College hockey: A night to remember


College hockey: A night to remember

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.

Frozen Fenway.

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.

BOSTON SPORTS TONIGHT PODCAST: Is trading for Paul George worth the risk?


BOSTON SPORTS TONIGHT PODCAST: Is trading for Paul George worth the risk?

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0:41 - Michael Holley, Kayce Smith and Tom Giles recap their thoughts on drafting Jayson Tatum and trade rumors involving the Celtics.

6:21 - Ian Thomsen joins BST to discuss if it would be worth trading for Paul George as a one-year rental and if there would be a chance he could still around long-term if traded to Boston.

11:13 - Evan Drellich joins BST to talk about Rick Porcello’s outing, the Red Sox offense coming to life, and Doug Fister being claimed by the Red Sox. 

15:10 - Kyle Draper and A. Sherrod Blakely look back at the Celtics/Nets trade, what the assets have turned into, and if Danny Ainge has done a good job turning those assets into players. 

Haggerty: Bruins playing it pretty safe at the NHL Draft

Haggerty: Bruins playing it pretty safe at the NHL Draft

CHICAGO – As opening nights go at the NHL Draft, Friday night was a bit of a ho-hum affair for the Boston Bruins at the United Center home of the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Bruins went the safe route by drafting a smooth, defensive-minded defenseman with the 18th overall pick when they selected Finnish product Urho Vaakenainen, and in doing so left more dynamic forwards like Kristian Vesalainen and Kailer Yamamoto still on the draft board for other teams to claim as their own. It was a bit of a curious choice given how many defensemen the Bruins already have in the prospect pipeline, but the lack of strength in the draft class seemed to lead teams to carve their own paths looking for players.

MORE: Bruins select defenseman Urho Vaakanainen with No. 18 pick

The 6-foot-1, 188-pounder clearly has miles to go offensively despite his smooth skating and solid passing skills, but there’s also a consideration that the teenager has been playing in the men’s league in Finland for the last couple of seasons. It makes things a little more difficult to project for the Finn D-man, but the Bruins believe there is some upside to his offensive game given the skills, the hockey IQ and the considerable confidence that the player has in his own game.

“His gap control and skating ability are really good. He’s obviously played in the Finnish Elite League at a very young age for one and a half years now and he’s played on the big stage at the world juniors. We feel like there’s a lot of upside for a 200-foot player that gets back on pucks, and then can transition them back out. Being able to cover ice is an important part of the game, and it continues to evolve in that direction,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney, who indicated Vaakenainen will play in North America in 2018-19 after fulfilling his contractual obligations in Finland. “We tracked what he did on offense at the junior league level prior to him jumping to the elite league, and it lines up pretty well with other elite players that made the jump to that level.

“It’s a valid question and whether he gets put into those [offensive] situations this year is what we’re excited about with his [Finnish] team moving forward.”

While Vaakenainen sounded surprised the Bruins selected him after only a single meeting at the NHL scouting combine, Sweeney said that Boston’s head scout in Finland has enough history with the family to vouch for the kid’s makeup.

So while it’s far from a sexy pick and the Bruins could have tried to hit a home run with an 18th overall selection in a mediocre draft, the B’s will also get some time before anybody is ready to label the Finnish blueliner a boom or a bust.

The rest of the draft night didn’t add up to much for the B’s, however. They made the selection of Vaakenainen after strongly considering dropping down in the first round, and in doing so lost one of the better trade chips in the form of their 2017 first round pick. There were discussions with Minnesota about Marco Scandella and a few trade feelers to other clubs that might listen on a D-man, but the Bruins now have to hit the reset button on trade discussions for left-shot defensemen or top-6 left wings.

Perhaps Scandella’s $4 million per season salary was an issue for the Bruins, or maybe the Bruins didn’t want to give up their first round pick for a 27-year-old D-man coming off a so-so season with the Wild. Either way, there wasn’t enough momentum for the Bruins to get a trade done with a bevy of defensemen rumored to be available if the offer is good enough.

“I was on the record saying that we’d be offering our first round pick for target-specific players, and we did do that,” said Sweeney. “I don’t blame teams for not necessarily wanting to go through with it, so we went ahead with a player we wanted with our own pick. We continue to build what we think is a good group of guys moving forward.

“There are a couple of areas we’d like to address and get better. We’re trying to help our team currently. Certainly Brandon [Carlo] jumped into our lineup and we hope Charlie [McAvoy] will carry over what he did, and we have other players that will push. We have six returning defensemen we feel good about and we’ll certainly push from underneath, but it’s an area we’ll continue to address. We have some forwards that we also hope will come online, but we’ll never stop exploring and trying to improve our club.”

So let’s sum it all up after a week of additions and subtractions from the Original Six organization: The Bruins added a decidedly vanilla defenseman in the first round of the NHL Draft that might be a simple stay-at-home guy, and they weren’t able to muster any kind of deals for a D-man or winger to enhance the NHL roster. On the other hand, they didn’t give up much over the week as well and they didn’t do much at all to harm a solid roster that looked like they were finally on the right track pushing into the playoffs last season.

The Bruins could be in store for an action-packed Day Two of the draft on Saturday full of promising prospects and bountiful trades, but it sure feels like the 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago isn’t going to be a very memorable one for the Black and Gold.