March 2, 2019 - Troy, New York
College hockey is a unique sport in that schools which are often completely off the radar when it comes to athletics can excel at hockey and become known as a "hockey school". State schools like St. Cloud State and Lake Superior State, and challenging academic institutions such as RIT, and here at RPI, can become well known in the hockey world for their on-ice prowess and fan support. We have actually be intrigued by RPI since the 1980's, when a native of our hometown, John Carter, became the lesser known member of a line which saw all the players move on from RPI to the NHL. His linemates were Adam Oates and Joe Juneau. Built high on a hill about a mile east of the Hudson River Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has been producing engineering and science experts for nearly 2 centuries, and has been a mainstay in the college hockey word since before the games were played indoors. Houston Field House started its life as a Naval warehouse in Rhode Island during World war 2, and was repurposed and relocated to the school's campus in Troy, New York, and opened for hockey in 1949. The building has the look of an airplane hangar, and sits next to the school's athletic fields. A small, one story lobby sits at the entrance of the building and houses the box office and some offices. A large glass facade on the end of the arena marks the main entrance, and tan and gray block walls give the place a sturdy, yet sterile look. Weathered photo murals of RPI hockey players and faded signage featuring the school crest make the exterior look as though it is a bit lacking in upkeep, but this is one of the oldest arenas in use in college hockey. RPI hockey has been a tradition here for 70 years, and the AHL's Capital District Islanders even called Houston Field House home from 1990-1993. Although a lot of years have passed since the Engineers NCAA Championship season in 1985, and on-ice success has been limited of late, but catching an RPI hockey game is a tradition in the Capital District, and the classic confines of Houston Field House make for a iconic setting to watch hockey.
Fans entering Houston Field House on game day can secure their tickets in the lobby area where the box office is located. A seat high up on the side was $12 for this game against Dartmouth, nearly one third the price you would pay to see a Big Ten or Hockey East team play. This game was the final home game of the season and designated as senior night. Tickets are generally available on game day, aside from the annual Big Red Freakout promotion, and games against nearby rival Union. The lobby features some school signage and an old school standings board where you can see the standings for ECAC hockey. Once entering from the lobby into the arena itself you feel like you have taken a step back in time. A team merchandise shop is set up on the lower concourse, which has weathered wooden floors, and carries a wide variety of Engineers gear. Red brick hallways feature murals and photos honoring the history of the RPI hockey program. The lighting on the concourse is kept very dim, and the place looks like an older school or government building, with narrows hallways and a basic design. The seating is arranged in a u-shape and features 18 rows of seats, with the seats on the side being wooden, and the seats in the corners being plastic. The color of the seating sections alternate between red and blue, and the far end of the ice, away from the lobby, is covered by a curtain which extends from floor to ceiling. Banners hang from the metal rafters below the flat ceiling, and on the end with the curtain are retired player numbers, including the aforementioned Oates, Juneau, and Carter. The end with the lobby has an elevated section of suites rather than seats, and below that is a sort of VIP area which was set up with some catered food for the bigwigs. An older video board hangs above center ice, and the seats offer a clear view of the action. One giveaway that this is a 1940's era building is the fact that there are exposed metal roof supports in a couple spots in the corners directly in ythe middle of the grandstand. With a listed capacity of 4780 this is a mid-sized arena, but the steep, high seats make it feel rather large as the fact that there is essentially no seating on the ends make it feel a bit bigger than the capacity would indicate. When taking a closer look at the curtained-off end you can see that the floor of the arena extends well beyond the end of the ice surface, as does the seating itself, as it appears to be at least 75 feet from the end of the ice to the end wall of the arena on that end of the building. A concourse aisle runs in front of the grandstand to access your section and this aisle is actually at the level of the top of the boards, giving the ice surface a feeling of being sunken into the floor a bit. Houston Field House has a colorful and classic look, and is and older arena that has had some upgrades over the years (suites, video board, etc), but ones that were done without altering the charm and character of the building. The place has an old time feel and harkens back to when hockey was a much simpler game.
The game day atmosphere at Houston Field House for a RPI Engineers game, like many places in college hockey, is driven by the school's pep band. For this game it appeared that the students may have still been on break, as only a small amount of students were on hand, but the band was active in playing timely songs and organizing chants. RPI seems to draw a nice mix of fans from the community and those with direct ties to the school. The old school setting of the arena makes watching a game here enjoyable, and as play is going on the lights in the grandstand area are dimmed, which creates almost a spotlight effect on the ice surface. The arena has a few quirks and aspects that are always fun to see, and the team benches are on opposite sides of the ice, a configuration we like. There are quite a few events going on at intermission, including a chuck-a-puck contest and figure skating, and there was a contest where there was a booth with dollar bills blowing around in a wind tunnel type room that a lucky fan had 1 minute to grab as much cash as he could. There is also a unique puck mascot that skates around before the game and at intermission and also makes its way around the grandstand during the game. Despite the ancillary entertainment going on during the game it is the hockey experience itself that makes watching a game here so fun, as you can genuinely feel the tradition here, with the old fashioned wooden seats and interesting history of this repurposed military building which has now become an iconic hockey arena on the east coast. Dartmouth took a 5-1 win, although the game was close enough to see RPI pull the goalie and Dartmouth score an empty netter. Watching a game at Houston Field House is an enjoyable experience, and one that when you tell your friends where you went the will likely reply that they have heard of that place and "it is a hockey school, right?" Hopefully Houston Field House can remain as the home of the Engineers for the future, as despite its somewhat tired and weathered look it has a character that truly feels like home of the Engineers.