. But even with precautions, the cold still won out. Former player and head coach Bruce Marshall told the Courant he got frostbite on his feet once and assistant coach Chuck Jancaterino once had to leave the bench during the game because frostbite developed on his nose.
Not everyone was bothered by the cold, though.
“There is one guy named Steve Bristol who goes to just about every game, but he doesn’t wear anything above the waist,” Hutchings explained in the same 1980 article. “Now that is a dedicated fan. When we see and hear him as we step on the ice, we can’t help but get juiced up to play the hockey game.”
Because of the rink was outdoors, UConn was also beholden to Mother Nature. The team couldn’t begin practicing until the ice froze, which often resulted in slow starts. And if it got too cold, the ice could become too hard to skate on.
The ice sheet didn’t just stand alone in the southwesternmost point of campus, though. Part of the lore surrounding the old rink was the warming hut, located just south of the playing surface. Estimated to be built in the 1920s as a faculty dining hall, the building wasn’t much: It featured dressing rooms, bathrooms, and a great room that included a large, stone fireplace. The players would get ready inside and then walk roughly 50 feet to the rink to play.
“The shutters on the dining hall had SAC on it for Storrs Agricultural College,” Marshall told the Middletown Press in 2011, highlighting just how old the building was. The coach wasn’t totally right, though: The shutters actually had CSC for Connecticut State College, the school’s name from 1933-39.
As harsh as the conditions may have been at times, the Huskies didn’t complain about their setup. Without it, they wouldn’t have anywhere to play and besides, UConn wasn’t trying to build a national power back then. In 1980, Chapman referred to the hockey team as a “nickel and dime operation” as well as “a sane, decent program.”
Chapman retired in 1981 with an impressive career record of 268-253-11 considering the circumstances he coached under. UConn hired Ben Kirtland — a 26-year-old former player — to replace him, and it didn’t take long for the new coach to start agitating for a better facility.
The first talk of enclosing the rink — or building a new one — came in 1987, the first year Todd Turner took over as UConn athletic director.
“I think that the success of hockey at the university is tied to improvement at the facility,” he told the Hartford Courant. “We’ve got to enclose the rink.”
Kirtland explained in the same article that the outdoor facility hurt the team on the recruiting trail, and claimed “eight out of 10 players” would bring up the rink during the process.
The push for a new home for the hockey program got a boost when former player Todd Krygier, playing for the Hartford Whalers at the time, trashed the rink and called out the university to Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant. Some of his words proved to be oddly prophetic, too.
“The fact that UConn doesn’t have a Division I hockey program is asinine,” Krygier said. “...They should be in Hockey East. It wouldn’t take long for them to be a legitimate big-time program. But I think UConn is scared of hockey.”
The problem, of course, came down to money. Back then, UConn didn’t have much of it — not to mention it had just opened Gampel Pavilion for its basketball programs. Turner estimated it would cost $1 million to put walls in and anywhere between $2-5 million to make it a fully functional rink. At the time, that proved to be too much for a team that didn’t make money.
“The ambition is there,” Turner told the Courant. “...UConn is financially strapped. You’re looking at a huge capital expense up front.”
Undeterred, Krygier offered to pitch in.
“Heck, I’ll even manage the rink,” he told Jacobs.
It took 11 more years, but UConn eventually got around to building a new rink. As part of the UConn 2000 initiative, the school allocated $2.4 million toward an enclosed facility.
Not everyone was thrilled, though. Locals wanted to preserve the rink — some because they feared an indoor ice surface would result in reduced public access, others out of nostalgia — and called for an entirely new facility to be built elsewhere. One estimate put the cost of doing so at roughly $3 million.
“The hockey families are baffled,” Paul Kalajian of Mansfield told the Hartford Courant in 1996. “It sounds like they could build a brand new facility, a brand new rink that could be used year-round, for about the same price.”
“Why not build a new rink?” Krasnow added.
UConn made it clear that it planned to stick to the $2.4 million price tag, which didn’t leave many other options. Eventually, the old wooden roof came down and what eventually became Freitas Ice Forum rose up in its place.
The Huskies won their final outdoor home game, defeating Trinity in the ECAC Playoffs, 3-1. Jamie Venezia had the last goal while Marshall earned his 150th win as head coach. It also proved to be their final contest as a Division II program. The next fall, UConn moved up to Division I as a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and played its first game at Freitas Ice Forum on Nov. 7 against AIC.
The Huskies won the opener — just as they did with the old outdoor rink — in front of 1,669 warm fans.
“It was awesome,” senior forward Dan Sheehan told the Hartford Courant postgame. “To have all those people in the crowd and not have a wind chill factor of minus-20...a big change.”
“Coach Marshall would have us skating for three hours if we lost this one,” he added later.
Not only did Freitas Ice Forum help usher in UConn men’s hockey’s Division I Era, it also led to the creation of a women’s hockey program. Now, the latter will open Toscano Family Ice Forum when it hosts Merrimack on Friday, Jan. 13.
That’ll be the first time UConn ever plays an on-campus hockey game somewhere new. While Freitas replaced the outdoor rink, the actual location of the ice surface didn’t change. That won’t be the case at Toscano.
However, the new building pays homage to the Huskies’ original home. The men’s locker room and club lounge both have electric fireplaces and there’s a large firepit outside the arena as well — a nod to the stone fireplace in the old warming hut. “Remember your roots” is one of the tenants of Cavanaugh’s program — that phrase hangs in the locker room at Toscano — and has been referenced more this week than ever.
Those fireplaces, while a small touch, are a reminder of UConn’s roots. As the program begins life in a facility that has it all, that one small feature harkens back to a day when the Huskies were just happy to have somewhere to call home.