By John Toole
---- — The University of New Hampshire hockey team is aiming for the Frozen Four again this season, but it’s already one of “603 Reasons” people say the state is special.
The Wildcats are, year in and year out, among the elite of college hockey.
Coach Dick Umile said it’s great people regard UNH hockey as one of the “603 Reasons” that New Hampshire is special and it doesn’t surprise him.
“I think it’s because of the university in general, its location, the community and the support hockey gets,” Umile said.
“It represents the state of New Hampshire on a national level,” he said.
Tickets regularly sell out the Whittemore Center on the Durham campus, but fans will travel to games in Manchester at the Verizon Wireless Arena and throughout the country.
“We get a great following. Our fan base travels where our team goes,” Umile said.
Derry native Paul Thompson was a Hobey Baker finalist while at UNH. He plays in the American Hockey League now for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, a minor league affiliate of the Pittsbugh Penguins.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Thompson said.
“I think the community has always had a lot of support for UNH hockey. UNH is the state school and hockey is the biggest sport there,” he said.
“The fans have been great supporting the program year after year,” Thompson said.
Laura Scott, UNH Class of ‘96 and Windham’s community development director, recalls her undergraduate days and how it didn’t matter where the ‘Cats were playing.
“You just went. It was never an option,” Scott said.
Fans like Scott will tell you about those UNH traditions, like tossing the fish on the ice after the first goal or the sieve chant when the opposing goalie lets one into the net.
Come to The Whit on a Friday or Saturday night, or follow the ‘Cats on the road, and you will see for yourself why UNH hockey is special.
“It’s exciting. It’s fun,” Umile said.
Rick Nelson, who has coached in the Salem Saints youth hockey program, describes the passionate atmosphere inside The Whit as “just crazy.”
But as rowdy as the arena sounds when the fans are into the game, Umile said it’s always a family atmosphere.
There is a rich history of success and athletic accomplishment for the UNH hockey program.
Thompson is one of many in a long line of great UNH players to make it to the top of the professional ranks.
Umile said four former players are in the National Hockey League today.
James van Riemsdyk is a standout with the Toronto Maple Leafs who will represent the U.S. in the upcoming Olympics in Socchi.
His brother, Trevor, has played at UNH this season, but recently was injured.
Pinkerton Academy hockey coach Joey Lee said the UNH program is to New Hampshire what Auburn or Georgia football are to their states.
“UNH hockey gives New Hampshire youth hockey players something to dream of, strive for,” Lee said.
“Even as a Plymouth State alum and former hockey player, I remember watching and supporting UNH each season having no connection to the team other than New Hampshire,” he said.
Lee’s father would take him as a kid to the old “lively Snively” arena.
“As we had no pro team at the time, UNH was our identity in the hockey world,” Lee said.
“Their success meant our success,” he said.
Nelson said the UNH program means a lot to the youth skaters who want to emulate their college heroes.
That’s something the university and the hockey program try to encourage.
Umile said his team was hosting a youth team yesterday and that the university opens the rink for community skating.
What Umile said he hopes people come to know about UNH hockey is just how talented the student athletes are, not just on the ice but also in the campus community.
For Nelson, it’s New Hampshire’s small corner of the universe that makes UNH hockey such a big deal.
“New Hampshire is a small state and doesn’t have a lot of notoriety in the hockey world,” Nelson said.
“But UNH is right up there in the rankings,” he said. “They are such a big team.”