Total Mortgage Arena - Sacred Heart Pioneers
Photos by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 2.86
Webster Bank Arena 600 Main St Bridgeport CT 06604
Year Opened: 2001
Pioneering a New Era at Sacred Heart
Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, has played Division One hockey since the team’s inception in 1993. Unfortunately, the Pioneers have been little more than an afterthought in the crowded New England hockey scene. For their first twenty-three seasons, Sacred Heart’s home rink was the Milford Ice Pavilion, a community hockey rink in a neighboring town.
Sharing the MIP with Sacred Heart were local high schools and youth organizations. As you can imagine, it was a less-than-ideal situation for a Division One program. Stadium Journey ranked the MIP next to last among all Division One hockey facilities in 2015.
To improve the stature of their program, Sacred Heart entered into a five-year agreement with the Webster Bank Arena in neighboring Bridgeport to play all their home games at the arena beginning with the 2016-17 season. As part of the agreement, the team will have a dedicated locker room, along with workout and equipment facilities, at the Webster Bank Arena. Sacred Heart has traditionally played a few games per season here in Bridgeport, but will now exist as a co-tenant with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League and the Fairfield University Stags basketball team.
The Pioneers compete in the Atlantic Hockey Conference. They have not enjoyed a winning season since the 2009-2010 campaign. The team has yet to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Food & Beverage 4
With the small crowds present at Sacred Heart hockey games, visiting fans will surely be surprised by the variety of concessions available at Webster Bank Arena.
One concession stand is open during Pioneer games. Hot dogs, chicken tenders, and burgers are sold here, along with a wide variety of snacks, including french fries, peanuts, popcorn, and candy. There is a portable cart open selling assorted snacks, including pretzels and churros. Also, open during Pioneer games is Rita’s Italian Ice stand, which sells Italian ice and ice cream. This stand had the longest lines during the game.
If you are headed to a Pioneer hockey game and want to grab a bite, you should check out the menu at the Limerick Pub, located directly adjacent to the main entrance of Webster Bank Arena. Not only does the Limerick Pub feature a full bar serving mixed drinks along with several brands of draught beer on tap, but a varied menu is also served at Limerick Pub’s small counter. Irish nachos, loaded baked potatoes and corned beef sandwiches are sold here, as they would be at any self-respecting Irish pub.
In addition, beef stew (in a bread bowl), chicken wings, short rib sandwiches, and salads can all be purchased by hungry Pioneer fans. It’s a surprisingly diverse menu, especially considering the small crowds in attendance.
Perhaps the largest obstacle that the Sacred Heart gameday staff will encounter in the early days of their stay at Webster Bank Arena is how to make the large area lively when there are only a couple hundred fans in attendance. The staff here are working out the kinks, but early signs are promising.
Most prominent at Sacred Heart hockey games is the school’s pep band, which sets up in the northeast corner of Webster Bank Arena. The band is hooked up to the arena’s PA system and fills the rink with sound during play stoppages.
Strangely, almost the entire seating bowl is open for Pioneer games. This has the result of spreading out the crowd, making the arena feel emptier than it otherwise may feel.
The most prominent feature of Webster Bank Arena is the giant video board that hangs over the ice, stretching from blue line to blue line. It’s used to good effect here, showing game highlights and some games during play stoppages.
Downtown Bridgeport has a really bad reputation, and in the past, it may have been a deserved one. However, like many other cities in the region, the city’s leaders have worked hard to revitalize the downtown area. The building of the ballpark and hockey arena next door were to be the anchors of this revitalization when they opened in 1998 and 2001, respectively.
Unfortunately, the development of the Harbor Yard area never happened. The lots that were ticketed for the development of a retail center next door to the sports complex remain empty. They are presently used for parking at game events. While this development has not occurred as hoped for, the downtown area is not the wasteland it was rumored to once be.
Downtown Bridgeport proper is located on the other side of Interstate 95. Access can be gained through several underpasses near the arena. There are several restaurants worth visiting in the area, with Ralph N Rich’s serving up fine Italian fare, and the newly opened Barnum Publick House serving a traditional bar menu. For those looking for other things to do while visiting Bridgeport, the P.T. Barnum Museum is located a short walk from the arena.
Before Sacred Heart moved their home games to Bridgeport, they had the lowest average attendance in all of Division One hockey. Early returns this season are promising, as 1,200 fans attended opening night. Even games held on weekend afternoons so far in 2016 have exceeded the average attendance at the Milford Ice Pavilion. Student turnout continues to be minimal thus far at Webster Bank Arena, but expect that trend to improve as the team progresses through its inaugural season here.
Arenas don’t get any easier to find than Webster Bank Arena. Located directly off Interstate 95, all one has to do to get to the rink is take exit 27 (whether traveling northbound or southbound), follow the signs for a block, and you are there. Parking is available in a surface lot across the street from the arena or in a parking garage next to the arena. Those looking for free parking can find on-street parking within a short walk of the arena. Despite downtown Bridgeport’s less-than-sparkling reputation, the area around the arena is safe.
Getting to Bridgeport is a snap, as Interstate 95 passes directly through downtown. The city is located 60 miles northeast of New York City, an hour’s drive south of Hartford, and 20 minutes from New Haven. Amtrak’s northeast corridor trains pass directly behind the arena, with the station only a couple of city blocks from the arena.
Webster Bank Arena has a somewhat unusual design in that the concourse is on street level, and fans walk up from the ice level to their seats in the seating bowl. This setup means that handicapped seats are located right on the glass.
All seats at the Webster Bank Arena are blue folding stadium seats. Except for a few sections at the end of the rink near the entrance, all of the seating bowls are open. Fans are given an assigned seat with a ticket, but most fans sit where they please. With the small crowd present, why not spread out?
Likewise, all restrooms are open during Sacred Heart hockey games. Predictably, there is no wait to use the facilities, and plenty of room to roam on the concourse. Webster Bank Arena is modern and clean, and this is evident when a small crowd is present.
Return on Investment 2
One drawback Pioneer fans will notice in moving to a professional arena is that now they will be paying professional-level prices to catch their favorite team playing.
While ticket prices are reasonable at ten dollars, everything else at the Webster Bank Arena feels much pricier than it should be. Parking in the garage next door to the arena costs ten dollars. Concession prices, while comparable to many arenas in the American Hockey League, feel much too high for this level of college hockey. For example, Purchasing two sodas and two candy bars here will cost you almost $20.
An extra point is awarded for the school’s attempt to make the hockey program competitive in the crowded southern Connecticut hockey scene. Fans will reap the rewards of these efforts. Any Pioneer fan who caught a game in the cold, cramped Milford Ice Pavilion will feel as if they have traveled forward in time as they watch a game in the modern, comfortable Webster Bank Arena.
A second extra point is awarded for the slick gameday presentation which integrates the best parts of college hockey (the pep band and student sections) with the best parts of professional hockey (the giant video board).
It is a big year for many teams in the Atlantic Hockey Conference. Schools that have traditionally played in small, substandard community rinks are moving to local professional rinks, or are making plans for new on-campus facilities. These moves are designed to make the programs more attractive to recruits and fans alike. In moving to Webster Bank Arena, Sacred Heart has made a quantum leap towards making the program more competitive with the other schools that play in southern Connecticut, and Pioneer hockey fans are sure to reap the rewards.
Follow Paul Baker’s stadium journeys on Twitter @PuckmanRI.