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Official Review by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
American International College is a small liberal arts college with an enrollment of just over 2,100 located in Springfield, MA. AIC’s sports teams are known as the Yellow Jackets and compete in NCAA Division II, with the exception of the men’s ice hockey team, which competes at the sport's highest level.
The Yellow Jackets have been members of the Atlantic Hockey Conference since their elevation to Division One in 1998. AIC is still searching for their first winning season and NCAA tournament appearance since moving to hockey's top division. One Yellow Jacket alumnus (Dave Forbes) has made it to the NHL.
From 1998 to 2016, American International played their home games at the Olympia Ice Center, a multi-rink community hockey center. As a Division One facility, it lacked in amenities and atmosphere. For the 2016 season AIC moved their hockey operations to the downtown MassMutual Center, former home to the Springfield Kings, Indians, Falcons and current home of the Springfield Thunderbirds.
The MassMutual Center was built in 1972. Initially named the Springfield Civic Center, it underwent a major remodel in 2005. Attached to the arena is a convention center, which is the largest in western Massachusetts. In addition to being a much more appropriate venue for Division One hockey, the MassMutual Center is also much closer to the AIC campus, as it is located just a mile away. AIC hopes that playing at the MassMutual Center will improve not only the fan and player experience, but will elevate the status of the program, aid in recruiting, and attract marquee opponents to Springfield.
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A pair of stands is open for AIC games at the MassMutual Center. The basics are covered here, with hot dogs, candy, popcorn and pretzels making up the entire menu. Fans wanting a little more should head over to the Center Grille, where burgers, chicken tenders, chicken sandwiches and French fries are available.
Pepsi products are sold at the MassMutual Center. There is a beer stand open for AIC games, with Bud Light, Coors Light, Sam Adams, Guinness, Harp, Molson Canadian, Labatt Blue and Blue Moon all featured on draft. Wine and mixed drinks are also sold here.
One issue with having a crowd of only a few hundred people in an arena that seats almost 7,000 is that no matter how much noise they make, they don't have much of an effect on the game day atmosphere. AIC encourages their student section, billed "The Swarm," to lead the cheers, but for the most part the kids spread out throughout the seating area, minimizing their effect.
There is a small pep band present here, but they compete with the PA system for airtime. The band is often playing at the same time as music is blaring over the system. Hopefully with practice these kinks will work themselves out.
For many years, Springfield's downtown had a nasty reputation. If you did have a reason to be at the Civic Center, you were in and out without any side trips. The city is trying hard to change that perception, and the downtown area around the MassMutual Center has improved by leaps and bounds over the past several years. While the area around the arena is hardly a destination for visitors, it's not the ghost town it used to be.
Springfield's biggest attraction is located just a mile away from the MassMutual Center, across Route 91. The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is open year round, and has more than enough basketball memorabilia on site to satisfy even the most rabid hoop fan. Those interested in more literary pursuits should visit the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, located a short walk from the MassMutual Center. While there you can see bronze statues of the Cat in the Hat, Horton the elephant, and many other favorites.
Downtown Springfield isn't big on fine dining locations, and pickings are slim in the immediate vicinity of the MassMutual Center. JT's Sports Pub, a block away from the arena, is a popular gathering spot before and after the game. Several fine hotels are located within walking distance of the arena, so finding a place to stay after the game shouldn't be an issue.
For the past several seasons, AIC has ranked last in average attendance among all Division One hockey teams, with an average attendance of just over 200. The school is hoping that their move to an improved venue closer to school will help attract more fans. If opening night is any indication, it should help immensely. Over 1,200 fans came to the MassMutual Center to catch the Yellow Jackets' 2016-17 home opener against Union. Even their second game, held on a Sunday afternoon, attracted a crowd larger than the team's average at the Olympia Ice Center.
Notable among the crowd was a solid turnout by the student body. Unfortunately, they seem to be adjusting to their new home, as is the team on the ice. Except for a small cluster of students who gathered in section eight, they scattered around the seating area, lessening their potential impact on the game's atmosphere. Many of the students in attendance are enthusiastic and vocal in their support of the players on the ice.
The city of Springfield dubs itself as "the crossroads of New England." Located at the intersections of Interstates 91 and 90, Springfield is only a 90 minutes' drive west of Boston, a half hour north of Hartford, and 90 minutes east of Albany. New York City is a mere two and one half hour drive away. Bradley International Airport is located only 18 miles away across the Connecticut state line and is served by all major airlines. The headquarters of Peter Pan Buses, as well as Springfield's Amtrak station are both located just a half mile away on Main Street. The MassMutual Center is located just a few blocks from I-91.
There is a parking garage directly across the street from the entrance to the MassMutual Center, as well as a few surface lots. There is also plenty of free on-street parking in the vicinity for the frugal hockey fan.
Fans enter into the MassMutual Center from the newly christened Bruce Landon Way, where the lobby and ticket offices are located. Staircases lead up to the main concourse, where concessions, rest rooms, and a few tables are set up. Only half of the concourse is accessible, as seating is available only in sections 6-13. With the small crowds at AIC hockey games, getting around is not a problem at all.
Tickets to AIC hockey games are sold as general admission for only eight dollars. There is a garage across the street from the arena that charges seven dollars, and a surface lot that charges ten dollars. There is plenty of on-street parking available in the area, just be sure to pay attention to the meters, especially if going to a Friday night game.
You will be paying the same prices for concessions at AIC hockey as you would for any other event at the MassMutual Center. Still, these prices are hardly exorbitant.
An extra point is awarded for the Springfield Hockey Hall of Fame, located on the concourse, which honors influential persons in Springfield's lengthy hockey history. Among the honorees is Hockey Hall of Famer Eddie Shore.
A second extra point is awarded for American International's efforts to upgrade and improve their hockey program. Fans who are veterans of the team's days at Olympia Ice Arena will undoubtedly be thrilled with the changes here.
The move to the MassMutual Center can only be a positive step in the evolution of the Yellow Jackets hockey program. It's still very early on in AIC's tenure here, and the game day experience is going through some growing pains, but these glitches should improve with time. The MassMutual Center is a fine facility for Division One hockey, and should prove to be a solid home for a growing program. Hopefully the fans, recruits, and wins will soon follow.
Follow Paul Baker's stadium journeys on Twitter @PuckmanRI.
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