BRUNSWICK – With each shot on the Williams College net, Barry Mills’ posture stiffened. The last minutes of Sunday’s hockey game were slipping away, and Mills and many others in the big crowd inside Watson Arena prayed for the goal that would allow them to relax.
Bowdoin College was up 2-1 in the game that determined the New England Small College Athletic Conference championship and an automatic invitation to the NCAA Division III tournament that begins Wednesday.
Another opportunity, another slap at the puck, and Mills tensed again. I leaned over to ask the president of Bowdoin College a question when a warning sounded in my ear.
“I wouldn’t bother him,” said Mort Soule of Portland, wearing his 45-year-old Bowdoin letterman’s sweater. “I’d wait for a break in the action.”
This was Sunday’s hot ticket. A crowd of some 2,300 took almost every seat or stood, virtually shoulder-to-shoulder around the rink. Mills was among the standees and just another fan, although when he calls the Polar Bears his team, it rightfully could sound a little possessive.
This is small-college, small-town hockey, where the players might be a step slower and a bit less adroit with the puck on their stick, but where the passion can burn hotter. Players commit to four years of the Bowdoin experience, not the one-and-done of the best of Division I players who flee campuses to begin their pro careers.
This is hockey where admission to games is free throughout the season. “The league makes me charge for the playoffs,” said Mills, almost apologetically. No matter, the Brunswick community reached into its pockets. This is a campus with no gates or walls. Citizens feel free to walk across campus to go from neighborhoods to the edge of the business district. The boundaries between town and college are blurred.
Sunday, no one was reminded to remove their caps before the national anthem. Men and boys did anyway. It was so quiet when the acclaimed Bowdoin Meddiebempsters sang, you could hear a few hockey sticks tapping on the ice to the beat of the a cappella voices.
No advertising on the sideboards or arena walls. No giant scoreboard urging fans to cheer or to mug for cameras.
If hockey is religion, Watson Arena is a cathedral. When the announcement came that the Bowdoin women beat Middlebury 2-1 for its NESCAC championship, another big cheer went up.
Outside and hundreds of yards away from the ice, Randy Nichols knew when Colin Downey (East Sandwich, Mass.) scored Bowdoin’s first goal by the roar of the crowd. Nichols is the director of campus safety and was overseeing the parking of cars.
“I think they heard that on the other side of Brunswick,” said Nichols. He admits to feeling nostalgic for Dayton Arena, where hockey was played for decades and where fans felt like they could reach out and touch the players. Where the noise bounced around from all angles.
“A certain part of (the atmosphere) was out of our control,” said Nichols, smiling. Meaning he and his security officers were always on their toes.
Hockey has been played on this campus for over 100 years, although most date the beginning with the arrival of Sid Watson in 1959.
He gave way to Terry Meagher, the current coach, in 1983. The two men have more than 800 victories between them.
Harry Matheson (Kingston, Ont.) scored Bowdoin’s second goal, setting off a second outburst from a crowd that saved the small talk with friends until between periods. Goalie Max Fenkell (Meadowbrook, Pa.) allowed just one goal. His best defense was the offensive pressure put on his Williams counterpart.
Soon, the crowd started its countdown. Mills watched the clock.
When the last second disappeared, he and Soule yelled like students and embraced. On the ice, gloves and helmets were tossed high in the air.
In 2011, Bowdoin voluntarily vacated its only other conference hockey title over a hazing incident. It was an unprecedented action, and some thought an over-reaction.
Sunday afternoon, senior co-captain Tim McGarry acknowledged the past and anticipated his team’s immediate future. Wednesday’s first-round game with UMass-Dartmouth will be another hot ticket. “The town will support us,” said McGarry.
It always has.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: