BOSTON — If you love hockey, odds are you’ve been swept up by the game’s outdoor craze of the last six-plus years in one way or another.
Salem State’s players are no different. Most of them were playing high school or junior hockey when the NHL debuted its Winter Classic in 2008. All the members of the skating brotherhood in New England had eyes on the 2010 Winter Classic between the Bruins and Flyers at historic Fenway Park, and the slew of Division 1 college hockey games played there in both 2010 and 2012.
Watching those games on TV, they let their minds wonder what it would be like to play in one themselves — especially at Fenway.
Amid frigid temperatures yesterday, Salem State’s players took center stage and had their own Frozen Fenway experience, a 4-2 loss to old ECAC East rival UMass Boston.
Skating on an ice rink sitting roughly where they’d seen Stephen Drew and Dustin Pedroia turn double plays for the World Series winning Boston Red Sox a few months earlier was absolutely surreal for both the Vikings and the Beacons.
“Going back to the first Frozen Fenway (in 2010) I’d thought about it, but I never thought we’d be able to play here. Growing up I never would’ve guessed it,” said Salem State captain Kyle Phelan, who grew up in Barnstable and likened the frozen ice surface to the iced over cranberry bogs he played on as a kid.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to comprehend it for a few days. Being a kid, watching the Sox break the curse and win two more champsionships, and then playing a hockey game here? It’s unbelievable.”
It’s hard to imagine Bill O’Neill ever considered that his team would play a game at Fenway Park when he took over the Salem State hockey program in 1981. The Vikings (7-5 this year) have seen just about everything under his steady stewardship since then: six NCAA tournament appearances, Division 3 Frozen Four berths in 1992 and 1994, and more than 500 wins among the highlights.
Yesterday, in front of an announced crowd of 1,133 fans, Salem State reached an entirely new plane by skating on American’s Most Beloved Ballpark at 4 Yawkey Way.
“It was a tremendous experience, being a part of this Frozen Fenway,” O’Neill said. “It was an emotional game and a great environment. I’m really proud of how our team played.”
O’Neill’s life has been dedicated to hockey, with much of that work going towards making Salem State one of the most respected programs in New England. He had a chance to watch his youngest son, Will, captain the University of Maine here at Fenway in 2012. The Black Bears beat UNH 5-4 in overtime that day, and the elder O’Neill fondly recalled that temperatures were pushing 55 degrees in Boston.
It was, if you’ll excuse the pun, the polar opposite yesterday.
“That was as cold as I’ve ever experienced,” said Bill O’Neill, who had a fedora styled like the one Bruins coach Claude Julien wore in the 2010 Winter Classic ready to go. He opted for the bright orange Vikings winter hat to try to keep warm instead. “It was so cold it took your breath away at times.”
How special must it have been to share the bench with his oldest son, Andrew, for the Salem State’s veteran head coach?
Andrew was a captain for his father at Salem State seven years ago, and now serves as assistant coach. There isn’t much in life that could top looking over the bench and seeing both the Green Monster and a son for a hockey — and Boston — lifer.
On top of that, the Vikings renewed their rivalry with UMass Boston, a club improving in the ECAC East that won 19 games a year ago and is 10-1-2 this winter. The Beacons and Salem State played regularly before the MASCAC formed a hockey conference a few years back.
“A have a lot of respect for this rivalry, going back to when they were Boston State. My first years coaching I remember Boston State and that rivalry,” said O’Neill. “Boston and Salem have been known as builders in college hockey in New England and I’m really proud of that.”
“I’d never beaten Salem in three or four years in my tenure,” said UMass Boston coach Peter Belisle. “It felt pretty good to get them once. There’s a lot of respect there for the program, and they always was a tough team.”
It was a simple game yesterday, with the frigid conditions making for tough ice and difficult passes. The hockey was a chip-and-chase style that showcased the forecheck rather than the speed and cross-ice passing that you might see on a normal surface. That was perfectly OK — it made for an entertaining game that had plenty of shots on goal (69 in all) and was a one-goal contest just about all the way.
Around New England and the North Shore, Salem State has always been a highly regarded program. Playing on a big-time surface at Fenway will only serve to raise their profile, and it was an unforgettable experience for this year’s Vikes.
“I grew up five minutes from here,” said Chris Mastropietro, a standout at Revere High who has three goals in two games for Salem this year. “I think people seeing us play here and really battle here will attract a lot of people. It was the chance of a lifetime.”
Matt Williams is the assistant sports editor at The Salem News. You can contact him at 978-338-2669, MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.