As the game clock above the Whittemore Center’s ice surface approaches 60 minutes prior to the start of a game, several players gather by the rink entrances of New Hampshire’s 15-year-old building.

The echoes of kettledrums joined by woodwinds and brass horns pulse through the building’s public address system. The sounds of “The Sabre Dance,” written by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian, filters through the arena as the doors open and groups of white-clad students race down the sloping aisles of the arena’s student section.

They clamor for seats to watch Maine-New Hampshire hockey, a coveted ticket among college students in Durham, N.H.

“By the time I start to head down to the locker room is right when they let the students in,” said Mike Sislo, a senior forward for New Hampshire. “And I watch. And I see it every game. It’s a unique thing.”

Watching the pregame hoopla, Brian Flynn said, helps set the tone for another rivalry game at the Whittemore Center.

“Guys are getting ready for the game, trying to stay loose,” said Flynn, a junior left wing for the Black Bears. “But you see it happen and you realize how important this game is, and it might give you some extra motivation seeing what people will do to watch you play.”

Maine and New Hampshire continue one of college hockey’s most notable rivalries tonight at the Whittemore Center. Since 1979, the Hockey East rivals have met 107 times in venues across the country, including the 1999 national championship game at Anaheim, Calif. But like a Maine-UNH game at Alfond Arena in Orono, there’s a certain sensation that comes with playing at the Whittemore Center, one of Hockey East’s more animated facilities.

“I love playing at home, every game,” Sislo said. “But this is a game I always look forward to. It’s always packed. It’s always fun. And it always seems like a playoff game.”

Affectionately called The Whitt, the arena doesn’t have the history or barn-like feel of Alfond Arena or Vermont’s Gutterson Fieldhouse. It doesn’t have the hostility of the Mullins Center at the University of Massachusetts.

It doesn’t have the glitz of one of Hockey East’s newer facilities, yet it doesn’t have the sterility of the average hockey rink. But Towse Rink at the Whittemore Center — its official name — has character. It has energy. It has a passionate fan base that fills the building.

It also has musical staples, from “The Sabre Dance” to Dave Matthews Band’s “Two Step” and “O Fortuna,” the opening and closing numbers from the opera “Carmina Burana.”

And the Whittemore Center wouldn’t be complete without a vocal student section, armed with an erasable white board. The better to scrawl messages on, a method of taunting opponents that’s arguably indigenous to UNH.

“I think the best one I read was ‘Hurry, Mrs. Kariya, it’s time to have another son,’” Maine defenseman Jeff Dimmen said.

And yes, the Whittemore Center is loud. Decibel-soaring, glass-shattering, invest-in-a-good-set-of-earplugs loud.

“I don’t think there’s another building like it,” Dimmen said. “I think the Alfond and the Whitt have two of the most unique and loudest and most rambunctious crowds.”

In 1995 the Wildcats relocated from Snively Arena, their home for 30 years, to a state-of-the-art, multipurpose facility with a low-slung ceiling, exposed white rafters and concrete walls.

The surroundings changed but the traditions continued, including throwing out the fish.

The fish typically lands on the ice near the opposing goalie after the Wildcats score their first goal, a none-too-subtle way to urge the goalie to fish the puck out of the net.

“I don’t know when and where the fish started,” Sislo said. “But it’s something that gets the fans going and gets us excited.”

Since Maine and New Hampshire first met at the Whittemore Center on Feb. 11, 1996, the Wildcats enjoy a 15-6-1 edge there. A Maine-UNH game at the Whitt, players believe, has a heightened element to it.

“As a player, when you come to Maine, the older guys and the coaching staff tell you, ‘this is our rival,’” Flynn said. “This is the kind of game you get up for, no matter if you’re in last place and they’re in first place or vice versa.

“It’s hostile. And that’s what makes it fun.”

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be reached at 791-6415 or at:

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