BRUNSWICK — It’s very possible that when longtime Bowdoin College hockey fans file into the new $20 million Watson Arena for the first time on Jan. 18, they’ll miss a few things about Dayton Arena, the 52-year-old barn the new building replaces.
Perhaps it’ll be Dayton’s wooden trusses, which in the summer heat, sweat brown sap that stains the floor beneath the ice.
Or maybe it’ll be the old-fashioned benches, which often double as salt- and sand-stained stairs.
There will undoubtedly be people who will wax nostalgic about such imperfections.
Jim Caton won’t be among them.
Caton is Bowdoin’s sports information director. To Caton, who recently moved into a new office overlooking the Watson Arena, Dayton is no longer the place it once was.
“I think there will be a certain generation who will be nostalgic about Dayton,” Caton said, adding that such fans have probably been following Bowdoin men’s hockey since the college was a member of the Eastern College Athletic Conference and can remember nights where Dayton was the place to be on a Friday night.
Back then Bowdoin men’s coach Sid Watson, for whom the new arena is named, was building a national powerhouse, winning four ECAC championships over 24 seasons. His successor, Terry Meagher, Bowdoin’s current coach, took over in 1983 and continued the tradition, winning Bowdoin’s fifth title in 1986.
Meagher has kept Bowdoin at or near the top of the New England Small College Athletic Conference, which formed in 1999.
Since then Meagher’s program, like Dayton, continued to succeed despite its obvious disadvantages. Meagher found himself competing against colleges with upgraded facilities, and therefore, enhanced recruiting power.
For that reason, Meagher, who could not be reached for this story, has taken a personal interest in the construction of Watson Arena, a sparkling facility with bigger locker rooms, 360-degree seating and wide concourses.
“It’s absolutely true that the new building is Meagher’s third child,” Bowdoin Athletic Director Jeff Ward said.
Ward said Meagher is careful to honor Dayton’s historic past. However, the 24-year coach has a difficult time hiding his enthusiasm for the new arena.
“Any time anyone asks (Meagher) if the new arena will help recruiting he says the same thing,” Ward said. “He says, ‘It can’t hurt’… I think we may have gotten to a point that really great hockey players were coming to Bowdoin in spite of (Dayton).”
But for all of Watson’s modernism, environmentally conscientious construction and energy efficiency standards, Ward believes the new building still honors Dayton, a rink noted for its intimacy.
Watson will seat 1,900 fans, roughly the same capacity as Dayton. However, Caton said, Watson can hold up to 2,200 fans because of more standing room, a limit Dayton couldn’t reach without violating fire codes.
“We’re all really excited,” Caton said. “Everybody really feels like it’s been done right.”
“There is a certain feel to Dayton that’s just wonderful,” Ward said. “I think the reason why we’re so excited is that I think we’ve been able to recreate that feel in a modern building.”
In addition to paying homage to Dayton, it appears Bowdoin nailed the timing
– and in more ways than one.
Watson’s construction began in September 2007, more than a year before
the college’s suspension of capital projects due to the economic downturn.
The final men’s game at Dayton will take place Jan. 16 against arch-rival Middlebury College. Middlebury and Bowdoin played the first game at Dayton on Dec. 1, 1956 (Middlebury won, 9-0).
The women’s hockey team will play its final game at Dayton on Jan. 17 against Wesleyan. Gate proceeds will be given to the Brunswick High School girls’ hockey team.
Both Bowdoin men’s and women’s teams will open Watson Arena on Jan. 18; the women will play Hamilton College at 2 p.m. and the men will play Williams College at 5 p.m. A dedication ceremony will be held between the two games.
While Caton and Ward are confident Bowdoin students will embrace the new arena, they’re not taking any chances: Games at Watson will be free to students.
Despite Dayton’s summer 2009 date with the wrecking ball – to make way for a parking lot – college officials hope pieces of the old arena will be appealing keepsakes for nostalgic fans.
“We’ve actually had lots of interest in the wooden trusses,” Ward said.
Bowdoin College will open Watson Arena on Jan. 18.