March 4, 2013

HockeyTown: Worcester, Massachusetts

By Mike Zhe

The Worcester Sharks set an attendance record  during Rob Gronkowski Puck Spike Bobblehead Night. (Photo: Worcester Sharks)

It garners only a fraction of the attention that accompanies the Beanpot tournament, which has hockey fans across the region and beyond riled up this month (see Page 16).

But in each of the past two seasons, Division 3 teams from Worcester State, Becker, Assumption and Nichols have gathered at one site for a two-day tournament. The first three programs are all located in Worcester, while the Nichols campus is in nearby Dudley, Mass.

Unlike the Beanpot, where the announced attendance of 17,565 per session is an annual given, the Worcester City Shootout games only draw a few hundred fans. But it’s held because, like the Beanpot, it’s something very few hockey cities have the ability to do.

“There are 10 colleges in Worcester,” said Worcester State coach John Guiney. “(Becker coach) Steve Hoar and I sat down and said, ‘Let’s try this.’ We were aiming to do it at the beginning of the year; this year it was Thanksgiving weekend but there’s no students there.”

If things play out the way they’re hoping, they may be gathering a lot more than once a year.

Last month, the Worcester Business Development Corporation held a public hearing about plans to develop the municipal lot next to the city library downtown. After commissioning $150,000 for a master plan, its preference was to build a two-rink arena that Worcester State, Assumption, Becker, Worcester Academy and the AHL’s Worcester Sharks all have expressed interest in using.

Currently, Worcester State plays and practices at Horgan Skating Arena, a state-operated rink, in nearby Auburn. With the caliber of the Division 3 game improving, and recruiting nets cast nationwide instead of just regionally, a sparkling home base — whether next to the library or at another site — would be a program boon.

“These kids (we’re recruiting) are playing in professional arenas,” said Guiney, who played at St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury and helped Worcester State win ECAC championships in 1973-74 and 1976-77. “We’re in a state facility in Auburn. They treat us great there but it’s a tough sell. … This would just be a great, great step.”

Assumption plays home games at Buffone Arena in the city, another state facility. Becker plays 20 minutes off campus at the New England Sports Center in Marlboro. Predictably, fan support is not great.

“All the Division 3 programs here, they’re an arena away from taking it to the next level,” said Michael Mudd, president of the Worcester Sharks, who often need to use the Marlboro facility for practices.

Worcester State’s staff has included (from left) John Coughlin Jr., former assistant Marv Degon and head coach John Guiney. (Richard Orr Photography)

It’s a city that loves its hockey and, specifically, its Sharks, who have averaged better than 4,000 fans a game in each of the past three seasons, a figure that puts them in the middle of the league’s seven New England-based teams.

The Sharks set up in the DCU Center in 2006, a year after the previous AHL tenants, the Worcester IceCats, were relocated to Peoria, Ill., for more proximity to their parent St. Louis Blues.

“Most people don’t realize, they didn’t leave because of a bad business plan,” said Mudd. “They were owned by the Blues. The Peoria market opened up and the St. Louis people thought that would be an easier sell.”

The Sharks, working with a West Coast parent club — the San Jose Sharks — have made the bi-coastal relationship work, much like the L.A. Kings-Manchester Monarchs partnership. They’re regarded as one of the best franchises when it comes to player development and have developed a strong city fan base.

Worcester is a unique market by AHL standards. There is no TV station in the city, making it a subset of the Boston market, something that helped bury Lowell a few years ago. It’s got an array of nearby foes — Providence, Springfield, Hartford and Manchester — which makes for good rivalries, but not big ticket-selling bases.

“I can’t sell a ticket 20 miles south or I’m in the Providence market,” said Mudd. “You go past Sturbridge and you’re in the Springfield market. Go past Fitchburg and I’m touching Manchester’s market. It’s really important that we get the full buy-in from Worcester County, from the fans and the sponsors.”

Last month, the Sharks announced a three-year extension to remain in Worcester through at least 2016. Also announced was a $23 million renovation and expansion project, which will shut down the DCU Center from May to October but is expected to be completed by the start of the 2013-14 season.

“We leverage and integrate all this with our other economic development progress downtown and we top it off with a three-year deal with our beloved Worcester Sharks,” said Worcester city manager Michael V. O’Brien. “All this is a hat trick for our community.”

The city’s most famous current player is defenseman Tom Poti, who’s now in his 14th NHL season with the Washington Capitals. He played two years at St. Peter Marian High School before moving on to Cushing Academy and later Boston University, where he was an MVP of — you guessed it — the Beanpot.

But for every Poti, there are thousands of players skating in area youth programs, whether at the local state-operated rinks or the New England Sports Center.

“Youth hockey’s really taken off out here,” said Mudd. “You’re seeing more people from Central Mass. making it to the NHL, the Bobby Butlers (Marlboro, Mass.) of the world, and playing on World Championship teams and at Division 1 colleges.”

The city’s lone Division 1 college — Holy Cross — has established itself as an upper-tier program in Atlantic Hockey, where it sat in third place (12-8-2, 8-5-2 AHA) in late January.

Worcester also has grown on some of the biggest names in the sport.

Every two years, the DCU Center also seems to serve as a springboard to a national championship run by Boston College. All four of the national titles they’ve won under legendary coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.), in 2001, ’08, ’10 and ’12, started with NCAA regional wins there.

“It’s probably my favorite place besides Watertown,” said York, after BC beat Minnesota-Duluth in last year’s regional final there. “It’s not quite Watertown, but it’s a pretty good spot here.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @MikeZhe603