Kevin Sneddon donned sunglasses for yesterday’s practice, just as any Red Sox infielder would.
“I looked like the Terminator,’’ Vermont’s hockey coach concluded.
H.T. Lenz had rubbed on eye black to cut down the glare from the ice. “This is a first for me,’’ the Catamounts forward declared.
So was skating inside a lyric little bandbox with a big green wall as backdrop and dressing in the clubhouse.
“I got Big Papi’s stall - I’m pretty jacked up about that,’’ said Maine captain and Salem native Will O’Neill, as he and his teammates prepared for today’s Hockey East doubleheader among the league’s four state schools as part of the continuing Frozen Fenway festivities.
Vermont (4-14-1, 1-10-1) will take on the University of Massachusetts (6-8-5, 2-6-4) at 4 p.m. with New Hampshire (6-10-2, 4-7-1) and Maine (9-7-2, 6-6-1) following at 7:30, and league commissioner Joe Bertagna hoping that the predicted spring-like weather cools off before the action heats up.
Not that the participants were complaining about conditions more suited for Opening Day. None of them had played hockey in a ballpark before and probably never will again.
“It’s like being a little kid - it’s exciting,’’ said UNH coach Dick Umile, who grew up in Melrose. “Everyone knows about Fenway Park, whether they’re from Boston or British Columbia.’’
Since the 2010 showdown between archrivals Boston College and Boston University sold out quickly, the league figured that a reprise featuring its border rivals also would prove a hot ticket. It has, with a sold-out crowd of more than 38,000 expected and another hefty house anticipated for next Saturday’s duel between BC and Northeastern.
“The ballpark is obviously the star,’’ said Bertagna. “Fenway is a huge part of the draw.’’
The once-in-a-lifetime chance was enough to convince both Maine and UMass to give up precious home dates.
“I’m fine with this,’’ said Minuteman coach Don Cahoon, whose varsity is 5-0-3 at Mullins Center but 1-8-2 away from it. “Every time there’s a big event in Boston, the UMass people come out in droves. We’ll feel like we’re at home.’’
Maine, which is sitting in fifth place in the standings, is playing well enough that the venue doesn’t matter, especially against blood rival UNH.
“We could drop the puck at 6 a.m. in an MDC rink and I think it would still be very intense,’’ mused coach Tim Whitehead, whose Black Bears are 6-1-1 since dropping four straight in November, including a 3-2 loss at Durham. But everyone else is hoping that a fresh-air outing will revive seasons that so far have been disappointing.
Vermont, which played in the Frozen Four three years ago, has won one game since Thanksgiving weekend and is at the bottom of the 10-team standings. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity to get on track and climb up the standings,’’ said Sneddon, whose injury-depleted squad was beaten, 3-1, at Maine on Wednesday.
New Hampshire, which hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament in more than a decade, has dropped four straight and six of seven and is sitting in eighth place. And ninth-place UMass, which is coming off a 4-4 draw at Providence on Thursday, hasn’t won a conference game since Nov. 12.
There’s plenty of time left for upward movement in a league in which only 6 points separate first place from sixth, which is why all concerned want to make sure that today’s setting doesn’t distract them from why they’re here.
“It’s still a hockey game,’’ said Cahoon, whose squad lost, 2-1, at Vermont on Nov. 22. “And that’s not going to change.’’
When Mother Nature is the rink manager, though, the sun and the wind and the thermometer make for a decidedly more primal experience. Almost all of the coaches and players grew up playing in backyard rinks or local ponds. Cahoon remembers skating at Black Joe’s in Marblehead, where there was a view of the lighthouse.
“The best moments of my life,’’ he declared. “The best fun I ever had was on a pond.’’
Though the Fenway ice is artificial, the outdoor sounds and sensations don’t change. Here, they come with urban enhancements.
“I thought the helicopter was pretty good,’’ Whitehead said after one came whirling overhead during Maine’s practice. “I think Dick Umile ordered that one.’’
Even though the Black Bears would rather get UNH inside their Orono den, Whitehead said it was a “slam-dunk’’ decision to play on Yawkey Way. Win or lose, this will be a Saturday to savor.
“It was a special moment,’’ Sneddon said after his Catamounts came off the ice with rosy cheeks. “I was hoping the clock would stop at some point so it wouldn’t stop.’’