Some schools feel frozen out by Fenway fees

Say $10,000-$30,000 price tag out of reach for all but the wealthiest hockey programs

By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / December 30, 2009

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It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for young hockey lovers to play before a huge crowd at Fenway Park. And when the Red Sox allowed area high schools to take part in the festivities surrounding Friday’s Bruins-Flyers game, coaches around the state jumped at the opportunity.

Then they found out what it cost.

If their team wanted to schedule a hockey game at Fenway, they learned, their schools would have to shell out between $10,000 and $30,000 for an hour or two on the ice.

For most public and parochial schools, the tab was way out-of-reach. Even if they could raise the cash through fund-raising drives, by soliciting parents, or charging admission, the expense would be hard to justify in an era budget-cutting and economic uncertainty.

The result? So far, only wealthy private schools, such as Avon Old Farms and Taft from Connecticut, and Belmont Hill and St. Sebastian in the Boston area, have been able to pay the price.

“I’ll tell you, we feel pretty fortunate,’’ said Belmont Hill’s athletic director, George Tahan. To cover the cost, he said, his school, and rival St. Sebastian, each sold 1,000 tickets at $20 apiece to their Jan. 5 matchup.

“It wasn’t easy, but it was such a unique opportunity,’’ Tahan said. “Who knows if it will ever be back at Fenway. We hope we can represent the schools that can’t be there to play a game in such a special place.’’

In a state that boasts first-rate hockey programs, several public- and parochial-school coaches said they were deeply disappointed that their players would not get the chance to showcase their talent at the storied stadium.

Frank Pagliuca, coach of the reigning state championship St. Mary’s of Lynn girls hockey team, said the Red Sox should have considered offering free time for one public school boys’ game, and one public school girls’ game.

“It would have been nice for the powers that be to offer that . . . or put a lottery in place,’’ he said. “The price was pretty outrageous.’’

Coaches said they didn’t understand why the cost was so high; some said they even tried to negotiate the price down.

“Our association [of hockey coaches] . . . thought they’d give us half off,’’ said Dave Spinale, the coach at Xaverian Brothers, a parochial school in Westwood. “The two teams could split the cost - $3,000 a program - and no one would be killing themselves. But they said no - $13,000 or $14,000 - no exceptions.’’

He said, “It sounds like gouging, though I don’t know enough about it to say they should do it for less.’’

In a written statement, Susan Goodenow, the Red Sox spokeswoman, said the precious ice time is being shared among the Red Sox, the Bruins, the National Hockey League, and the mayor’s office, all of whom worked together “to ensure there is a mixture of community and corporate skates to give as many people as possible the opportunity to enjoy this unique opportunity.’’

She noted that the Bruins invited Boston Public Schools students and other community groups to skate for free.

While many high school hockey coaches asked about playing games on the Fenway ice, the Red Sox “did not actively reach out to any schools,’’ Goodenow said. So far, she said, only three high school games - all involving private school teams - have been played or scheduled. But because of heavy interest, she said, the team is “looking into the possibility of scheduling more.’’

She said the base fee for renting the ice is $3,000-an-hour. Security and cleanup expenses would add to the cost, she said. The fee, she said, covers the cost of operating the rink and subsidizes free skating for charity and community groups.

Asked whether the team is making money, she said, “This is not a financial windfall for us.’’

It is not the first time the ice at Fenway Park has stirred controversy.

Earlier this month, the Globe reported that scalpers were reselling at exorbitant prices tickets handed out free to city residents to skate at the park. The tickets, distributed as part of the city’s New Year’s festivities, were selling for as much as $1,800 for four on various websites, prompting outrage from Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

The city organized the skating event for two consecutive Sundays, Jan. 3 and Jan. 10, to take advantage of the rink set up for Friday’s 2010 National Hockey League Winter Classic game between the Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers. More than 38,000 fans are expected to attend that event.

One public high school coach lamented the lost opportunity to promote youth hockey at a time of diminishing interest.

“It was not just a once-in-a-lifetime thing,’’ said the coach, who asked for anonymity to address the controversy more candidly. “Here was an opportunity to promote the game at its elementary roots - as an outdoor pond game - and they completely botched if for the sake of money.’’

Other coaches were more philosophical.

“I’m envious,’’ said Burlington High School hockey coach Bob Conceison. “We would have loved to, but Burlington High School couldn’t afford to play in a game like that.’’