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Official Review by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Mar 12, 2017
The Connecticut Whale are one of the four founding members of the NWHL, North America's first professional women’s hockey league. The league, now in its second season, has teams located in New York, Buffalo and Boston in addition to Connecticut. Teams generally play once per week, with the entire schedule consisting of 18 games. The league operates on funds raised from sponsors as well as the NWHL Foundation, a charitable arm of the league that raises awareness of women's hockey through grassroots efforts.
The Connecticut Whale are named in honor of the defunct NHL Hartford Whalers. After playing their first season in Stamford at Chelsea Piers, the team moved into the Northford Ice Pavilion, just outside of New Haven, for the 2016-17 season.
Northford Ice Pavilion, often referred to as the NIP, is a multi-rink complex that contains three NHL sized ice sheets. In addition to serving as home to the Connecticut Whale, it is used for local high school hockey and youth games. The Pavilion was the home of the Quinnipiac hockey program from 1999-2007, when the team moved to the TD Bank Sports Center.
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There is a snack bar at the Northford Ice Pavilion that puts out an impressively diverse menu for a stand of its size.
The snack bar offers a wide variety of breakfast items (served all day), appetizers, sandwiches, soups, pizza and snacks. Even more impressive than the variety of the menu may be the prices. No item served here costs more than five dollars. You can even order a whole pizza for only eight dollars.
Coca-Cola products are featured at the snack bar. If soda isn't your beverage of choice, juices, water, slushies, coffee and hot chocolate are also served. No alcohol is served at this community rink.
The entire menu can be viewed here.
There is nothing particularly fancy about the game day presentation here at the NIP. Fans of college hockey will find a lot that feels familiar here, with the pregame introductions mimicking what you would find at any college rink. Unfortunately, there is nothing here at the NIP that indicates you are at the home of a professional hockey team. The banners and signage located here all belong to local youth teams. This doesn't create much of a home ice advantage.
The smallish crowd is very enthusiastic and dedicated, but does not make a whole lot of noise. Youth teams take the ice during intermission, with the youngsters participating in a shootout against the Whale's backup goalie. Music plays over a tinny PA system during play stoppages, and announcements can be difficult to hear at times. It's a laid back atmosphere, which seems to fit this small community rink perfectly.
The Northford Ice Pavilion is located in a small industrial park tucked into a quiet residential neighborhood in Northford, Connecticut. Fans traveling to Whale games will not find anything to do in the immediate vicinity of the NIP, unless you happen to know one of the locals. Visiting fans will find a few restaurants and hotels out by Interstate 91. If traveling from out of town, your best bet will be to head down to New Haven, which has a growing reputation as a foodie destination, and has more than its share of things to do for a small city. If visiting during the fall, Sleeping Giant State Park is located in neighboring Hamden, adjacent to Quinnipiac University.
Since the NWHL does not release attendance figures, it's a bit difficult to accurately gauge the size of the crowds at Connecticut Whale games. A good sized crowd can be found at the NIP for the Whale, although it is by no means overwhelming. There are a great many children in attendance, in particular young girls, who proudly sport their hockey uniforms or Whale gear. There is a nice community feel in the stands, as many of the fans in attendance are regulars who seem to know each other and have a personal connection with the players on the ice.
The Northford Ice Pavilion is located in the small town of Northford, about ten miles north of New Haven. It is easily accessed via Interstate 91 in either direction. Detailed driving directions can be found here. There is no public transportation that directly serves Northford, so driving is the only way to get to the NIP.
The NIP consists of three NHL-sized ice sheets, designated the Red, White and Blue rinks. The Whale play in the Red Rink, the largest of the three, which is located directly in front of you as you enter the NIP lobby. Also located in the facility's lobby is the snack bar, rest rooms, and skate shop.
All of the seating in the Red Rink will be located on your left as you enter the chilly rink. All seating consists of aluminum bleachers. The walkway is located along the front of the seating area. The first row is elevated at the height of the dasher, so all seats have a good view of the action. Netting runs the entire length of the rink and obscures views from all seats. Fans wanting to take in the action from a different vantage point can stand at the near end of the rink, where the Whale shoot twice.
Tickets for Connecticut Whale games are sold as general admission seating for $20. There is no discount for children or seniors. Parking is free in the NIP lot. With reasonably priced concessions, a visit to see the Whale in action will not break the bank.
As a fledgling league, the players in the NWHL accept a fraction of the salaries that their male counterparts receive. The NWHL has implemented a couple of unique measures to supplement player salaries. First, with every ticket over 500 sold, half of the profits are split between the teams playing that day. Second, fifteen percent of all merchandise sold with a player's name on it go to that player. If that's not a reason to buy a t-shirt or jersey, nothing is.
Lastly, the importance of having a professional women's sports league cannot be understated after watching the young girls in attendance. Seeing the reverence with which the girls here, decked out in their youth uniforms, treat the players in the ice shows them that it is OK to care about sports and to excel at them. This point is reinforced during the postgame autograph session. The Whale give back to the community tirelessly with public appearances and hockey clinics aimed towards the numerous youth programs in the New Haven area.
While the Northford Ice Pavilion may come up short when compared to the NHL-quality facilities used by the other teams in the NWHL, it's a solid home for the fledgling Whale. The NWHL has certainly experienced some growing pains in their second season, but the product on the ice is definitely worth a look. In hockey-mad New England, where there is no shortage of hockey to choose from between the professional, college and youth teams in the area, the Whale are beginning to carve out a niche as a "must see" option among local hockey fans. The team's partnership with local girls youth hockey should prove invaluable in growing the women's game in the future.
Follow Paul Baker's stadium journeys on Twitter @PuckmanRI.
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201 Washington Ave.
North Haven, CT 06473