If you ever find yourself driving north on I-91 in southern Connecticut, be sure to make a stop off at exit 11 (exit 12 if you’re headed southbound). Follow Route 22 East for a few miles, cross over the railroad tracks, and soon you’ll find yourself in a place where blue and gold once reigned supreme. Tucked back away from the road, sharing a driveway with Honeywell Factory is the Northford Ice Pavilion, the community rink which served as the home of Quinnipiac University Ice Hockey for the past eight-and-a-half seasons.
The Northford Ice Pavilion was a kind of strange place. It was the building where a community that normally shuns the university came to embrace the school and it’s hockey players. Game night in North Branford was an event. For the locals, it was a chance to see Division I hockey right in their own back yard. For the students, it was a chance to get dressed up, go out, see and be seen before heading for the club scene in New Haven on a Friday or Saturday night. For the fine folks on the Northford Ice Pavilion staff, it was a chance for their building to be the centerpiece for a weekend of fine entertainment.
The rink itself was the quality of a high school rink (and probably worse than some high school rinks). The bleachers are only on one side of the ice. The visiting and official’s locker rooms were little more than rooms with benches around the edges. The Quinnipiac locker rooms were only marginally better. The bathrooms were a disaster, and after a day full of hockey, the locker room side of the ice had a very… distinct… smell to it. But at the end of the day, the food was good, the hockey was good, and the place was home.
Nowhere did the clashing characteristics of less-than-ideal facilities and a home-ish feeling show through more than the press box. The Northford Ice Pavilion press box had only four windows over most of the length of the ice, which meant that over half of the box came with an obstructed view. Yet, the press box was one of the most spacious in our league, and I certainly can’t complain much about the center-ice window that has served as my perch over the last two seasons. Was it a little awkward and cramped at times? Sure. But at the same time, it was home.
Northford was certainly kind enough to the Quinnipiac Men’s Hockey team. After defeated Brown 5-1 on Friday night in their final game in the building, the Bobcats all-time record at Northford stood at 89 wins, 15 losses, and 10 ties. Not too shabby. It was incredible to watch what Northford did to big-time hockey programs that came in. They simply had no idea what to do in the building, they had never seen anything like it. Cornell and Colgate came into town on the same weekend earlier this season, both among the favorites of the ECAC. Both left with losses. Last season, Dartmouth came to visit as our second-ever ECAC opponent, in our first weekend of league play. They left with a loss. The Northford Ice Pavilion was a place where giants fell, and the building saw more than its share of great hockey action over the nine years Quinnipiac called it home. Whether it was Mercyhurst in an Atlantic Hockey rivalry, Bentley or American International in games that almost always got a bit feisty, Connecticut in a Heroes Hat game, or an ECAC school that found itself in over its head (Quinnipiac finished 8-1-1 in Northford against the ECAC), the NIP was the place to be on weekends from October to March.
For me personally, the Northford Ice Pavilion covered the whole range of emotions. There were the joys, fist-pumps, and high fives of victory (which we were lucky enough to experience on a regular basis). There were the head-hangings, the empty feelings, and the eerily silent locker rooms of defeat (which while we didn’t experience often, still stung). I have laughed in the Northford Ice Pavilion. I have been proud in the Northford Ice Pavilion. I have been angry as all hell in the Northford Ice Pavilion. I’m not even afraid to admit that I have cried in the Northford Ice Pavilion. It has been one wild ride in the place that we’ve called home.
So, if you find yourself in southern Connecticut, make sure to take the trip over to the little community rink in North Branford. The first thing you need to do when you walk in is head to the concession stand and order yourself a bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a large hot chocolate. By the time you finish the food, the hot chocolate will have cooled to a drinkable temperature (the stuff is just about on fire when they give it to you), and it will be more than worth it. The whole thing won’t cost you more than seven bucks. Next, head inside the right-most of the two rinks (the “red” rink, closest to the concession stand). Grab yourself a seat on the metal bleachers, and soak in whatever practice or game is taking place on the ice, no matter the level of play.
Then, imagine the building stuffed to the gills with 2000-plus spectators (even though the bleachers only old about 1000). The fire code will tell you only 1750 can be in there at a time, but anyone who was there for a big game knows we fit in more. Imagine the people standing four and five deep in the areas behind the nets between the bleachers and the team benches on the opposite side of the ice. Imagine a visiting team so rattled by the feeling in the rink that they quite simply had lost the game before they ever stepped on the ice. Imagine a crowd that is so close to the ice and so loud that the very ice of the rink is shaking. Imagine the coming together of a university and it’s community, if only for three hours. That is the atmosphere that made the Northford Ice Pavilion the place to be. That is the atmosphere that neither the Northford Ice Pavilion nor Quinnipiac Hockey will be able to re-create separately. That is the atmosphere I will always remember.
On January 28th, Quinnipiac Men’s Hockey will open a new era when they play their first game at the brand new, sparkling, multi-million-dollar TD BankNorth Sports Center. The new building will feel a little more custom-built to Quinnipiac, with the blue seats and gold rafters making the school colors evident to all those who walk through its doors. But at the same time, they will be leaving behind the place where blue and gold was truly a culture.
At the same time, they will be leaving home.