By Mary Paoletti
BOSTON -- The snow fell fast and even. Fans hopped off the Green Line, paused for a moment on Commonwealth Avenue, and tried to find their bearings. It was a hockey night--that much they knew--but it was already unlike any they had ever experienced.
On this frosty Friday in January there was to be a collision between historic college tradition and an event momentous enough to make history with it's first try.
Two NCAA hockey games played in a baseball stadium. And not just any stadium but in "America's most beloved ballpark." For one night in a city ruled by a hierarchy of professional sports, and where the MLB especially reigns supreme, four teams of student athletes were called into court.
Each squad was equally deserving. Representing the women of the Hockey East conference was ninth-ranked Northeastern and fourth-ranked UNH. From the men came number-seven Boston College and the defending national champion Boston University Terriers.
Both games highlighted hot blood. New Hampshire and Northeastern have clawed through the years as one of the longest-running rivalries in women's college hockey and Boston's men have duked it out for nearly a century. Every season these games add a new chapter for two very old stories. The characters have grown and changed throughout the years, but New England fans are familiar with the setting. Much as they feel at home on Comm. Ave. when the Sox are in town.
"Oh! We're here," two hockey watchers said upon surfacing from Kenmore Station.
It was the old CITGO sign that triggered immediate reassurance. Turning the corner by Sovereign Bank and walking up Brookline Avenue, past the Cask and Game On! was the next step. As soon as the gates opened, that distinctive two-tone dinging of the ticket scanners rang out along Yawkey Way. Such sights and sounds made going to Fenway on a Friday night in January feel oddly similar to spending a Saturday at the Park in July.
Except on this night there was snow.
As for those four particular Hockey East foes facing off after the holidays? The match ups only added another page to their combined 357-game history.
But Friday night, the puck dropped in front of nearly 40,000 people.
The juxtaposition between familiarity and novelty was stunning. And no one in attendance at the Frozen Fenway event had to reconcile those ideas more directly and completely than the players and coaches.
"It's something we'll all remember," said BU coach Jack Parker. "Everybody on the ice, all the coaches, referees. It was something we'll all remember for as long as we live."
For the spectators, the Winter Classic match up between the Bruins and Flyers on New Years day was one hell of an opener. The anticipation of seeing Fenway transformed into an outdoor hockey venue culminated when some of the best players in the NHL shredded up the rink toward a 2-1 overtime end.
For players on the collegiate level, like Boston University junior Nick Bonino, hockey at Fenway Park constituted a different reality; one that was sometimes hard to grasp.
"I had a moment in the third period," the forward said. "I just kind of looked at the whole stadium and I tapped Chris Connolly on the shoulder and I said, 'Take a look at this. It's just incredible.' "
As Bonino reflected on the experience, Jack Parker smiled from under his Red Sox hat. Though a seasoned coach with more than 800 wins, Parker did not for a second feel that he or his program was bigger than Fenway Park. The coach had his own "moment" during BU's 3-2 win over BC, confessing that he at one point stopped to remark to a referee, "Hey, how lucky are we?"
Variations of Parker's graciousness were threaded throughout the night. The female hockey players were especially thankful, feeling that their game housed an aspect that was separate from the men.
"It's just exciting," UNH senior standout Micaela Long said. "The men get a lot of attention . . . It's great to have the opportunity to stand out in a different way."
Her sentiment is understandable. The first time UNH and Northeastern met this season was on November 29. The attendance for that game was just 164 people. When the UNH men's team played on the road the night before, they netted a sold-out crowd of 2,990. The disparity between men's and women's college hockey fan followings is clear. In that light, Long also wished that the national attention of Frozen Fenway could enhance the future of women's college hockey.
"I hope this game promotes the sport more and show younger fans that the game has come a long way. Hopefully we'll get more respect and more of a fan base, she said.
The post-game reactions from Northeasterns side were understandably more subdued. Co-head coaches Lauren McAuliffe and Linda Lundrigan addressed the media alongside freshman forward Brittany Esposito following the Huskies 5-3 loss. Lundrigan echoed Long in her view of the bigger picture.
"We talked to the girls about not forgetting that they were given an opportunity that no one could every take away from them, regardless of the result," the Northeastern coach remarked. "What we hope for in this venue with it being on national television is that some people who don't watch women's hockey get their eyes on it and have an appreciation for it.
Esposito seemed unable to appreciate her own two-goal effort. Her right leg swung like the pendulum rod on a metronome the entire time she spoke. When asked about details of the game, her eyes flicked down to the floor as she'd knead her lips together. Even in light of the positives outlined by Lundrigan, Espositos reaction was honest, and understandable.
Because amid all the hype, the lights, the noise, and the press, there were still two points at stake in each game. None of the four teams wanted their story of Frozen Fenway to be written as a loss.
"We told our team prior to the game that its going to be a memorable experience for both teams, BC head coach Jerry York said. He then looked the crowd straight on with earnest eyes, "but its going to be a significant experience for the team that won.
An experience like no other: Frozen Fenway.