Sacred Heart Is No Hockey School. $60 Million Could Change That.

Written by on March 30, 2020

FAIRFIELD, Conn. — Sacred Coronary heart, a Roman Catholic college tucked within the tidy suburbs alongside Connecticut’s southern coast, has been round since 1963 and has had a males’s ice hockey program for 27 seasons — together with 9 straight dropping seasons coming into this one.

Sacred Coronary heart is not any hockey faculty, however it’s making an enormous wager that it may be.

The college is constructing a $60 million, 4,000-seat area set to open in 2022 for its males’s and ladies’s groups in an effort to step into the ranks of faculty hockey’s best packages. With solely about 60 males’s groups and 40 girls’s groups, main school hockey is a a lot smaller world than, say, Division I basketball, so it’s extra doubtless for a program to enhance shortly, and for a small college to compete with massive ones.

Not less than that’s the pondering of Sacred Coronary heart’s athletic director, Bobby Valentine. Sure, that Bobby Valentine. The previous supervisor of the Mets and the Boston Purple Sox, Valentine continues to be energetic at 69 years outdated and is driving the expansion of the college’s services, with the hockey area set to be the ultimate jewel within the course of.

“There’s a plan now, with the world being a shining star, for all of our sports activities having a facility to name house in a brief time frame,” he mentioned in an interview.

Valentine grew up in Stamford, only a 25-mile hop down the Merritt Parkway. However he had no thought the place the varsity was till he was contacted about changing into its athletic director in 2013.

To that time, Sacred Coronary heart had skilled solely a glimmer of success in hockey. C.J. Marottolo, who nonetheless coaches the lads’s workforce, had a successful file and took the Pioneers to the Atlantic Hockey championship recreation in his first season, 2009-10. The workforce gained solely 42 video games complete over its subsequent six seasons.

For the reason that inception of this system in 1993, the Sacred Coronary heart males have performed on the 1,000-seat Milford Ice Pavilion, on the opposite aspect of Bridgeport. The ladies’s workforce has performed since 2014 on the 800-seat Sports activities Middle of Connecticut in Shelton, 10 miles away. Not a really perfect setup for a workforce hoping to promote itself as a hockey powerhouse.

“I’d watch a recruit are available right here and take a look at the state of affairs and say they appreciated the varsity and program and say, ‘However this isn’t it for me,’” mentioned Thomas O’Malley, who has been the ladies’s head coach at Sacred Coronary heart for 17 seasons.

The groups wanted a brand new house, however Valentine’s choices had been restricted.

That is the place Lou Lamoriello enters the story. Lengthy earlier than Lamoriello turned the final supervisor of the N.H.L.’s Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs and Islanders, he was supervisor of the Yarmouth Indians of the Cape Cod Baseball League in 1967, when Valentine, then 17, was on the workforce’s roster. The 2 stayed in contact over their careers.

Valentine, as a newly minted Sacred Coronary heart athletic director, known as Lamoriello for recommendation about hockey services. “I used to be nonetheless studying the way to spell hockey and A.D. on the identical time,” Valentine mentioned.

He had an choice to have the workforce play video games at Webster Financial institution Area, an 8,500-seat area in Bridgeport, 15 minutes from Sacred Coronary heart, however he felt the location was too massive.

Lamoriello’s recommendation: “Go into the world. You’ll recruit higher.”

Within the 4 seasons the Pioneers males’s workforce has performed its house video games at Webster, its fortunes have modified. All however 4 of the 29 gamers on the Sacred Coronary heart males’s roster are from outdoors New England, with six worldwide gamers: 5 Canadians and one participant from Denmark.

Sacred Coronary heart’s males’s workforce was 16-17-Four final season and 18-8-2 in convention play this season, successful the primary Connecticut Ice match, which included Connecticut, Quinnipiac and Yale, in January.

The boys’s workforce, 21-10-Three over all, was ranked within the prime 20 nationally at instances this season, and the ladies (21-11) gained 18 of 20 regular-season video games within the New England Ladies’s Hockey Alliance. The Sacred Coronary heart males have by no means been to the N.C.A.A. match, however the Pioneers had been thought-about to have a very good probability to qualify this 12 months earlier than it and the Atlantic Hockey match had been canceled final week due to coronavirus issues.

All however two house video games this season drew crowds of fewer than 1,000 spectators to the world, which is primarily utilized by the Islanders’ prime farm workforce, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. It’s a top-notch facility, however there are two issues for the Sacred Coronary heart groups: It’s too massive and never theirs.

“It’s no secret that getting the rink is the following step for a program, the place gamers wish to come,” Patrick Dawson, a freshman defenseman, mentioned.

In that gentle, the world thought nonetheless appears audacious: a personal Roman Catholic college with no massive hockey portfolio funding an area by itself, by borrowing and fund-raising, ticket gross sales and concessions, and by renting the ice and the power to outsiders as soon as it’s accomplished.

“Sacred Coronary heart’s funding, whereas understandably troublesome to understand and straightforward to criticize as a result of price, may very well make sense if the establishment is ready to notice lots of the constructive penalties that may move from having a nationally seen hockey program,” Scott Rosner, a sports activities enterprise professor at Columbia College, mentioned.

“It’s honest to ask if the success of newly minted hockey powers like Quinnipiac and Union is achievable and sustainable for an additional relative athletic minnow like Sacred Coronary heart and query if it is going to be yet one more establishment in pursuit of idiot’s gold,” Rosner added. “The reply comes right down to execution.”

Union School, a 2,200-student establishment in Schenectady, N.Y., gained the N.C.A.A. title in 2014. Quinnipiac College, in Hamden, Conn., a 10,000-student faculty that may be a eager athletic and tutorial rival of Sacred Coronary heart’s, superior to the nationwide championship recreation in 2013 and 2016. The Bobcats play in a 13-year-old facility with separate areas for hockey and basketball and are members of the ECAC Hockey convention, a extra highly effective league than Atlantic Hockey.

Valentine mentioned of the Sacred Coronary heart area: “It’s going to be one of the best constructing to play in within the tristate space. Quinnipiac is there, however we’re going to be newer.”

Sacred Coronary heart’s pupil inhabitants has swelled by greater than 50 p.c within the final 10 years to greater than 5,100 undergraduates, and the college’s property has greater than 300 acres because the 2016 acquisition of the 66-acre former Normal Electrical company headquarters. Its campus is now house to the three-story Bobby Valentine Well being & Recreation Middle, which opened in 2019.

“This, so far as constructing an area, is becoming right into a development that’s been happening for a decade,” mentioned Jim Barquinero, the senior vice chairman for enrollment, pupil affairs and athletics at Sacred Coronary heart.

Olivia Bryant, a senior defenseman, mentioned of the world mission: “It form of exhibits a perception in us. Acknowledges us. That we will transfer the varsity ahead, to be a hockey faculty.”

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