HOCKEY-SPECIFIC STADIA ALL THE RAGE

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

Sports architecture dictated many years ago that a single large multipurpose stadium could host events as diverse as rock concerts, baseball, soccer, and football games, and even a tractor pull or two.

But ever since Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992 as a quirky baseball-only park, large multipurpose structures -- sometimes called "cookie cutter" stadiums -- have yielded to facilities custom-built for the needs of the pro franchise or university team.

Today's newest football stadiums are narrow and replete with luxury boxes. The so-called "retro" baseball parks are purposely made to be cozy, and sightlines made unsuitable for a sport with a rectangular playing surface. Recording acts rarely use a multipurpose stadium for live shows, instead choosing to use amphitheaters with much smaller seating capacities.

Many sports fans see the construction of event-specific facilities as a referendum on how their particular sport is viewed by investors and sponsors. The quest to build the perfect soccer-specific stadium (SSS) is seen as a necessity to make professional soccer grow in the United States. Facilities like Columbus Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio; SAS Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.; Blackbaud Stadium in Charleston, S.C.; and the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. are purpose-built for soccer players and fans, and are hailed as a sign that soccer is no longer a 1970s-era novelty.

But there is a new single-purpose sports facility that is being added to the athletic lexicon: the hockey-specific stadium (HSS), defined as a structure expressly built for field hockey, conforming to the necessary international standard.

One of the most ambitious HSS opened on the University of Maryland campus in 2003. The as-yet-unendowed Field Hockey & Lacrosse Complex replaces an older heavily crowned field wedged next to a practice football field and a parking garage over the right-field wall of the campus baseball venue.

The new park opened to universal acclaim from players, coaches, and umpires alike. Unlike many hockey fields on which Division I teams play in the United States, the Field Hockey & Lacrosse Complex has many nuances that define its purpose as an HSS. The floor of the field is crowned at one degree from the center of the pitch, but the 16-yard scoring circle is perfectly flat.

The artificial turf used at Maryland is AstroTurf 12, laid on a three-eighths inch pad over the kind of fast-draining asphalt used for airport runways. Six water jets -- four at the corners, two at midfield -- can water the field in roughly eight minutes.

While the stands erected for the first season were temporary, they offer a glimpse into the seating which will be up when the field is fully operational, which is expected to be in the summer of 2005. The seats are elevated, and two fences mitigate the possibility of a tipped midfield ball leaving the playing area and hitting a spectator.

More seating is expected at the west end of the field when a multi-story entrance is completed. The structure will have four locker rooms, an officials room, an outdoor veranda, and media facilities.

"We were given a clean sheet of paper to design this field," says Maryland head coach Missy Meharg. "We did our homework."

The new facility and others like it is represent a departure from the days when field hockey teams would have to find a 100-by-60-yard patch of grass on campus and be happy with it. But it's also not so far removed from the days when hockey players would have to share artificial turf facilities with a number of other campus sports teams.

The Field Hockey & Lacrosse Complex is by no means the first of its kind in the United States. A number of turf fields used for field hockey have elevated stands and press boxes plus drainage. A small number, notably Rullo Stadium at the University of Delaware and the Olympic Training Center at Virginia Beach, have automated watering facilities.

A few campuses dedicate artificial surfaces to field hockey, but these pitches lack automatic watering cannons or are severely crowned for drainage.

But Maryland is the latest to have all of the new bells and whistles, including an animated scoreboard.

The site attracted enough attention that the United States Field Hockey Association designated the Field Hockey & Lacrosse Complex as the first regional training site in its regionalization program for high-performance player development.

In addition, the site held five neutral-site field hockey matches in 2003, as well as a National Field Hockey League tournament for non-varsity club teams, and -- a most signifcant achievement -- the state public-school finals. After 23 years of play near Baltimore, the finals were, for the first time, a quadrupleheader.

"It's been a decision that has been in the works for a long time," said state field hockey sectional chair Tammy Mundie, who also is the head coach at Hereford (Md.). "The fields at Goucher had been taking a beating the past few years, and the conditions have been getting worse and worse. It turned out this season that we had a chance to move it, and we did."

The tournament championships were held with a minimum of fuss, as there was no Maryland home football game that weekend and the schedule of games took into account the special nature of the facility. There was an extra half-hour break in the middle of the quadrupleheader to allow the sprinkler jets to water down the pitch for the final two matches.

Looks like the Maryland finals have found a great home.

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