Sacred Heart University opens on-campus hockey arena Saturday


FAIRFIELD — Sacred Heart opens its $70-plus million Martire Family Arena on Saturday, but the Pioneers may already have a win there.

“We had a young man come through here with his family,” men’s hockey coach C.J. Marottolo said Monday on the concourse at a media day for the building. “We offered him a scholarship. Usually that young man will wait, maybe shop the scholarship around.

“Thirty minutes later, he called up our senior associate coach Scott McDougall and said ‘I’m coming.’ This place makes an impact. It shows the commitment this university is making to these student-athletes, so they can be the best they can be. It’s awesome.”

It’s long-awaited. Women’s hockey coach Tom O’Malley has been here 20 years, and just about the whole time this barn has been two or three years away while the two teams played at four different off-campus rinks. Now it’s single-digit days away from Saturday night’s men’s game against Boston College and Sunday’s women’s game against Harvard.

“Every day I come in here, it’s like when you move into a new house,” O’Malley said. “It’s got that feeling.”

O’Malley gave a handful of reporters a tour, through the spacious players lounge in an NHL-style dressing room. Past the skate-rental stall for student open skates. The underwater rehab treadmill. The sprawling weight room with a synthetic-ice area for players to practice their shot. The electrochromic glass that allows views of the Merritt Parkway but tints to keep out glare and heat. The omnipresent televisions.

And he couldn’t pick a favorite spot. Neither could men’s alternate captain Neil Shea, calling everything “first-class.”

Women’s captain Kelly Solak had an answer: her coach’s office, atop the arena with a window overlooking the goal the Pioneers will shoot toward twice.

“It’s great to finally have a home for our team,” Solak said. “Playing off-campus was amazing. They treated us incredible at Sports Center of Connecticut. But having a place with our logo on it, our name on it, our brand on it, with both the men’s and women’s teams coming together, it’s really special. It means a lot for everyone. We’re all really grateful.”

While the Pioneers have been skating at the arena for several weeks, they’d been operating out of the visitors’ side while workers put the finishing touches on their dressing rooms. Monday was the men’s first day in the room. The women got a head start.

“Saturday after our game, we came home, and it was kind of a surprise that we were able to move in,” Solak said. “Coming back today on Monday, it’s a fresh week, a fresh start. We’re in our locker room, getting ready for Harvard. It’s going to be a good week.”

On the opposite side of the rink are rooms for the Pioneers’ figure skating team and its men’s and women’s club hockey teams, along with visitors’ rooms and other rooms for other teams that may be in the house; Notre Dame-Fairfield is scheduled to play two games here in February.

O’Malley joked about wanting to pipe in (light) music on that side of the rink and paint the walls pink to throw off the visiting teams. Instead, he pushes a button on the wall on the interior of the corridor and a door pulls up, revealing a skate sharpener, so teams won’t have to bring their own.

“We’re going to be able to attract those teams. That’s going to attract fans, and recruits, too: ‘We’re playing Minnesota this year,’” O’Malley said.

“I used to have to beg teams to come and play us. That’s changed.”

O’Malley said there’s talk of building a second sheet of ice as an extension of the building. But they’ll get the first rink christened this weekend.

“It’s all beautiful, the architecture, the amenities,” Marottolo said. “The greater significance for me is the players that have worn the jersey before, their blood, their sweat, their tears: They now have a place to call home, and they’ve never had that for 29-plus years. We’re finally home.”; @fornabaioctp

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