March 2, 2019
MassMutual Center (Capacity: 6,793)
AIC Yellow Jackets vs Sacred Heart Pioneers
Final Score: 4 – 1
During a trip to Springfield, college hockey was the perfect afternoon holdover before heading to Hartford for a basketball game. Springfield lies on the Connecticut River in Western Massachusetts, as part of the Pioneer Valley. It is the 3rd biggest city in the state with a population of around 150,000. American International College is a very small, private, liberal arts college located a few miles from downtown in the Mason Square section of the city. The hockey program went Division I in 1998, playing in the MAAC before that turned into Atlantic Hockey. They have had quite a miserable time finishing no better than 8th in the league in every season but their first. That is until now. Prior coach Gary Wright had a 32-year record of 313-605-76, then new coach Eric Lang came on in 2016 and remarkably, AIC not only will finish better than 8th this season, but a win in this game clinched the league regular-season title. An amazing turnaround for a perennially bad team. Not only will they be trying to reach at least a final for the first time in the conference tournament, they will be seeking an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time at any level. For years, the team played at a tiny municipal rink in nearby Watertown, MA. That changed also in 2016 when AIC struck a deal to play in the downtown MassMutual Center, a much larger minor-league building that opened in 1972 and had heavy renovations done in the early 2000s. The atmosphere suffers, but the amenities are obviously decent for college hockey.
Prestige Ranking: 1 out of 5
Springfield has the nickname “The City of Firsts” because of their many contributing innovations and like many other Northeast cities, bustling early times fell into disrepair in the 1970s and 80s with recent attempts at rejuvenation. Unlike others, Springfield has some more things to offer visitors and downtown has a few decent spots. It’s too bad the riverfront section is ruined by a poorly-placed interstate. The arena is right downtown (known as “Metro Center”) and this area has most of the city’s attractions. A few blocks away is the Quadrangle and their 5 museums, highlighted by the Dr. Seuss one. Nearby Court Square features some neat architecture and a couple historical statues. There is also the Springfield Armory and a new MGM casino, which offers restaurants, entertainment and spots to hang out after a game. MGM has your best eating options as the unpretentious places across the street from the arena didn’t seem particularly enticing (except for the small Korean place, Sun Kim Bop). For a greater option of restaurants, make a healthy walk west on Main Street to the Club Quarter section of the city. With all of this being said, none of the areas I visited in the Metro Center were exactly hopping with activity and there were few spots that were grimy. Last but not least, make sure to visit the Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s a bit out of downtown, but still relatively close. Having the arena not be on-campus is a downfall, however for AIC, it’s for the best they don’t play in that area.
Location Ranking: 7.5 out of 10
Accessibility / Parking
Springfield is in a great location since it is near the cross-section of the east/west running I-90 and north/south I-91. The latter goes through downtown and Exit 6 is a couple blocks from the arena (though these streets can be tight and you also need to make a quick merge). Adjacent to the building is the Civic Center Garage, which holds 1,000 cars. Another choice (and the one I used because it’s free) is the huge casino garage, you just need to contend with a 7-minute walk. There is public transit access with Union Station a half mile away and that station is a stop on a new commuter rail line that connects New Haven – Hartford – Springfield and towns in between.
Accessibility / Parking Ranking: 7.5 out of 8
The rink itself is a triangular building made with brick that very much looks like it is from the era that it was built in (the 1970s). A newer entry vestibule is attached and though it features glass and red tiles, it does fit in. Also combined with the complex is an indoor track facility. The rink is on the second floor as stairs are needed to reach the main entrance.
Exterior Ranking: 4.5 out of 10
The entrance lobby is a nice start to the experience with the wall over the box office saying “Welcome to the MassMutual Center”. The lobby space isn’t the most expansive, but it’s plenty for AIC games. Stairs up each side lead into the concourse that circles the arena. Only 2/3rds of that space is open as the rest is curtained off. With white walls and occasional brick, the concourse is not the most decorative and there are areas where it gets congested. However, they’ve done a nice job opening the corners with added space and they’ve filled these spots with small bar stations. Even better, is the “Center Grille”, which is a separate room that is open to come sit and eat. Other games are playing on various TVs as well.
Concourse Ranking: 3 out of 5
This service Grille features made-to-order burgers, chicken sandwiches and other fried food. Only one other concession stand is open and that has hot dogs, wrapped sandwiches and salads. Beer is available with popular national brands being the choices.
Food Ranking: 5 out of 8
This is a simple arena in that it is all one level and in the shape of a standard oval. Yet, the seating bowl is great because the sightlines are terrific thanks to steep rows. There are no obstructions either as I tested a bunch of seats. The chairs themselves are blue plastic and they are generally comfortable with a good amount of leg space (making it nice when someone walks by). The only thing missing are cupholders. Openings from the concourse empty into the middle of the bowl, where a surrounding walkway gives access to 10-13 rows above or 6-8 rows below. Not a big middle walkway fan for a smaller capacity like this, but I get it. Seats near the ice aren’t snug against the glass as there is a little space in between. The roof is low so that doesn’t leave much room for suites, though they did manage to squeeze in the Executive Perch, a luxury group space on the same level as the press box. Between Section 27 and 28 is a large gap in the seats that is near the main entrance to the concourse.
Interior Ranking: 9 out of 14
The scoreboard above center ice is quite large, in fact, big enough that it is definitely in play during attempts to clear the puck. Outside of it being possibly too overpowering, from a fan’s perspective, the four sides offer video with excellent clarity. Game video and replay frequency are solid too. Score and game information lies in a square ribbon below, as does a label for the arena name along the top.
Scoreboard Ranking: 4 out of 4
Any history on display is pretty much for the Springfield’s AHL franchise. AIC gets a couple yellow banners here or there showing they play hockey in the building. Inside the arena, team flags hang down from one of the side rafters.
Displays Ranking: 0.5 out of 6
AIC suffers from having to rent the building, so that means parking is insane $10 at the garage across the street. I highly recommend looking for a spot on the street or parking at the free casino garage. They also have to use the standard concession prices and that means a higher than normal cost for college hockey: ($7 – Burger, $5 Hot Dog, $4 Water). For tickets, all seats are $10, which is about standard for Atlantic Hockey, save for a few teams that overcharge.
Cost Ranking: 7 out of 8
AIC is second-to-last in NCAA Hockey attendance as an average crowd is often less than 500. In a building that holds over 6,000 this looks pretty bad. There was one game this year where the paid attendance was just 117. Fan support is very low indeed. However, the game I attended had a paid number over 1,000 and the eye test showed they may have been close to that. Granted, it was probably the biggest game in program history up to that date.
Fan Support Ranking: 1 out of 8
That crowd was livelier than I was expecting and gave an emphatic “Yeah” when the Yellow Jackets scored. With many in the stands being family and friends, there was more play recognition than normal and that showed mainly in “ooohing”. It was nice that it wasn’t totally quiet. I’d imagine that other, less meaningful games, have an eerie presence given the sea of surrounding seats.
Atmosphere Ranking: 4 out of 14
The concourse does have a small merchandise table for anyone looking for team gear…..I enjoyed the digital scoreboard graphic that turned a bunch of Yellow Jackets into the letters A, I, C.…..The game I went to was Senior Day and the festivities were very nicely done before the game.
After the Pioneers got on the board first, AIC scored the next four as the win meant a conference regular-season crown. The power play was the deciding factor as the Yellow Jackets went 3/6 during the man advantage, while Sacred Heart went 0 for 4. Tobias Fladey had a goal and assist for AIC.