In Albany, once more with feeling

March 30, 2010 by Mark H. Anbinder

The Times Union Center in Albany.The Times Union Center in Albany.Union College has never made an appearance in the semifinal round of the annual ECAC Hockey Championship Tournament, until this year. The Skating Dutchmen from Schenectady, just outside Albany, headed to the Times Union Center this weekend for the first time -- and the last. It's the final ECAC tourney in Albany before the event heads to Atlantic City for at least three years.

Then the Pepsi Arena, downtown Albany's hockey rink (home to the Albany River Rats, and once the Knickerbocker Arena before commercial branding became the trend) inherited the annual Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference's Division I men's ice hockey tournament in 2003. For several previous years, the tournament was held at the inconveniently located, but picturesque and historic, 1980 Olympic Arena in Lake Placid. That venue took over from the Boston Garden when that storied landmark was torn down; the Garden's predecessor Boston Arena held the tournament for its first few years in the 1960s, but the Boston Garden's 25 years is the longest ECAC tenure for any rink.

"We looked at our financials and they haven't been what we hoped here in Albany," said Steve Hagwell, the commissioner of ECAC Hockey. With crowds over 8,000 only twice in eight years in an arena that seats some 14,000, Hagwell says the league put out a request for proposals to find a new home. "We sent out bids to just about every facility in the northeast," he says, "close to thirty rinks."

Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall. Photo by Andy Cross. Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall. Photo by Andy Cross. Atlantic City's Convention & Visitors Authority put in the winning bid to host the next three ECAC Hockey tournaments at Boardwalk Hall. The arena dates back to 1929, and underwent a major renovation several years ago. "The building's been around a while, so it's got a lot of character," says Hagwell, with "just a shade under 10,000 seats" and "a little more of a cozy feel." The rink has no home team; the Boardwalk Bullies played there only briefly after the renovation.

Hagwell says Atlantic City's bid exceeded what the league was looking for, financially, and "We determined as a league that Atlantic City was going to be the site starting next year." He says league officials, coaches, and the member schools' athletic administrators all had a part in the discussion before a decision was made.

For the first time, the tournament venue is outside the uneven polygon you'd get if you drew lines around the ECAC member schools and their cities; the coastal venue is about a hundred-mile drive south of Princeton University, the southernmost ECAC school. The league has committed to three years in Atlantic City, but "we'll evaluate it year-by-year," says Hagwell, and can start a search for another venue if attendance drops off. The "North Country" schools of St. Lawrence and Clarkson, both of whom make frequent appearances in the ECAC tournament, are eight or nine hours away.

Jeffrey Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, says their city was also a haul for some of the schools in the Atlantic 10 conference when that basketball tournament moved to Boardwalk Hall a few years ago. "Now the Dayton and Xavier people come and make weekends of it," he says. Vasser, who happens to be a Cornell University alumnus, stresses that Atlantic City's quality of shopping, dining, and entertainment are way up.

Vasser adds that visiting Atlantic City will be easy for many traveling hockey fans. Spirit Air has recently added direct flights from Boston, there's high-speed rail from Penn Station in New York City for $29 outside the summer-to-fall peak season, and there's a train from Philadelphia, as well. Boardwalk Hall is in the center of the boardwalk, surrounded by hotels and connected to the Trump Plaza hotel and casino.

Greg Tesone, general manager of Boardwalk Hall, has a hockey facility background, including running a practice arena for the Philadelphia Flyers. A hockey fan himself, Tesone clearly looks forward to having an ice surface in the building for a few more days a year.

One factor in the low attendance in Albany has been the absence of Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the two local teams. "We'll find out this weekend with Union in it how much impact having a local team will be," Hagwell noted.

This year's two-day total of 12,305 turned out to be the third-highest attendance since the ECACs moved to Albany, thanks both to Union's appearance and Cornell advancing to the championship game on Saturday.

The ECAC Hockey League isn't quite done with Albany, in any event. For now, at least, Hagwell says the league's offices will remain in the Times Union Center.

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