It didn’t take long for the new shine and smell of Merlis Belsher to wear off.
The smell of buttery popcorn and stale beer soon overtook the new home of the hockey Huskies as the women’s team blanked the University of Alberta Pandas 1-0 in the first competitive game in the new arena on Friday.
It was the dream start and finish to the first game that ushers in a new era of university hockey in Saskatoon after the hockey programs moved away from the 88-year-old Rutherford Rink.
Leah Bohlken, a fourth-year Huskies defenceman, began Friday’s excitement by grabbing the puck at her own blueline following a turnover by the Pandas powerplay unit late in the first period.
Shorthanded, the Huskies skated down the ice with a three-on-one advantage.
“I looked over and I saw Brooklyn Haubrich, and she pulled the defenceman over and kind of gave me that lane to shoot, so I took that opportunity and it found its way in the back of the net,” Bohlken said of the first goal scored at Merlis Belsher Place.
“Then I got a bear hug.”
The hugs were put on pause for most of the night following the elating goal.
Alberta kept up a furious attack through the second period that forced Huskies goaltender and reigning Canada West player of the year, Jessica Vance, to bring her best stuff.
“It was pretty hectic there,” Vance said following a 24-save shutout. “I just tried to stay calm.”
The final few minutes saw the Pandas ring a shot off the post and miss a lying puck in the crease as three Pandas forwards crashed the net hoping to send the game to overtime.
In the end, it was Vance getting her first shutout of the season after racking up nine last season.
Huskies head coach Steve Kook proudly looked back on the night, knowing what the performance meant for the history books.
“Like I said to the girls, I said ‘It’s well deserved,'” Kook said. “I mean,they got two artifacts (goal and shutout pucks) in the trophy case up there.”
Vance summed the night up for the Huskies a little different than her coach.
“You kind of just feel like all-stars today,” she said.
New arena with the same old feel
That energy was seething from the building Friday night.
As an official crowd of 1,064 people made its way into the arena, fanfare, pregame introductions and ceremonial faceoffs not usually seen at Huskies women’s hockey games turned each player into a celebrity.
P.J. Kennedy, a Huskies hockey historian, longtime fan and author of Dogs on Ice: A History of Hockey at University of Saskatchewan, has waited through some agonizing days to see those moments.
“I’ve seen it progress from a construction site to the seats not being in, so I’ve seen it grow,” he said. “What I did observe is being in the lobby tonight as people would come, I just enjoyed watching all these people looking and thinking ‘wow, what a fabulous building we have.'”
For more than 20 years, Kennedy was seen in his usual spot at Rutherford Rink, at the far corner along the glass. The less-than-accommodating rink forced him to bring a lawn chair for that premium viewing experience most of the time.
It’s one of the many reasons that he was the lone season ticket holder at Rutherford. At the new Merlis Belsher Place, Kennedy has been joined by 999 other season ticket holders this season.
“It’s nice to have company,” he said with a smile from his new vantage point also along the corner of the ice.
“There were a group of us who used to sit behind the goal at Rutherford Rink. We were called the fathers of confederation by PA announcer Bruce Gordon,” he added. “I’m by no means the only person who was a regular there, I just happened to be the one who made sure I purchased my season ticket every year.”
Many of the things that made life tough at Rutherford Rink were its greatest charms.
Play would have to be stopped regularly for rust breaks as a puck struck one of the many rust steel girders. The rink was cold, had many blindspots and certainly did not have comfortable seats.
While no one is worried that the dogs will miss many of those things, Kennedy thinks the authentic Huskies experience has arrived at Merlis Belsher Place.
“There’s still that small town Saskatchewan feel. We haven’t lost that,” he said.
“You bet, this is a big time arena, but having said that, that personal feel is still there.”