Standing tall at the athletic entrance to campus since 1977, the Alfond Arena has greeted incoming students and shivering opponents for over 30 years. Its iconic look is symbolic with the University of Maine.
After over three decades of being the mecca for the Black Bears, the Alfond is getting a much-needed, $3.5 million facelift.
Technically, the Alfond Arena Renovation Project has already started, and if you have a keen eye for detail, you may have noticed new white paint on the north and south end ceilings, or extended railings for the arena’s balcony — but those are just the tip of the iceberg.
The AARP is a multi-faceted renovation project, which UMaine men’s hockey head coach Tim Whitehead believes will produce a better environment for the fans and a better opportunity for the Black Bears to compete, all while incorporating environmentally and economically friendly additions.
“We’ve always felt the Alfond is our little Fenway Park,” Whitehead said. “It’s something we cherish and we want to keep. Having said that, like Fenway Park, we need to maintain it and enhance it each year.
“The purpose of the renovation is to give us a better opportunity to compete on the national level,” he said. “One look at this year’s Frozen Four teams will give you an idea of how important your facilities are in recruiting. [The University of] Minnesota-Duluth went through four losing seasons, and when they announced their new arena, their recruiting classes and on-ice results skyrocketed, and they’ve had three winning seasons since its inception.”
On the competitive side of things, Whitehead spoke of issues with the rink floor that has suffered 34 harsh New England winters.
“We still have the original rink floor from 1977,” he said. “To give you an analogy, a road in Maine during the winter gets frost heaves. The floor in our rink has some frost heaves in it and means we need to make the ice thicker to even the floor, slowing down the puck. We play a speed game, and that’s not to our benefit.”
One of the primary construction projects over the summer will be the installation of a new rink floor, along with a new chilling system below the ice and a new ice-making procedure — switching from ammonia to the more eco-friendly glycol.
“With help from [former Gov.] John Baldacci, we secured a $300,000 grant from Efficiency Maine — we’re renovating in an environmentally friendly way,” Whitehead said. “It will save energy costs and we’re going with a glycol system instead of ammonia, and it’s much more environmentally friendly.”
As for improvements to benefit attendees, the entire lower-bowl seating will be replaced, with the bleachers in the middle turned into seats and the benches at the end of the rink be replaced. In addition, there will be a new sound system, new flooring, improved air quality and updated fire alarm systems installed.
“Until now, the way we’ve heated and cooled the building involved opening doors,” Whitehead said. “We’re installing a new heating, ventilating and air conditioning system.
“It’s going to be better for the fans,” he added. “It will be a more comfortable environment with the air quality, and we’re installing new lower-bowl seating. We’re adding seat backs to the middle rows that are currently benches and new benches at the ends of the ice. There will be new boards and glass, new sound system and some new flooring on the concourse level. In following years we’ll be renovating the restrooms and the front entrance.”
Those renovations in the coming years are phase two of the AARP, funded by separate fundraising.
Outlined in that project are the aforementioned restroom and front entrance renovations, along with upgrades to the ticket office and the Bear Necessities Store, and the expansion of the UMaine Hockey Hall of Fame. Phase two is expected to get underway in 2012 and be completed by 2014.
While it seems like a lot to do in a few short months, Whitehead thinks the pressure of next season will help the project be completed on time.
“Anytime you do major construction at a state university, there could be issues,” he said. “We’re on a very tight time schedule, but I kind of like the fact there’s a lot of pressure. We don’t have an alternate site to play games, so there’s a lot of urgency to complete the project by our first home game on Oct. 2. Otherwise we’ll be playing at Sawyer Arena. Inevitably there will always be snags — the timetable is our biggest enemy — but it will also be our biggest motivator.”
Even in its ancient state, the Alfond never seizes to impress those who visit. In a Feb. 11 article in The Wall Street Journal, the Alfond was named the best atmosphere in all of college hockey, saying, “Games at Maine’s Alfond Arena feel like the hockey version of Friday Night Lights. The crowd is a mix of diehard locals and feverish students.”
“You can always remember those big wins you had at the Alfond,” junior forward Brian Flynn said. “One that sticks out for me was the first game I ever played there against Northeastern [University] — you hear so much about it, then it finally becomes real. I think seven games into the season we beat Boston College, who was ranked No. 2, and I scored a big goal late.”
“I visited a few places and after I came here and saw a game [at the Alfond], I was sold,” junior forward Spencer Abbott said. “The biggest thing I think of when I think of the Alfond is the fans, and they’re not going anywhere.”
That’s one part of the Alfond that doesn’t need fixing.