Scouting the Venues
by Joe Connor/Special to CHN
With the NCAA tournament here, hockey fans amped to travel and follow their favorite school can get even more fired up knowing they are about witness the game in outstanding, intimate venues.
Unlike the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, which plays games in multiple, large anti-septic edifices like football stadiums (with lots of empty seats), college hockey fans are in for an incredible game-day experience.
For those fans with some money to spend, they’re also in for an affordable travel experience, because perhaps never before has there been a better time to hit the road with airlines, hotels and restaurants offering great deals in this buyers market, and perhaps even a great deal on tickets. And you can save money on a rental car – because you don’t need one. Four of the five post-season venues this year are located downtown, and the only one that isn’t, has a solid public transportation infrastructure.
Bridgeport, Connecticut, host of the East Regional at its downtown arena, starts Friday, March 27. Bridgeport, you might ask? Within an hour from the state capitol of Hartford (former home of the NHL’s “Fail Whale”) and New York City, the downtown Arena at Harbor Yard boasts a cozy setting as it makes its debut hosting a NCAA Men’s Hockey tournament.
Now, there's no sugar-coating it, Bridgeport certainly isn’t a college hockey town and it most definitely isn’t Manhattan – or even Hartford (which isn’t saying much, and I know, since I grew up there). But in terms of a hockey venue, fans are in for quite a treat. Home to an American Hockey League team, this is an extremely well-designed venue with fans right on top of the action, and boasts a capacity of just 8,500. It’s a far more intimate setting than the Hartford Whalers' former home, which is also used by an AHL club.
One time zone away on March 27, they’ll drop the puck on the West Regional at Mariucci Arena, which is beloved throughout college hockey for its intimate setting – and rightfully so. The only on-campus venue in this year’s men’s Division I postseason, historic Mariucci Arena is also the only tournament site whose permanent tenant even plays college hockey – and it’s the only venue not located downtown.
But fans visiting Minneapolis are less than three miles from the city center, which they can easily reach using public transit or a cab. But spend some time exploring the land of the Golden Gophers as you’ll enjoy the campus vibe – and an awesome arena.
On Saturday, March 28, the two other regionals begin, in Manchester, New Hampshire and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Seating under 10,000, Verizon Wireless Arena — in the Live Free or Die State — hosts the Northeast Regional and is a great setting for college hockey fans. And it has a college hockey track record too, despite its off-campus location, having hosted the annual battle for “The Riverstone Cup” between in-state rivals, New Hampshire and Dartmouth.
In the Wolverine State, Van Andel Arena in downtown Grand Rapids hosts its sixth NCAA Men’s Hockey Regional on March 28, and there’s no arguing why. Although it boasts the largest capacity of the four regional venues with room for more than 10,000 for hockey, this place has a history of doing well. In 2001, the arena, named after benefactors Jay and Betty Andel, broke the NCAA Hockey Regionals attendance record, albeit with Michigan and five other teams there.
Best of all, while Washington, D.C. isn’t a college hockey town, if you’ve ever wanted to visit our Nation’s Capitol in a buyers market, you’d be hard pressed to pick a better place to also watch “The Frozen Four.” Although it’s not as intimate an environment as the Regional sites, the downtown Verizon Center is a great venue for hockey — as opposed to basketball, for which is has more of a dull feel, hosting the NBA’s Wizards and college's Georgetown Hoyas.
Except for the top tier of the upper levels, you’ll like your sight lines at this 18,000-seat venue, and it’s one of the hidden gems of all venues in the National Hockey League (of which I’ve been fortunate to see them all). But even better, it’s within a few easy subway stops of not just the Washington Mall, where the cheery blossoms may be in full bloom, but also the White House and every other major DC attraction. What’s more, the arena’s located in the heart of Chinatown where there is literally multiple great restaurants right outside the arena doors.
And even though the finals, and regionals, may be advertised as “sold out,” you might be in luck this year because of the economic uncertainty. A different “market” may be prevalent out front of the venues this year – so take advantage. Remember, 18,000 seats is a lot of seats. Think about it: there’s probably more than two tickets available on game day somewhere and demand may not necessarily outstrip supply. So given the current buyer's market, there’s never be a better year to plan a travel adventure to follow your favorite college hockey team than this one.
So bring your face paint, your camera and prepare to lose your voice. For let the Road to the Frozen Four – and a soon-to-be memorable journey – begin. I can’t wait.
Joe Connor is a freelance writer and super fan, who’s been to every major college hockey venue. He’s the author of “A Fan’s Guide To The Ultimate Frozen Madness Travel Experience,” an online travel planning guide, which is available for purchase exclusively at www.mrsportstravel.com.