FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

After 15 years playing and coaching in the University of Connecticut’s antiquated rink covered by an open dome, Bruce Marshall thought he was finished with outdoor hockey.

“Coaching outdoors wasn’t high on my list to do,” Marshall, a 1985 UConn graduate in his 23rd season as head coach, said with a chuckle. “I’d already checked that off by bucket list. But I’m use to at least a roof (over a rink), so we’ll see what it’s like without a roof.”

Marshall was instrumental in helping the hockey Huskies open a new indoor rink for the 1998-99 season and replace a rundown former UConn faculty dining hall that served as a Quonset warming hut.

“The shutters on the dining hall had SAC on it for Storrs Agricultural College,” Marshall said, chuckling again. “So we’ve made great strides.”

Now the Huskies will take another giant step forward on Feb. 13 when they host Atlantic Hockey Association foe Sacred Heart University of Fairfield as part of “UConn Day” in the “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest” at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

The UConn football team plays at Rentschler Field in the fall, but the field has been transformed into a man-made regulation-size rink to be used for more than 30 youth, high school, prep school and pro games, plus a free public skate, from Feb. 11-23.

“We’re excited to be playing outdoors,” said Marshall, only the school’s third coach who earned his 300th career win in the 2009-10 regular-season finale, a 3-2 overtime victory over Mercyhurst. “The kids think it’s great, and it’s a great opportunity for us to play in front of more people than we normally have, at least in our state. So it’s all a good thing, and we’re appreciative of the Whalers group to want to include us in this event.”

In May, Whalers Sports and Entertainment, which is overseeing the event, approached Marshall about playing in the first outdoor tournament in the state. The Huskies beat Sacred Heart 9-3 in their first meeting Dec. 10, and this is UConn’s home game.

“Home games are precious, so I was kind of wondering if I should give it up,” Marshall said with a sigh. “I called C.J. (Marottolo, Sacred Heart coach) and said, ‘Why don’t we keep our home game and make this your home game outdoors?’ I couldn’t pull that one off, so we decided we wanted it for our event.

“It’s great for recruiting reasons, and the parents and kids in the program are excited and the alumni are excited and we’re going to have buses available to get the students there from Storrs. The students have been great about going out to the football games and enjoying themselves, so we’re hoping this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for them to do that they’ll jump on as well.”

“UConn Day” will start with an alumni game at 9-10:15 a.m., followed by a family skating session from 10:15-11 and then lunch in the club room in the stadium suites.

“All the guys who played in the outdoor rink with me and that I coached are going to be able to tell their kids, ‘Yes, I used to play outdoors all the time,’ ” Marshall said.

UConn plays Sacred Heart at 1 p.m., and the UConn women meet Providence in a Hockey East game at 4 p.m. Last season, Sacred Heart advanced to the league championship game, losing to Rochester Institute of Technology to finish at 21-13-4 in Marottolo’s first season. But both UConn and Sacred Heart have struggled this season, especially lately.

A 0-7-1 slide has dropped the Huskies to 7-15-4 overall and 7-10-2 in the AHA. The team has six freshmen and four sophomores, including No. 1 goalie Garrett Bartus, among the 21 regulars who play every game. Forwards Cole Schneider (seven goals, 15 assists) and Billy Latta (7, 12) are No. 1 and 3 in the league in scoring among freshmen and a major reason the Huskies have improved from last in the nation in scoring last season (1.59 goals per game) to 29th this season (2.88). Other leading scorers are sophomore forward Sean Ambrose (9, 9), senior forward Andrew Olson (11, 6) and freshman forward Jordan Sims (8, 8), the son of former Hartford Whalers defenseman Al Sims, who is now the coach of Fort Wayne in the East Coast Hockey League.

“Jordan is not a defenseman like his dad, but he doesn’t like to get scored on, which is nice,” Marshall said. “He’s a good two-way forward.”

The top players for Sacred Heart (3-18-5, 3-11-5), which has lost five in a row and is 1-8-1 in its last 10 games, are senior forward Patrick Knowlton (5, 12), sophomore forward Eric Delong (5, 11), junior forward Matt Gingera (9, 6), senior forward David Berube (6, 8) and sophomore goalie Steven Legatto (3-14-4, 5.09, .879). Sophomore forward Kyle Verbeek (3, 4) is the son of former Hartford Whalers wing and captain Pat Verbeek, who is now a scout with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Kyle wears his dad’s No. 16.

“We’ve been trying to put the pieces together,” Marshall said. “We still want to climb a little higher, but our younger classes are doing a good job, and our seniors are playing with that passion that you need seniors to play with.”

Schneider and Latta agree with their coach that seniors such as Olson, a captain, and Marcello Ranallo have been a stabilizing influence with half the team being freshmen and sophomores.

“The older guys have helped us get going and showed us the ropes, so we just do what we can help them out as well,” Schneider said.

Schneider, who was born in Williamsville, N.Y., played for the hometown Regals and then committed to UConn at Christmas, 2008 before playing two junior seasons with the Tier I Youngstown (Ohio) Phantoms of United States Hockey League, though he missed half of last season with a wrist injury. This season, he was named AHA Player and Rookie of the Week after getting three goals and an assist in an 8-5 victory at Niagara on Dec. 4. It was only the fifth time a UConn player recorded a hat trick since the Huskies went Division I.

Latta grew up in West Chester, Pa., played for the Junior Flyers out of Philadelphia, committed to UConn his senior year of high school and then played last season in the USHL for the team in Sioux City, Iowa, before being traded midway through the season to the Chicago Steele, where he skated once outdoors while hampered by three minor knee surgeries but played in 40 games.

This season, Latta was named AHA Rookie of the Month for December, has figured in the scoring in 10 of the last 13 games with six goals and nine assists and had a five-game scoring streak snapped in a 4-0 loss to Holy Cross on Saturday.

“You never know if you’re going to get up that high in scoring, but knowing the guys that you’re going to play with, you hope they can help you out, and you can help them out as well,” Latta said. “You have to give a lot of credit to the older guys on the team. They made the adaptation for the underclassmen pretty easy, kind of showed us how to take it day-by-day, how to manage your game, how to compete in practice and carry it into a game. The older guys have helped for sure, but it’s nice a young class that’s starting to produce and help the team.”

The underclassmen most responsible for keeping the Huskies in most games is Bartus, a sophomore goalie from St. Charles, Ill., who arrived in Storrs last year in mid-semester when homesick freshman Jeff Larson suddenly left the team. Bartus was 11-4-0 with a 1.91 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and two shutouts in 17 games with the St. Louis Bandits of the North American Hockey League when he left for Storrs.

“He’s pretty steady and consistent in net,” Schneider said of Bartus, who left the Bandits for a chance to play for a Division I school even if it was non-scholarship.

Bartus was 5-14-1 with a 3.26 GAA and .900 save percentage in 20 games with the Huskies last season, when he set an UConn record for saves in a Division I game with 57 in a 2-2 tie at Air Force on Jan. 9, 2010, just his third game with the Huskies. This season, Bartus is 7-12-4 with a 3.66 GAA and .902 save percentage, with at least 30 saves in 17 of 24 games. He leads the nation with 786 saves, including 50 in an 8-5 victory at Niagara on Dec. 4 and 40 in a 3-3 tie at No. 7 Maine in the season opener.

“He has played really well and solidified that position for us very well over the last year,” Marshall said.

If time away from classes permit, Bartus and the rest of the Huskies will try to get acclimated to the outdoor rink at a practice at Rentschler Field on Feb. 11, with the women’s team to follow.

Latta said he didn’t play outdoors as a kid except for “pond hockey.”

“I’m really excited because I’ve never competed at this level outdoors. Everything has been recreational,” Latta said. “I’ve played in front of big crowds (9,500 for a USHL game at Green Bay, Wis.) but never outdoors or in front of a school crowd. The University of Connecticut is known for their athletics, so hopefully people recognize the name and program and start coming to our games, too.”

Schneider got exposed to outdoor hockey when he was on the 18-and-under midget hockey Buffalo Regals, a travel team that played five times at the rink at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.

“That was fun, but nothing like on a stage like this (Rentschler Field),” Schneider said. “The atmosphere will be at a higher level, and playing in the football field will be a little bigger than just a regular rink.”

And his scouting report for his teammates?

“It’s going to be cold,” Schneider said with a chuckle.

Smart fella, that Cole.

The Huskies also hope some of the enthusiasm from the football team’s season will carry over to Rentschler Field late this month.

“Everyone is pretty excited about it, and hopefully we get a lot of people to come out and watch,” Schneider said. “Marketing is doing a good job of promoting it. There are flyers around the school, and I heard there’s a couple of billboards up in Hartford, so hopefully that helps to get people to come.”

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