Wednesday, January 13, 2016

St. Lawrence Saints 1 at Clarkson Golden Knights 3 (NCAA Hockey, ECAC) - January 12, 2016

These winter sports road trips offer fewer opportunities to find new venues as there is only hockey and basketball on the slate, and teams generally play only two or three times a week. After watching Lehigh basketball on Monday, I had to find a Tuesday event between Bethlehem and Utica, where I would see an AHL match on Wednesday. I scoured the schedules of all the universities between those two metropolises, and all I could find was Colgate women's hockey. No offense to the women's hockey fans, but the sport is not something I find compelling. Further afield was Albany hoops, but I had already been there and really didn't want to revisit after witnessing Stony Brook's heartbreaking loss last year. So I kept looking, expanding the search area until I reached Potsdam, home of the Clarkson Golden Knights. They had a Division I hockey game scheduled against archrival St. Lawrence, who hail from Canton, just 10 miles away. Potsdam is in upstate New York and 342 miles from Bethlehem, but that is mostly along I-81, so I wasn't too concerned and added this intriguing match to the itinerary as it was the only D-I hockey game on the evening.

The day before, a winter storm warning was issued for much of the I-81 corridor, but it was not expected to start until Tuesday evening, so Dom and I left Bethlehem at 9:30 to beat the weather, arriving in Potsdam about six hours later. After a brief stop at the hotel, we headed over to Cheel Arena on Clarkson's tiny campus. Cheel was opened in 1991 to replace Walker Arena, which had been in used since 1938. The arena and the campus center that contains it were named for Helen Snell Cheel, a benefactor who is remembered in the Clarkson Athletic Hall of Fame.

The arena is located inside the Campus Center, and there were already a couple of thousand fans on hand despite puck drop nearly an hour away. These are small towns and there isn't much else to do on a cold winter's evening, so people arrive early and make the game a social event. Dom and I were certainly outsiders, wandering around taking pictures and looking for pocket schedules (there aren't any). The first thing you will notice is all of the banners in the ceiling (above). The Golden Knights are members of the ECAC, and have several league championships and even seven appearances in the Frozen Four, but no national titles to their credit.

We had bought tickets online as the game was nearly sold out, though with St. Lawrence students still on hiatus, there were some returns at the box office. Before entering the seating area, we stopped at Club 99 (below), the only place were you can consume alcohol. Note the countdown clock behind the bar; fans pay attention to that as they don't want to miss a minute of the action.

The rink is a single bowl with nine rows; one end is reserved for the Pep Band and students, who heckle the opposition relentlessly. During the game, many fans choose to stand at the rail above the seating bowl, which gives the best views. If you secure a spot here, don't leave it as it will be taken immediately.

Clarkson has had hockey since 1921 and there is a lot of history on display here. Of course, many alumni have gone on to star in the NHL and there are jerseys on display. Jarmo Kekäläinen played only a few games with Ottawa and is now GM of Columbus, so maybe that jersey should be changed.

Other things to look for are the team pictures that go back nearly 100 years. It is interesting to note the evolution of equipment year-by-year. There are also pictures of every All-American who played hockey here.

In one corner of the concourse is an old ice resurfacing machine, which was used at Walker Arena. Also note the newspaper article mentioning another tradition being moved to Cheel Arena: the locomotive whistle. Used when the Golden Knights hit the ice and after goals, the whistle is extremely loud and startling if you are not expecting it.

There are also trophies and more banners on display, including the 2014 national championship banner for women's hockey (the large one below), as well as some commemorating Olympic athletes who played for Clarkson.

Overall, Cheel Arena is simply a great place to watch a hockey game with a super atmosphere and devoted fans, as well as one of the most passionate student populations I have seen. Potsdam is only 90 minutes (140 km) from Ottawa, so if you are living close to Canada's capital but have yet to attend an NCAA hockey game, consider a visit to Cheel Arena to get started.

The Game

This was the 201st all-time meeting between the teams, with Clarkson enjoying a 121-68-11 series lead. Although these two clubs are fierce rivals, neither had been tearing up the league early on. In fact, Clarkson had yet to post an ECAC win, leaving them last in the 12-team conference. The Saints were ranked 18th in the country with a 10-7-2 record (4-2-1 in conference play) but had been swept on the weekend by Northeastern.

The first period was very fast-paced, with few whistles and a lot of open play. Neither team could open the scoring until the final minute, when St. Lawrence scored on a 2-on-1 just as a penalty expired, with Tommy Thompson converting a pass from Ryan Lough.

Clarkson tied it up early in the second when Sam Vigneault (no relation to Alain) banged home a rebound past Kyle Hayton (#27 above), whose .939 save percentage ranked 7th in the nation. The rest of the period saw Clarkson dominate with a 20-8 advantage in shots, but Hayton kept the Saints alive.

Clarkson netted the go-ahead marker six minutes into the third when Vigneault tapped in another rebound. St. Lawrence could not get the equalizer but when Kelly Summers (Ottawa's 7th-round pick in 2014) took a penalty for Clarkson with 3:26 to go, the Saints had a golden opportunity to force overtime. But the power play was ineffective while Hayton remained in goal, only leaving when the power play ended. It didn't take Clarkson long to clinch the game as captain Paul Geiger notched the empty netter.

As you can see, Hayton saved 41 shots but his offense could not solve Clarkson keeper Greg Lewis that second time. Hayton was also penalized for punching one of the Clarkson players, and after the game, was told by the ref to leave the ice without shaking hands. The teams ended up splitting the season series as St. Lawrence had won the first game 3-0 back in November. This was an entertaining game and well worth the six-hour drive. I'll have to come back to the area sometime to catch a game at St. Lawrence too.


The winter storm never materialized in our area, and we drove to Utica through the back roads of upstate New York on Wednesday with no issues.

The ECAC has 12 teams that are divided into 6 geographically proximate pairs. Generally speaking, games are played Friday and Saturday, with two visiting teams alternating their opponents. For example, next weekend Brown and Yale travel to the North Country, with Brown at St. Lawrence on Friday and at Clarkson on Saturday, while Yale does the reverse. Great scheduling for road trips.



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