The scene is surreal.
The sky is robin’s-egg blue with a purple haze stretching along the entire horizon, curling behind Connecticut’s fabled rolling hills, encircling the flat riverside landscape that was once an East Hartford airfield.
I stand alone in the press box on the fifth floor at Rentschler Field, home of the UConn football team. But there are no yard lines or hash marks, no Husky logos and no discernible end zones.
The luminous yellow goal posts poking through the snow are the only gridiron reminders, for this is no football field at the present. Today – February 10, 2011 – it’s a hockey place.
The only verdant vestige was the big “C” in the logo of the American Hockey League’s Connecticut Whale at center ice. Every square inch of the dense, green sod that generally grabs fans as they walk through Rentschler’s portals was covered with over three feet of snow.
The Hall/Conard co-op girls hockey team led by the Whale mascot Pucky streams from the service entrance at the south side of the stadium to the booming strains of Ozzie Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” They are soon joined by Simsbury for a pre-game skate.
Maybe 200 hardy souls equipped with every imaginable cold-weather accessory look on from the home side of the stadium. Photographers, rink attendants and game officials gather around the outskirts of the new structure, constructed about 30 feet from the first row of spectators.
Is this madness or is it some alluring adventure?
It falls precariously between the two depending on your perspective, and it seems to me to be a very thin line.
Hockey the way it’s supposed to be, I’ve heard some say.
You won’t get me to pay $20 to $85 to see outdoor hockey in February, but I’m an older guy who has covered his share of late autumn football games. I’m not fond of being cold and I’m not a fan of professional hockey. If I was 23, could find a way to bring in a hip flask of blackberry brandy and had a bunch of friends as crazy as me, I’d go along with the crowd.
But given the warmth of the press box and the pure exhilaration of the girls on the teams, it was a worthwhile trip.
“It was so fun. It was great,” said Brianne O’Connor, who scored the third-period goal that tied the game. “It was kind of like playing pond hockey. The ice is really different.”
Bruce Berlet, who once covered the Whalers for the Hartford Courant in the NHL team’s heyday and now works for event organizer Howard Baldwin, said that the girls’ game and subsequent youth games served to “break in” the ice for the main event scheduled for Feb. 19.
The frigid north wind that blew through the stadium’s open end calmed down after the sun set.
“It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be” O’Connor said.
Hall/Conard had beaten Simsbury the night before, 3-2, at Veterans Memorial Rink in West Hartford. The teams skated to a tie earlier in the season, so they expended their two-game regular-season allotment. Thus, the game at Rentschler was a “friendly.”
Nevertheless, the West Hartford girls exulted in their locker room after the game. It surely was a moment they’ll never forget.
“Our team and Simsbury are really big rivals so it was pretty competitive,” O’Connor said. “It was pretty competitive but it was a lot of fun.”
Alyson Alissi, who scored the game-winner, echoed O’Connor’s sentiments.
“It was fun to skate on the ice but it was also good competition,” Alissi said. “They came in wanting to win really bad.”
Simsbury coach Kris Arnold, a former trainer for the Whalers, pulled his goalie in an attempt to force overtime, and the Trojans nearly did.
Said O’Connor: “It was difficult. It’s hard when they have a man up like that and you want to get it down into that open net. You’ve just got to keep the puck out of the net, and we did.”