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Official Review by Kurt Smith, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The Hobey Baker Rink in Princeton doesn’t look like a hockey rink from the outside. It’s a very old building built with a cobblestone-style exterior. If one were simply looking for a hockey rink, it isn’t the easiest thing to find based on outside appearance.
The first question you might ask is, “how old is this place?”
The Baker Rink doesn’t look like it was built for ice hockey—it looks as though it was built before the sport was invented. But indeed it was built expressly for hockey, way back in 1923. It is named after Hobart “Hobey” Baker, a Princeton hockey player that the Hockey Hall of Fame considers to be the first American hockey star. He was also a war hero, the commander of the 141st Aero Squadron in World War I. Baker died in a plane crash in France just before he was due to return to America.
So yes, it’s old, and yes, Princeton was once known for a championship college ice hockey program. There’s a lot more history at Hobey Baker Rink than one would expect.
Despite its age, the place definitely has a college sports charm about it, and there’s one thing that makes it great for college hockey: it is loud. NHL fans would need some time to get used to the echo of a puck whacking against the boards, and a crowd of 2,000 can sound like 20,000 when the Princeton Tigers score a goal. It brings home realness that tends to get drowned out at modern NHL arenas these days.
Wherever you sit at the Baker Rink, you’re right on top of the action. Most of the seating is five or six rows of benches with backs on the sides of the rink, and every seat is a good one, putting patrons just feet away from hard checks into the boards. A puck flying into the glass definitely produces a flinch factor.
On the Princeton goal’s end is an elevated press box; on the opposing team’s end is a balcony with a few extra hundred seats. These seats are just concrete steps with a hard padding on them, similar to Wrigley Field’s bleachers, and frankly, with the few railings to grab onto while getting to them, they’re a bit unnerving and even dangerous to get to. The seats aren’t any cheaper, but the balcony is popular, possibly because for the first and third periods Princeton goals are scored at this end. Even with designated seats, it’s almost treated as general admission by everyone.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Eat before or after you get there. Seriously. There is one concession stand at Baker Rink, so lines are long-and inexplicably so, given the quality of the food.
There isn't anything beyond standard sporting event staples-hot dogs, soft pretzels, popcorn and candy-all overpriced and at what seems like a determinedly low standard for taste even for basic arena food. Cheap TV dinners are gourmet compared to Baker Rink concessions. The "cheese sauce" that goes with the stale soft pretzel has the nerve of calling itself cheese or sauce, and it's difficult to get through a large bag of overly buttered and salted popcorn that seems to have been thrown on the ground enough to break the popcorn into a million pieces. (I took a picture that shows that I'm not the only one who thought this.)
The lines get very long at the food stand just before the game and in between periods. If you're not that hungry, find something in the area after the game. If you're really hungry, find something in the area after the game. If you're starving and someone offers to buy for you, find something in the area after the game.
As mentioned, Baker Rink is loud, and a Princeton goal makes for a very noisy arena. And while not everyone arrives before the first drop of the puck, the place does fill up, so you get the sense that Tigers hockey is no small thing in Princeton, even if the arena only seats a couple of thousand fans. It's a popular outing for families, and in the balcony especially you'll see a lot of kids.
Baker Rink is a typical low minor league/college arena on the inside, with a very old looking scoreboard hanging over center ice and seats painted orange to match the Tigers' main team color. There are no bad seats, and the lower level seats would be triple digits in an NHL arena.
Be ultra careful in that balcony. There is very little to grab onto, and it's basically just large concrete steps with padding and no backs for seats.
With an exterior that apparently isn't weather sealed, the arena can be drafty on cold days. It is highly recommended to dress as if you would be outside.
The Princeton campus is a beautiful area with a lot of classic old buildings, but the Baker Rink isn't necessarily walking distance to bars or restaurants. The closest road with some eateries is Nassau Street, and Nassau isn't known for fast food joints or taverns or great pizza; you can find a Starbucks (of course) and some less expensive places to eat, but if you're looking for a restaurant/bar to hang out in after the game, your best bet is to get out on Washington Road towards Route 1, where there are plenty of chain restaurants to be found.
One other thing that makes Princeton worth the trip, if you're a music fan - the Princeton Record Exchange on Tulane Street. It's still my favorite music shop on earth, with thousands of used CDs sold very cheap.
When we arrived for the game, we were told that for some reason the place doesn't really fill up until after the first period. That wasn't really the case, although not many people arrived as early as we did. There aren't any signature cheers or chants that Princeton Tigers fans have, and there wasn't any tailgating to speak of, but the arena definitely rocks with a Tigers goal.
Princeton was playing Colgate on the most recent day we were there, and the place had more than a few Colgate fans in attendance, which presumably lends some credibility to the popularity of Baker.
The fans got on their feet and cheered loudly as the Tigers downed Colgate 4-0, on the strength of goals from Mike Ambrosia and Michael Sdao, and a fine shutout goaltending performance from Mike Condon. Most impressively, the Tigers were 6-for-6 on the penalty kill. So the crowd got loud many times, and it's especially enjoyable in an old small building with a lot of echo.
There is a small faculty parking lot adjacent to the front entrance of Baker Rink; we showed up on a weekend and parked there for free with no problem. This might not be possible on a weeknight, but there is a parking garage and a much larger lot south of the faculty lot. Parking shouldn't be a problem, and you likely won't have to pay for it.
As far as we could tell, there wasn't much in the way of public transit; you could take the NJ Transit Northeast Corridor Line to the Princeton Station, but I can't say whether that's walking distance, and for what it costs to park at a station you might as well just drive to the campus.
There are only two bathrooms, both next to the concession stand; it's highly recommended that you take care of business before the game if you can, because they get crowded between periods.
Tickets for Princeton Tigers games are generally in the $10 range, a perfectly good price for decent college hockey action in a classic arena, and it's a good time. For just the game, the tickets are easily worth it, and you shouldn't have a problem finding free parking close by.
As stated though, the food is overpriced for the quality, so a star needs to be knocked off for that.
In the concourse area where the concessions are, you can look at pictures of classic Tigers teams and some of the trophies the team has won over the years. You can also find a plaque dedicating the arena to Hobey Baker. In the stairway to get to the balcony are large photos of NHL hockey greats.
Only Northeastern's Matthews Arena has been hosting college hockey longer (since 1910), so one extra point for the longevity of this quaint building.
Member Review by GaryButterworth on May 10, 2013
I firmly believe that if Princeton hockey did any advertising whatsoever, this would be the hottest ticket in the state of New Jersey.
That's a big claim, so I'll tone it down somewhat. I'm not saying Princeton is the next Minnesota, but there's a decent hockey market in Central NJ that has been properly served since the Trenton Titans folded the first time. Princeton is a few hours from the next closest D1 NCAA team (Army?), so there are no mixed allegiances. The hockey is good, and the arena's a gem. Princeton should be able to sell 4-5 thousand tickets regularly, especially with the ECAC on the upswing. But this little rink only holds 2k, and even then it doesn't sell out often. I can't think of any reason for this except for a lack of awareness.
The food is among the worst in sports, and the balcony is obstructed view. Aside from that, it's a great place to see a game. For once, pictures actually do a place justice. Take a look at some photos, realize how unique this place is, and pay it a visit some time.
Depending on the mood I'm in, Baker Rink may even sneak into my top 10.
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