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Official Review by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The University of Connecticut hockey program has certainly come a long, long ways in two short decades. As recently as 1998, the team played in an outdoor rink. This on campus rink, located near Memorial Stadium, had a roof, but no walls. The team, which played in Division Three at the time, upgraded to Division One status for the 1998-99 season, and played in the newly constructed Mark Edward Freitas Ice Forum.
While serviceable, the Freitas Ice Forum hardly met the lofty standards set by UConn’s other athletic squads. For the 2014-2015 season the Huskies joined the Hockey East, one of the premier hockey conferences in the nation. The Freitas Ice Forum did not meet the minimum standards of the conference, so the Huskies entered into an agreement to play their home games in the XL Center in downtown Hartford, 25 miles from the UConn campus.
The XL Center, formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center, is located in downtown Hartford and serves as home to the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League, and the University of Connecticut’s men’s and women’s basketball teams in addition to the UConn hockey team. In preparation for the 2014-2015 season the XL Center underwent $35 million in improvements to the mechanical system, locker rooms, and concourse. A new high definition video board was installed, as well as aesthetic improvements such as a new bar area and luxury seating in the lower bowl.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The concessions at the XL Center have never been the main selling point of the game day experience here, and the recent renovations have attempted to upgrade the culinary experience. Many concession stands line the outer rim of the concourse, and each offer unique menu items. Depending on your appetite, you can visit Chicken Fry Fry (featuring, you guessed it, chicken tenders and fries for $9), Fresh Classics (sausage and pepper sandwiches for $9 and nachos for $8), Grill Masters (burgers starting at $9), or hot dog nation (yep, hot dogs for $7). Smaller specialty stands serve items such as pulled pork sandwiches ($9), tacos ($8), and sliced tenderloin sandwiches ($9). A variety of snacks and beverages are available at all stands.
Thirsty fans looking for beverages will be pleased to know that there are stands specifically dedicated to the sale of adult beverages, including beer, wine, and mixed drinks. In addition, beer is sold at every large concession stand as well as a couple of portable carts located on the concourse. Draft beers are priced at $9, and there is a good selection of brands, including Sam Adams, Budweiser, Bud Light, Coors Light, Yeungling, Guinness, Harp, Heineken, and Blue Moon. Each stand features a different brand or two, so you may need to search a little to find your favorite brand. For fans looking for non-alcoholic choices, Pepsi products are featured at the XL Center.
If you are taking in a Husky game with the children, a stop at one of the Carvel Ice Cream stands will likely be in your future. Another alternative is the cotton candy stand, which offers a selection of snacks for fans with a sweet tooth.
While longtime visitors to the XL Center will undoubtedly be impressed with the renovations to the concessions, which include new menu boards, floors, and paint, the biggest change to the concourse is undoubtedly the new XL Lounge, located behind section 120-123. The lounge features two full service bars, HD televisions, and plenty of seating, much of which overlooks the action on the ice. It has already become a popular spot for fans to meet and take in the action.
Fans looking for Husky souvenirs will find two portable souvenir stands located at opposite corners of the concourse. Unfortunately, the souvenir stand that greets fans immediately upon entry to the arena remains, and continues to bottle up traffic in the area.
Fans who have only been to the XL Center for minor league hockey will be surprised at the energy in the building for a UConn game. The first difference fans will notice is the presence of the UConn pep band. Cranking out a mix of current popular music and arena classics, the band performs during most play stoppages. Their presence definitely beats the typical piped-in music you typically hear in arenas.
Also surprising by their presence is a significant student section. With UConn's main campus located in Storrs, 25 miles from the XL Center, you might expect a meager turnout from the student body. Instead, students turn out in numbers that far exceeds their former presence on campus. They have brought a repertoire of cheers and taunts of the opposition with them. It all adds up to a lively, fun atmosphere.
Hartford is rarely thought of as a destination city, but the XL Center's location right in downtown Hartford is a definite advantage. The area around the arena features numerous restaurants and shops, and is filled with people, even on the weekends. Pratt Street, located directly across the street from the XL Center, has several diverse dining establishments located on it. Fans looking for a place to eat before or after the game can choose from fine dining establishments, Irish pubs, southern BBQ, Thai, or American cuisine, among others. Restaurants line three sides of the XL Center and nearby streets, so visiting fans can find something to satisfy their appetite no matter which direction you head.
For fans interested in exploring the downtown area, there are some attractions nearby worth mentioning. The Old State House is located a few blocks from the XL Center, and contains exhibits on Hartford history. Tours are discounted for AAA members, and will cost history buffs a mere $3. The downtown area is quite walkable, and worth exploring if you are coming to Hartford for a weekend game. Within a few blocks radius of the arena are an impressive number of museums, galleries, and other points of interest.
Attendance at the XL Center for UConn games has picked up steam over the course of the season. The Huskies are currently averaging about 5,000 fans per game for the 2014-2015 season after averaging only about 1,000 during their time on campus. The student body represents themselves well, and the team's presence in Hartford has drawn numerous alumni downtown for hockey. While the upper level stands on both sides of the rink are blocked off to limit capacity, the lower bowl is mostly full for Husky games.
The XL Center is located in downtown Hartford, and is easy to reach via either Interstate 84 or 91. The arena is only a few blocks away after exiting either highway. While the downtown area streets are not laid out in a simple grid, navigating these streets to the arena is fairly simple. Traffic, on the other hand, can be an entirely different issue, particularly on weekday games. Be sure to give yourself extra time to arrive, as both highways back up regularly around rush hour and beyond.
There are close to 50 parking lots and garages in the downtown area, all within walking distance of the XL Center. If you want to plan ahead, you can find a map of the downtown parking here. In addition to these paid spots, on-street parking is readily available on many streets surrounding the XL Center.
Once inside the XL Center, fans will enter into the spacious lobby, more formally known as the Exposition Center. This area was once the Civic Center Mall, but is mostly empty space now. The XL Center ticket office is located here, as well as escalators to the attached parking garage and the Comcast Coliseum Club located on the second level. There is a nice display in this area featuring a jersey from every high school hockey program in Connecticut, as well as a giant mural featuring photos from Hartford's storied hockey history. Otherwise, this area is unused, although a few local merchants set up tables on selected nights.
Fans will notice some results of the recent renovations as soon as they enter the arena, more formally known as the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. While the concourse of the arena remains cramped and narrow in places, efforts were made to improve flow and relieve congestion. With the typical Husky only filling a third of the XL Center, getting around on the concourse is not too difficult during hockey games. Fans will notice new floors, updated concession stands, and an overall improved appearance while navigating the concourse. Getting around the arena when there is a large crowd will still be problematic in Hartford.
The bathrooms at the XL Center have been completely remodeled over the summer, and are very clean and new. Unfortunately, they are still on the small side, and lines can form during intermissions. Plan your trips accordingly, especially if there is a big crowd on hand.
Tickets for UConn hockey at the XL Center cost $12 and $17. Most seats are located in the lower bowl, as the majority of the upper bowl is blocked off by curtains. While this does not have the intended effect of making the arena seem less empty, rest assured that all seats in the lower bowl have excellent sightlines for the game.
Parking in the downtown area can vary in price by the lot and the event, but expect to pay up to $10 to park in the lots closest to the arena. Experienced Husky fans know where and when to get free on-street parking, as the meters downtown close at 6pm, and are not activated on the weekend.
Fans used to attending games at the Freitas Ice Forum may be in for a bit of sticker shock, as attending a UConn hockey game is much more expensive here than on campus. However, when comparing the prices in Hartford to other venues in the area, prices fall right in line with other venues, and is actually less expensive than minor league hockey in the area.
History-There is plenty of history present at the XL Center. Unfortunately, none of it belongs to the UConn hockey team. Banners hang from the arena's rafters honoring Hartford Whalers, Wolf Pack, and UConn basketball teams. A large mural in the lobby honors the XL Center's 40 years of hockey history.
Brass Bonanza-A favorite of hockey fans everywhere, this song from the Whalers' days at the XL Center has been brought back and is played after every Husky goal. A sampling of Brass Bonanza can be viewed here.
The move to the XL Center may not be a permanent one for the UConn hockey program. As part of the university's commitment to upgrading the hockey squad, the school is looking into the feasibility of either upgrading the Freitas Ice Forum or building a new on campus arena for the team. The school is clearly committed to making the hockey team competitive, as they added 18 scholarships to the men's hockey team as well as additional scholarships to women's sports to satisfy Title IX gender equity requirements.
Likewise, the future of the XL Center is unclear at the present time. The state of Connecticut and city of Hartford have committed significant resources towards deciding whether to renovate the arena or build a new downtown facility. Until then, UConn has the distinction of playing in the largest arena in Hockey East, and for the first time in the school's history, has a home rink worthy enough to match the lofty goals of the program.
You can follow all of Paul Baker's stadium and arena visits on Twitter @puckmanri.
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