November 4, 2017 - Princeton, New Jersey
Hobart Baker was a multi-sport athlete at Princeton and a soldier who was killed in World War 1. The mention of his name to hockey fans evokes images of the trophy which is named for him honoring the top college hockey player annually. His legacy also lives on on the historic campus of Princeton University, where Hobey Baker Memorial Rink sits as a reminder of how hockey was played in simpler times. Having opened in 1923, Baker Rink is one of the oldest ice arenas in North America, and passersby would be more likely to identify this grand stone building as a church rather than a hockey arena. Both statements would be correct, as this iconic arena is a cathedral of hockey which fans have been enjoying for nearly a century. Located on the edge of campus adjacent to a metro rail station the building is nearly devoid of signage and blends in with the nearby buildings on campus. A small box office window sits at the main entrance end of the arena, and the stone walls are sturdy and give a timeless look. The roof is a shingled one, something uncommon with hockey arenas. Large, thick, wooden doors serve as the entrances to the arena, and the doors have the look of those of a centuries-old church. The box office end has a peaked roof, whereas the other end of the building is much taller, as that is where the balcony seating is housed inside. Princeton may not be known as a hockey school, but the Tigers have had their share of players move on to the NHL, including enforcers George Parros and Kevin Westgarth, and goaltender Mike Condon. Hockey is certainly not the primary sport attracting attention in Princeton during the winters, but the Tigers have a decent following of fans who fill the small confines of Hobey Baker Memorial Rink. With Cornell in town for this Saturday evening game we ended up ordering tickets online ahead of time, at the price of $15. Early arriving fans took the opportunity to tailgate in the nearby parking lots, making for a great pregame atmosphere on this warm November evening. This arena is one of the true gems still in use in North America, and gets overlooked a bit by many hockey fans when discussing classic arenas, but with its on-campus location and ancient architecture this arena provides a unique experience for hockey fans.
After attending a Rutgers hockey game in the afternoon we arrived about a half hour before puck drop. Entry to Hobey Baker Rink on game night is through one of the large wooden doors that lead to a outer concourse that runs down each side of the building. The outer concourses have the look or something added later in the arenas life, and look much like a sun room as curved plexiglass makes up the top of the hallway. At first glance you notice how tight the confines of the arena are, as the seating bowl is very close to the ice, and comprised of 6 rows of molded orange bench seats circling the ice surface. Steel girders hold up the wooden plank ceiling, and the ceiling beams extend to the side walls to where they are in the way a bit of walking behind the seating bowl. An old 8-bulb scoreclock sits above center ice and the entire feel of the building is one that is virtually unchanged from decades ago. The end of the building opposite the box office area houses a balcony which is accessed via a steep staircase off the narrow concourse hallway. The balcony is steeply pitched, holds 9 rows of orange plastic benches, and is complete with obstructed views from the seats to the outer edges of the balcony. Make no mistake about it, Hobey Baker Rink is full of quirks and character, and is not the type of arena you often see these days. A small press box sits above the end opposite the balcony, and the small footprint of the venue is evident, as there is only a small concourse with a concession stand on one end, as virtually the entire floor space is taken up by the ice surface and seating. There is no merchandise booth or table, although there was a table giving away orange t-shirts to students in attendance for this game. There is an excellent display on one corner of the small concourse paying tribute to the arena's namesake, complete with a painting of Hobey Baker himself and a trophy case as well. The arena, despite being nearly a century old, is kept in spotless condition, and you can feel the sense of history and tradition that the stone walls contain. Various other displays are present on the end concourse area, and there are banner hanging from the high peaked ceiling honoring past Tigers teams that went on to have success. With a seating capacity of 2092 and a sellout crowd on hand the game had the feel of a playoff game, and navigating around the arena was a bit difficult with the crowd on hand. Hobey Baker Memorial Rink is the kind of place that you just want to walk around when it is quiet and no events are happening, which is what we were able to do earlier in the day. The place will activate all of your senses, and, even when empty and quiet, will exude a sense of awe and history among fans who enjoy hockey history and arena architecture.
The game day presentation at Hobey Baker Rink for a Princeton hockey game is simple and straightforward, but the venue itself exudes a great vibe and makes for an excellent atmosphere. Unlike the direction that most college hockey programs are going there is no video board to be found, and in a place as hallowed as this one that will hopefully always be the case. The PA system is crystal clear, and the Tigers do a good job trying to get the crowd involved as there was peewee hockey during intermission as well as a t-shirt toss. A cheesy tiger roar sound effect is played over the PA when Princeton scores or enters the ice to start the period. With such a small capacity the place feels electric, and this sold out crowd provided a lot of energy on their own. Opponent Cornell has the most well traveled fanbase in college hockey, so a large percentage of Big Red fans were on hand, and their cheers seemed to drown out the small amount of noise the home crowd was making. With its unique architecture and sense of history Hobey Baker Memorial Rink could be the best fan experience in college hockey. It falls short however in a couple areas, as there is little student support on hand (at least for this game). Also absent was the presence of a pep band, although the tight confines of the arena provide little space for the band to occupy without giving up ticket revenue. The sight lines are not great as even the last row is low to the ice, but that is not a negative, it is just a ancillary effect of experiencing a game in a quirky old arena such as this. The game itself was quite entertaining as Cornell took a 5-4 win, but the Tigers were in the game right until the end. With an Ivy League school such as this you feel such a tradition when attending the games, and the fans on hand are supportive, although rather quiet in their support for the home team. We had hoped for a great experience here based on the history of the arena, and the sheer simplicity and historical look of the arena did not disappoint. Although hockey will not likely become the number one draw at Princeton anytime soon, if all goes well hockey will continue for decades more in this stone hockey cathedral in honor of a great Princeton Tiger of the past and brave soldier. Hobey Baker Memorial Rink should be on the short list of arenas that every hockey fan should attend someday as it is a true throwback to a bygone era. .