In August, when the first shovel turns over during a ceremonial groundbreaking at Bentley University, Bob DeFelice — not customarily a sentimental guy — will probably get a little misty-eyed.
A state-of-the-art arena that DeFelice has imagined for longer than he cares to recall will soon breathe new life into the Waltham campus. The 75,000-square-foot building will provide a home rink for Bentley's men's hockey team, and host other large-scale events.
"We had plans 11 years ago when we went to Division 1," said DeFelice, the Falcons' athletic director for a quarter of a century and baseball coach for almost half a century (48 years).
The complex was finally approved in May. It's scheduled to open in early 2018 on Bentley's South Campus, where there are now tennis courts.
"There's an excitement on the campus about this," said DeFelice. "Everyone involved in this project is ecstatic."
None more so than Ryan Soderquist, who graduated from Bentley in 2000 as the Falcons all-time leading scorer in hockey. Next season will be his 15th as head coach. It wasn't a seamless road to get to this point, but "I always felt the people behind the project always wanted it done. We never gave up hope. All our players are extremely excited."
Hockey started at Bentley as a club sport in the early '70s. It took a brave leap 18 years ago from Division 3 to Division 1. "We're one of the last D-1 programs to get a rink on campus," said Soderquist. "It was a long time coming."
The Ryan Arena in Watertown has been home ice for the homeless Falcons. "Our relationship with the Ryan rink has been phenomenal. They've been very accommodating. But as a Division 1 school we've outgrown it," said Soderquist. "We're happy and thankful to move on."
The new building will be funded by a combination of private gifts and operating reserves. It's part of the university's 10-year capital plan to modernize and expand the campus, including renovating academic buildings and residence halls and building a health and wellness center.
Paul Markarian, a 2006 Bentley grad who played hockey at North Quincy High, can speak to the need for the arena.
The Falcons turned in a number of successful seasons under Soderquist. "But we didn't have a lot of players that wanted to go to Bentley," Markarian said, in part because of its lack of facilities."It was a stigma." The Falcons would go to visiting rinks with players' lounges and other amenities.
"We were a Division 1 team but you'd never know it," said Markarian. "We didn't have a fan base. That's why the new arena is all worth it."
"The school will be able to hold big functions in the new building," said DeFelice. "We can use it for anything." Public skating, renting ice time to local high schools and men's and women's pickup teams are all on the table.
The new arena may also set the stage for a women's hockey team. "We hope to have women's hockey," DeFelice said. "If there's interest, we'll start it."
Markarian has two daughters, 5 and 3. Both skate. He said he could envision the kids playing for Bentley down the road.
There were years of intense planning before all interested parties, pro and con, gave the project thumbs up.
DeFelice traveled to other schools to get a feel of their arenas. He went to hockey games in Boston and around New England. "I saw rinks with more seats but not that many fans," he said. "The bigger the rink, the more it looks empty."
With an intimate 2,100 seats the Falcons should sell out most games and increase the fan frenzy that will charge up the players.
The arena will be a selling point for top-flight potential recruits to consider Bentley. That would help to level the playing field for recruiting against Harvard, Boston University, Northeastern, Merrimack, and Boston College. "We should attract more players from the Boston area," said DeFelice.
Soderquist, who went to Arlington Catholic, looks forward to "showing 17-, 18-, and 19-year-old prospects the new rink and its amenities"
DeFelice couldn't be happier for Soderquist. "He's made a lot of sacrifices without a rink, scholarships and resources. Ryan is the reason we're where we are." Soderquist has twice been coach of the year in the Atlantic Hockey Conference.
Ryan McMurphy is a redshirt sophomore at Bentley. He's from Tulsa. "It's a small hockey market," he said glibly. He played junior hockey in Nebraska.
"I never heard of Bentley until they recruited me. Coach Soderquist called and I went on a recruiting trip. Boston was awesome for a college age kid," McMurphy said. "The new rink is going to be great for the program. It will be filled and increase the college hockey spirit. The coaches pushed hard for the new arena. Students signed a petition with a picture of the new arena. There was a buzz going around."
With school out, McMurphy is back in Tulsa. "I woke up one morning and had an email from Coach Soderquist. It said 'guys, I'd like to announce the new arena . . . ' That was exciting news. But I feel bad for the seniors who won't get to play in it. I'm praying it will be done on time so I can play half a season in it."
Bentley has 300 hockey alumni. Soderquist sent them all emails. "They felt a lot of pride when the news came out."
Markarian recalled the night the sound system went out at Ryan Arena. "The national Anthem was sung by the fans."
There's a lot more to sing about on the Bentley campus.