No one can agree on the right location for CT Ice

Cavanaugh has pushed for the XL Center to be the permanent home, but doesn't have much support.

Photo: Daniel Connolly

This weekend, the XL Center will play host to the 2024 Connecticut Ice tournament — a Beanpot-style competition between the state’s four Division I men’s hockey programs. It’s the third venue for the event in just its fourth edition: Bridgeport’s Total Mortgage Arena held the first two in 2020 and 2022 before it moved to Quinnipiac’s M&T Bank Arena in 2023.

If UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh had it his way, this would be the final time the site of competition changes.

“I think perennially, it has to be at the XL Center. We had 9,500 people at our game [against Maine]. There's no reason why we couldn't have 9,000, 10,000 people at the Connecticut tournament year in and year out,” he said last week.

Cavanaugh’s logic makes sense: With 16,000 seats, no other hockey venue in the state comes close in terms of capacity. Total Mortgage Arena can hold roughly 8,400 for hockey while nothing else cracks even 4,000.

The XL Center is also centrally located in the state’s capital. UConn and Quinnipiac are both 35 minutes away, Yale has a 45-minute drive while Sacred Heart is the furthest at 55 minutes. Meanwhile, Total Mortgage Arena may be closer for everyone but the Huskies, but it’s further away from the large hockey fanbase. It’s an hour away from Hartford and even further from some of the suburbs. Its proximity to television partners in New York probably also played a role in the attractiveness of that venue.

There’s also a deep history of hockey in Hartford thanks to the Whalers.

Yet none of the three other coaches in the tournament seem to agree with Cavanaugh. None of them outwardly oppose it — at least currently. After last year’s tournament, Quinnipiac’s Rand Pecknold made his feelings clear.

“I've always wanted that to be a rotation,” he said. “I think it's great. If UConn is our host for next year — that hasn’t been decided yet — then they can do it at the XL or they can do it at the new rink they just built. I'm fine with either.”

Yet none of them went so far as to endorse the venue to host the tournament, either.

“We haven't played at the XL Center yet,” Yale coach Keith Allain said. “So I think it's a nice venue but this weekend will tell us.”

“My first thing is I want to have the tournament. Whether it's Bridgeport, Hartford or it's a four-team rotation, I'm fine with a lot of options that we have out there,” Pecknold said. “In terms of locking into Hartford, I mean, let's see how we do. Let's see what kind of fans we get. Let’s see what kind of support we get.”

“We've now gone to the home sites. I'm not sure where I fall on that in terms of should it be at a larger venue? Should it be at home sites? I think we have a little time before we ultimately have to make that choice,” Sacred Heart coach CJ Marottolo added.

For the moment, it doesn’t matter. The schools are in the second year of a four-year agreement to rotate hosting duties between the four programs. Quinnipiac went first followed by UConn this year, while Sacred Heart will take the baton in 2025 before Yale finishes the cycle in 2026.

“The question is moot,” Allain said about whether the XL Center should be the permanent venue.

Strong attendance in 2024 could impact future decisions, though. According to Cavanaugh, 5-6,000 tickets are already sold for Friday’s games, which he hopes could climb to 7-8,000 with walk-ups.

In 2020, the reported attendances for UConn’s two games were 5,724 and 4,631 despite obscenely high ticket prices. The 2022 edition didn’t report crowd sizes — and the tournament was impacted by a snowstorm.

Meanwhile, the Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart, and Yale’s on-campus venues all seat roughly 3,500.

“If we want to grow the tournament to the levels of where the Beanpot is, then it has to be at the XL Center. It has to be in a venue where you can get 10,000 people. You can't have it on campus with 3-4,000 people,” Cavanaugh said.

Opinions could also change as UConn distances itself from the downtown arena. While it served as the Huskies’ full-time home from 2014-2023, they played most of their games at the new on-campus Toscano Family Ice Forum. UConn only played four contests in Hartford this season outside of CT Ice. Yale’s Reilly Connors even referred to it as a neutral site.

Another way they could change? Taking the decision away from the coaches.

“I think for this tournament to really take off and take on a life of its own like the Beanpot, we need to probably have some type of committee that runs it,” Cavanaugh suggested. “There can be representation from every school, but there also has to be a committee that is not necessarily biased towards one school or another. It's what's best for the tournament, and what's best to grow it in the state. Hopefully, we can get to that point at some time.”

Marottolo also called for a neutral set of eyes to help the tournament grow.

“We should get a Connecticut Ice group together that oversees the event with passionate hockey people that aren't involved in our school that can maybe help push it out even further than we're pushing it right now,” he said.

For the first time ever, CT Ice feels to be on stable footing. It’s not in the first year (2020), returning from a Covid hiatus (2022), or being put together at the last possible second (2023). There’s stability, a vision for the short-term future, and a commitment from all four schools.

If this year’s tournament can get its largest crowd yet and show that the XL Center is not only a viable hosting location, but the ideal one, it can begin to truly fulfill its potential.