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Cold, hard fun

For hot-blooded fans, the arenas that host their college hockey programs are loud and lively homes away from home

(Unh Media Relations)
By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2011

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The biting winter wind that sweeps across Maine was merciless on this December night as it whipped the tents clustered on the makeshift campground. Anyone choosing to spend the night outside in single-digit temperatures had to be a little nuts, and these campers were definitely crazy — crazy for hockey.

The dozens of students huddled inside the tents on a barren University of Maine parking lot had little use for the great outdoors. They longed for the great indoors, the cozy confines of Alfond Arena, where in a mere 22 hours their beloved Black Bears would take to the ice against the University of New Hampshire for the latest battle in the “Border War.’’

These Maine-iacs take it to an extreme, but all across New England on frigid winter nights rabid fans congregate inside lively college hockey rinks that crackle with an energy as warming as a roaring fire. Pigskin is king in the South and hoops reign supreme in Kentucky and North Carolina, but pucks dominate the sporting scene on many New England campuses.

The arenas hosting New England’s 20 Division 1 men’s college hockey programs (and 14 women’s teams) offer a feast for the senses: the sounds of pep bands playing fight songs on chilled instruments, the smells of popcorn and hot dogs, and the sights of raucous student sections hurling invectives — and sometimes seafood — at opposing goalies. But rink rats will find that six particular hockey barns — one from each state — make an All-Star lineup.

Alfond Arena University of Maine, Orono The university’s fight song urges fans to “shout till the rafters ring,’’ and the boisterous supporters who fill the den of the Black Bears eagerly fulfill the request. The student section, perched right above the action in the balcony, stands and chants for most of the game. After each Maine goal, a loud foghorn bellows and the Naked Five, a quintet of male students stripped to the waist and covered in body paint, takes a lap around the arena, slapping hands with fans and clanking cowbells. Filled to its capacity of 5,445, Alfond is one of college hockey’s most intimidating venues for visiting teams.

Nathan Fournier, cofounder of the online Maine Hockey Journal, says a trip to Orono is a must for any fan. “It’s a great hockey experience, and Alfond is one of the best buildings anywhere in the country. No matter how good the team is, the fans come out and cheer, and the student section is one of the tops in the nation.’’

The arena’s Hall of Fame celebrates the history of one of college hockey’s most storied programs with photographs of NHL alumni, national championship trophies, and Paul Kariya’s Hobey Baker Award on display. One tip for fans: Avoid the seats in the upper corners along the length of the ice. They’re obstructed by the rink’s unique multi-angular roof, which, appropriately for Maine, looks like a series of frost heaves. Tickets $19-$22, 800-756-8326, www.goblackbears .com

Whittemore Center, University of New Hampshire, Durham

Hockey is a huge part of campus life at UNH — and throughout the state. Since it opened in 1995, the Whittemore Center has been filled to its 6,501-person capacity for nearly two-thirds of its games.

“Men’s hockey offers the campus and the region an experience in ‘big-time’ college athletics. We can compete against and beat the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, and Minnesota in a first-class arena, with rabid fans cheering their lungs out. There is psychic capital there that can’t be quantified,’’ says Stephen Hardy, a UNH professor of kinesiology who teaches a course on the history and sociology of hockey that introduces students to research methods and problem solving.

When the Wildcats net their first goal, keep an eye to the skies. Following a longstanding tradition, a Zeta Chi fraternity member launches a dead fish onto the ice. Many believe the toss is symbolic of the opposing goalie “fishing’’ the puck out of the net. However, because the tradition arose in the early 1970s at the same time the movie “The Godfather’’ was released, Hardy suspects the original intent may have been more sinister: that the opposition, like Luca Brasi, “sleeps with the fishes.’’

One of UNH’s newest traditions, typically when Maine comes to town, is to “White Out the Whit’’ as fans and students don jerseys and shirts that match the color of the snow outside and the white-hot electricity inside. Tickets $21-$50, 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com, www.unhwildcats.com

Gutterson Fieldhouse, University of Vermont, Burlington Residents of the Green Mountain State may have a laid-back reputation, but not when it comes to hockey. “Fans get really excited about UVM hockey, and it’s been the premier sport in town over the years, the local version of the Boston Bruins or Montreal Canadiens,’’ says Ted Ryan, who covers the Catamounts for The Burlington Free Press.

Demand for tickets to men’s games at Gutterson Fieldhouse, which holds just over 4,000 fans, is so high that there’s a 20-year waiting list for season tickets. Sellouts are as common here as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, so be sure to buy tickets in advance.

Ryan has been going to games at “The Gut’’ since he was a UVM student in 1965, two years after the rink opened, and he says the arena retains a real throwback atmosphere, aided in part by its design. “It has character as opposed to some of the newer arenas, which have great amenities but share a certain similarity. Gutterson is a Quonset hut, which regenerates the noise and bounces it back on the rink. That makes it really unique.’’

The opposition’s goalies are particularly vulnerable to the din because The Gut has an unusual configuration with most of its seats located behind the two goals. After a home-team goal, the roar from the fans echoing off the roof of the rink can seem as loud as an angry catamount. Tickets $15-$20, 802-656-4410, www.uvmathletics.com

Ingalls Rink, Yale University, New Haven

Yale may have the only rink in the country more likely to be profiled in Architectural Digest than Sports Illustrated. Famed architect and Yale alum Eero Saarinen was the mastermind behind college hockey’s most distinctive venue, which has just over 2,900 seats with standing-room capacity for another 600 fans. Due to its signature undulating roof, which resembles a humpback’s spine, Ingalls Rink is affectionately known as the “Yale Whale.’’

Stuart Comen, a chef at Yale who has attended nearly every home game since 1989, says Ingalls, which opened in 1958, is one of the country’s best rinks for spectators. “There really are no bad seats. You have a great view of the ice from everywhere, including standing room. It’s a beautiful, very unique building with nice wooden bleachers. In good years and in bad, there has always been a very consistent fan base. Even in snowstorms the place is almost always full.’’

Yale rededicated the rink last year, after a two-year renovation that included improvements to the seating, restrooms, and concessions. A new section inside the main entrance dedicated to the heritage of Yale hockey showcases the program’s illustrious history with photos and memorabilia dating to 1895.

Along with the architectural marvel in which it plays, the men’s team is actually a sight to behold this year, achieving the No. 1 ranking in the nation for the first time in the program’s history. Tickets $9-$15, 203-432-1400, www.yalebulldogs.com

Schneider Arena Providence College, Providence

Utilitarian Schneider Arena won’t be garnering any architectural awards, but if you want to feel every bone-crunching hit and hear every line change, it’s a great venue. The rink, which is the second-smallest in the Hockey East conference, holds just over 3,000 fans. That means every seat is close to the action. Plus, when it’s filled, the building’s low ceiling amplifies every note from the band and every roar from the crowd.

Tim Army has been coming to Schneider Arena since it opened in 1973, first as a young fan growing up in East Providence, then as an All-American player for the Friars, and now as their leader behind the bench. “It’s a really great environment and intimate atmosphere. It’s a great bowl to watch the game from since everything’s on top of the ice surface,’’ Coach Army says. “The thing that’s always stood out to me about Schneider Arena is the student section. Since our campus is relatively small, lots of the students come to the games because they know our players personally. When I was a kid, it was awesome to sneak over and sit with the students, and my kids did the same thing, too.’’

For a unique view, sit in the first row, which is elevated above the boards, placing spectators at eye level with the players. Just duck when a defenseman — or the puck — makes a beeline for your nose. Tickets $10, 401-865-GOPC, www.friars.com

Matthews Arena Northeastern University, Boston To venture into Matthews Arena, which opened in 1910, is to journey back in time. The arena’s gilded Victorian lobby stirs echoes of Boston’s grand, bygone theaters, and the rink itself is a miniaturized version of the defunct Boston Garden, complete with a similar overhanging balcony, gritty interior, and fantastic sight lines. (The first row of the balcony, which hovers above the dasher boards, may be the best spot in the country from which to watch a hockey game.)

If Matthews Arena’s ice doesn’t give you chills, its history will. This old barn, which holds 4,666 hockey fans, was the original home of the Boston Bruins and Celtics, and the ice rink is the world’s oldest. Even with recent modern additions, such as a new video scoreboard, Matthews Arena is still as old school as it gets.

The balcony is home to the “DogHouse’’ student section, which cheers on the Huskies like a pack of canines going for the opponents’ jugulars. “The game day atmosphere at Matthews is second to none. It’s real easy to get that place rocking, and it’s the loudest rink of its size that I’ve been to,’’ says Tim Fouche, a Northeastern student and leader of the DogHouse. “We are so close to the action that we can pretty much whisper into the goalie’s ear. We have a lot of kids up there who like to chirp — and the goalie can hear every word we have to say.’’ Tickets $14-$18, 617-373-4700, www.gonu.com

Christopher Klein, author of “The Die-Hard Sports Fan’s Guide to Boston,’’ can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.