On Saturday, UConn men’s hockey will travel up to Boston for one of the unique showcases of the sport. The Huskies will take on Northeastern outdoors at Fenway Park as part of Frozen Fenway.
“Playing at Fenway is always a special event for our players,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said on Thursday. “It’s such an iconic venue. Fenway’s older than the NHL.”
UConn has played at Fenway Park once before, back in 2017, though it wasn’t a very memorable day. The Huskies lost 4-0 to Maine in a game that was never all that competitive. This time, they’re the No. 9 team in the country and will play a Northeastern squad that’s dropped six of its last seven games dating back to Nov. 19.
Still, the other Huskies aren’t lacking in talent. In net, Devon Levi is the reigning Mike Richter Award winner — given to the best goalie in college hockey — and while his numbers aren’t spectacular (2.61 GAA, .918 save percentage), that has more to do with the team in front of him than his own play. By all accounts, Levi is still one of the top netminders in the nation.
Up top, Aidan McDonough is one of the premier threats in Hockey East with 12 goals and 13 assists in 19 games, though Justin Hryckowian has also been dangerous with 10 goals and 13 assists in 20 games.
This isn’t a typical matchup, though. Outdoor games are inherently less predictable because the weather factors in more than it does indoors. With rain forecasted for Friday and temperatures expected to be in the low 40s on Saturday, the ice surface will be far from pristine, so whichever team deals with any ice-related issues better should have the upper hand.
“The basic foundation and identity of how we play doesn’t change,” Cavanaugh said. “I think the one thing that we do have to take into account is that the ice is going to get chippy. The ice isn’t going to be what you’re used to in an indoor facility. So at times, you might have to just dump pucks instead of trying to make a play that’s tough to make on bad ice.”
Luckily, UConn is well-built to handle sub-optimal conditions. The Huskies aren’t a team that overly relies on speed, dekes, or skill to score. They can play — and win — ugly when they need to, which could come in handy at Fenway.
“In some ways, it doesn’t matter whether you’re indoors or outdoors,” Cavanaugh said. “I thought the game got away from us a little bit last week (against LIU) because we were trying to make plays where there wasn’t an opportunity to try to make a play that. The best play would have been to get the puck behind the defenseman instead of trying to force a play.”
Still, the game is as much about the experience as the result and while it should be memorable for everyone, it may have extra meaning to certain members of the Huskies’ roster. UConn features 11 New England natives — not including Matthew Wood, who spent part of his childhood in New Hampshire — including five Massachusetts natives.
Freshman defenseman Tom Messineo, a native of Westwood, Massachusetts, is a Red Sox fan and has been to Fenway Park plenty of times as a fan. The opportunity to play there will be a dream come true.
“Through the roof. I’m excited,” he said on the 97.9 ESPN Coach’s Show on Tuesday when asked about his excitement level for the game. “[It’s] going to be an awesome experience. I went to a [Winter] Classic game there for the Bruins when I was really young. You see it on TV and you just hope one day you’ll get to play there.”
Graduate forward Ty Amonte is also a Red Sox fan and went to plenty of games at the ballpark both growing up and during his time at BU. He’s also taken the ice at Fenway Park.
“I played there once before,” he said on the coach’s show. “I was an eighth grader on the high school varsity team. It was [a] late-night, snowing game so it was tough. We got crushed. Looking for a better result...It’s a game that a lot of guys have been looking forward to and it’s just an incredible experience. I can’t wait to share it with everyone.”
Of course, Fenway Park is an American icon for a mostly-American sport and UConn has plenty of players from both Canada and Europe. Will they grasp the significance of the venue?
“If they didn’t know, they do by now,” Cavanaugh said. “I think the rest of the guys on the team will clue them in.”
Not everyone will get to lace up in the park, though. With rain and maybe even snow forecasted for Friday, UConn won’t get a chance to practice at Fenway Park prior to Saturday.
“The unfortunate thing is we’re supposed to practice there tomorrow. I’m not sure we’re going to be able to because of the weather,” Cavanaugh said earlier on Thursday before practice was canceled. “If we can’t, it’s not the end of the world but I was kind of hoping to get out there because there are some guys who won’t get to play in the game. You can only dress 19 skaters so unfortunately, some guys won’t get to dress for the game. That’s why I always like to practice the day before because everybody can get out there and skate and if that gets cancelled, that’ll be a bummer.”
Of course, that’s out of UConn’s control, just as the ice surface and everything else on Saturday will be.
One that that isn’t? Attire. During the NHL Winter Classic on Monday, the Boston Bruins showed up in vintage Red Sox uniforms and both the Bruins and Penguins wore special jerseys for the game. While the Huskies won’t go nearly that far, Cavanaugh does have something planned.
“I’ll have my Hook C hat on,” he said, referencing UConn baseball’s logo. “Jim Penders has granted me permission to wear one.”