With the increased success of the Union men’s hockey team over the past few seasons, Messa Rink has become the place to be on weekends in the winter.
This season, the Dutchmen have played to 95 percent capacity in their 15 home games at the 2,054-seat arena, with seven sellouts. Those numbers could increase when the Cleary Cup-champion and third-ranked Dutchmen host the ECAC Hockey tournament best-of-three quarterfinal-round series next weekend.
But with the success, there is a danger of turning people away, which, in turn, leads to lost revenue.
So, the question must be asked: Is it time for Union to explore building a bigger rink?
Right now, the answer is no.
“The key thing for us is to make sure that we preserve the atmosphere that is in Messa Rink, which we feel is second to none night in and night out,” Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin said. “It really gives us the home-ice advantage with the amount of fans that we’re getting with a packed house. We think that’s been fantastic for us.”
Since the 2009-10 season, Union has had 35 sellouts. A new rink could help alleviate the standing-room-only crowds and give the program more revenue.
“Maybe it’s the case that it’s the right size accommodating what the demand is,” McLaughlin said. “Right now, I think we’re where we need to be, and we’ll continue to evaluate what the needs are.”
OPENED IN 1975
Messa Rink, first known as Achilles Rink, opened in 1975, when the school re-started the hockey program after a nearly 30-year absence. The rink remained untouched when the program was elevated from NCAA Division III to Division I in 1991. The original capacity was 2,504.
In 1997, there were discussions to build a rink at the bottom of Nott Street, next to what was then the Ramada Inn, which is now an apartment complex for Union students. But the players were against it.
“There were some reservations as to whether or not kids would make that trek off campus given the distance, but also given the neighborhood a little bit at that time, and whether or not that would help us in terms of attendance at the games,” said Andrew Will, a Union defenseman from 1993-97 and later an assistant coach for the team from 2000-03.
In 2003, renovations took place to Achilles Rink, thanks to a donation from Union alum Frank Messa. Renamed Messa Rink at Achilles Center, sightlines were improved, but it meant taking seats out.
Other improvements were also made, such as new boards and seamless glass, a new refrigeration system to make the ice, new locker rooms, a weight room, and turning the former curling rink, which had become a storage area, into a room for members of the Garnet Blades, a group that helps raise funds for the program.
But no amount of money can change what makes Messa so special for the Dutchmen and so intimidating for the opposition — the noise that is generated. The sounds reverberates off of the roof. And with the fans on top of the action, it makes Messa a difficult place to play.
“The way the rink was built, the noise travels everywhere throughout the building when it’s loud,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “When, [Bennett was] a player [at Providence] going up to Maine, you felt like you were a piece of a toast in a toaster oven, and they just cranked up the heat. It just got worse and worse as the game went on. That’s the same way I feel about Union.”
Over the last six years, the Dutchmen have gone 70-22-12 at Messa. They have posted double digits in wins in six straight years, and seven of the last 10. The last time they had a losing record at home was in 2004-05, when they went 8-10-1.
“With a new building, we don’t want to lose the home-ice advantage that we currently have here,” Bennett said. “There’s a lot of tradition, a lot of history here. It’s a very, very tough building for opponents, and that’s been on record from the players I see in the summer from other programs. You kind of like to hear that, and you don’t want to lose that.
“At the end of the day, if an alum stepped up and made a tremendous donation for a rink, would the administration look at it? Yeah, I’m sure.”
Dutchmen senior defenseman Mat Bodie is happy with playing in Messa.
“[A new rink] has been brought up a few times over the years,” Bodie said. “Messa’s a great place to play in. The one thing I would try to shy away from is creating a facility that didn’t have the same atmosphere. With the roof being built the way, it is really keeps the noise in. It feels like the fans are on top of us.”
It’s more than the building that intimidates opposition.
“I think the biggest thing is they have a pretty good hockey team,” Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet said. “You can have the best building in the world and imposing, in terms of the fans. But if you can’t play, you can’t play. This team can play, and they have been able to play for quite a stretch now. It’s been fun to watch from a distance.”
McLaughlin realizes there are issues inside the building, such as the lack of bathroom facilties and minimal areas for concession stands.
“That’s something that we’ve got to start to look at,” McLaughlin said.
There will be some improvements made in the offseason. New LED lighting will be installed.
“That’s going to accomplish a couple of things for us,” McLaughlin said. “First and foremost, we’ll be in line with our efforts towards sustainability. Some cost savings will be realized, too. It’s also going to help with the brightness of the facility, the video streaming and TV broadcasts.”
Bennett has a wish list of things he would like to see done in the rink.
“From a hockey perspective, I would like to see a jumbotron,” Bennett said. “I’d like to see the Garnet Blades room above, where all the alumni coming back for [games] can have an enclosed glass [room] to watch the game, [and] a place where president [Stephen] Ainlay and Jim McLaughlin can entertain, as well. That would be huge, and [it’s] something that can overlook the football field, as well, serving two venues at once.”