Playing For Connecticut's Hockey Future

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This is a big day for Yale hockey.

This is even a bigger day for Quinnipiac hockey and all that President John Lahey has worked to build at the Hamden school.

Yet make no mistake, this could be the biggest day for hockey in a long time for our entire state.

No sport stands to make an exponentially larger jump in the next five years in Connecticut than college hockey. No, it's never going to be bigger than UConn basketball, not in our lifetimes. Still there is an unmistakable sense that as much as Kenny Agostino, Jesse Root and Jeff Malcolm play for their team, for their families, for the Yale tradition Thursday in the Frozen Four against UMass Lowell, they, too, are playing for what could be in our state.

There is an unmistakable sense that as much as Matthew Peca, the Jones twins and Eric Hartzell are playing for their team against St. Cloud State at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, playing for their families and for the remarkable momentum that Quinnipiac as an institution has gained, they are playing for what could be in our state.

In that sense, they are brothers in hockey's future today, even if they all might not see it that way.

As the UConn women returned to campus from New Orleans late Wednesday afternoon, a sense of athletic history engulfed Geno Auriemma and his basketball program. Not so long ago, we looked at this young, brash Philly guy with one national title and the promise of something special.

Today, we can look at the same brash hall of famer with the knowledge that he had not only tied Pat Summitt with eight national titles but forever changed the athletic landscape in our state. The UConn women have won hundreds of games and hundreds of thousands of hearts. They did it with a basketball and an insatiable pursuit of perfection.

Only the most pie-eyed of puck heads could expect duplication in the rink. Still, what makes this day so important for the sport is not only the grand possibility of two Connecticut schools playing for the national championship on Saturday, but also the distinct possibility that the college game in our state will grow markedly. There's a seed here, folks, and it could lead to a harvest.

Quinnipiac gets it. Athletic director Jack McDonald and coach Rand Pecknold certainly get it. I'm not sure about the Elis. Sometimes I'm not sure how much Yale cares about growing the game's popularity in the state. I'm not sure how much coach Keith Allain cares about it. Certainly, he has passed on every chance to voice it to this point. On the flight to Pittsburgh, I was sitting a row ahead of a Yale fan and he about summed it up when he said to the passenger next to him, "Quinnipiac wants to be our rival, but, really Harvard is our rival and maybe Ivy League schools … although it would be nice for the ECAC to win to show the critics."

Yale marches to its own drum. Allain certainly does. But you know what? As long as they continue to win and he continues to care deeply about his players, Yale's sustained emergence as a hockey power would carry its own considerable weight in the state.

UConn is going big-time in the sport, joining Hockey East in 2014, and cares deeply about all this. And while some small minds in the little circle of college hockey may pooh-pooh it today, those who understand the huge industry of State U's brand know that if the school goes all-in, success eventually will follow. UConn figures to have a permanent coach by early May. Interim David Berard, a good man, a polished man with a Hockey East pedigree, wants it to be him.

"Two teams from the state at the pinnacle, it's unique," Berard said. "There certainly is going to be a spike in interest. It's really exciting for the sport and it should translate over the next few years. There are college hockey fans in our state, but except for the New Haven area there isn't that many chances to watch hockey at the highest level. As we transition to Hockey East, BC, BU coming to the XL Center, it's going to provide Hartford with the highest caliber.

"I agree 100 percent that UConn can have a big impact in this. There are a lot of people in the state who cheer for UConn whether its football, basketball or baseball. A lot of them are used to going to Hartford for games, so it's pretty natural. We get them involved, get the existing college hockey fans involved, it'll be pretty powerful."

After decades of hearing how impossible it was for UConn to give hockey scholarships and play in Hockey East, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy got involved, a different regime with Susan Herbst and Warde Manuel entered — and voila — Hockey East in 2014.

It doesn't take a genius to see that a Beanpot-style tournament in Connecticut becomes a must.

And while regularly attracting thousands of people into the XL Center will be a challenge, the Hockey East Huskies will have their chance. There is another important dynamic at work here, of course. For three decades, Connecticut has produced elite-level hockey talent. From Brian Leetch to Jonathan Quick to Pat Mullane, the list is long and impressive. By proportion of its total population, Minnesota and Massachusetts turn out the most Division I college players. That's no surprise. Michigan and Connecticut are next.

"Connecticut has long been a great hockey state and there's a lot of quality play at the youth level," said Berard, originally from Rhode Island. "With what Quinnipiac and Yale have done this season and with us on the way, I think it shows the young Connecticut player there are legitimate avenues to stay in state.

"There's going to be three teams that will be playing at the highest level. I know when I was growing up in Rhode Island the epitome was to play at PC. Going into the Hockey East, we will be in that mix for the Connecticut kid. There's something to be said for homegrown talent in building a foundation for the program and we're going to get as many as possible."

There is only one Connecticut player on Quinnipiac and none on Yale. That's Jordan Samuels-Thomas, the big goal-scorer for the Bobcats. This weekend figures to help change that, too. Pecknold has talked about how he would have loved to have gotten Quick, a Hamden kid, to a Hamden school, but he was no match at the time for UMass.

"The next Jonathan Quick," Pecknold said, "we're going to get."

Yet even for the ones Quinnipiac, Yale and UConn don't get, the state college players deserve more recognition than they've gotten over the years. BC guys like Ben Smith, a Frozen Four MOP, and Cam Atkinson, who scored two goals in the national championship, come to mind. Going forward, especially with UConn in the game, here's one bet their stories will be better told.

Hockey is the reason I came to Connecticut 29 years ago, to cover the NHL for the state's largest newspaper. But, to paraphrase Rick Pitino, the Whalers aren't coming through that door. I've grown long past weary listening to fans perpetually bitch and moan whether the AHL affiliate should be named the Whale or the Wolf Pack or the Rangers or whatever. It's an AHL team, for heaven's sake. If you enjoy minor league hockey in Hartford or Bridgeport go and have fun.

College hockey in this college mad sports state isn't new, but never has it shown such an upside. As it is, there is a chunk of the state media in Pittsburgh to cover the Frozen Four. And believe this much. If UConn ever got to the Frozen Four, you would see an incredible buzz. It is that potential, a narrative yet to be written, that makes Thursday such a huge day for hockey in our state.

Yale, which travels in its own orbit, stands to benefit from this. Quinnipiac, which has done everything in its power to sell the sport in Connecticut, most definitely will benefit from this. Maybe best of all, hockey in our state could.

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