NCAA Tournament | East Regional a boon for Bridgeport

The Yale men’s hockey players are not the only ones gearing up for this weekend. The city of Bridgeport, Conn., will be upping its game as well.

Connecticut’s largest city will be absorbing thousands of visitors today and Saturday for the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey East Regional Tournament. With discounted hotels, restaurant specials and family activities, city officials said they hope to shine light on Bridgeport and encourage fans to return, even when it is not hockey season.

Melania Falcón, communications and events manager for the Bridgeport Chamber of Commerce, said the city is expecting between 3,000 and 5,000 visitors for the tournament. While she said she anticipates the influx to bring in extra money to the city, she added that the exposure is especially beneficial for Bridgeport in encouraging hockey fans to visit again.

“We want people to come to Bridgeport and have a good time,” Falcón said, “and then take their good experience home with them.”

With a population of 140,000, Bridgeport remains one of the most distressed cities in Connecticut, with one in five residents under the poverty line and the state’s second highest rate of violent crime in 2006.

But Elaine Ficarra, the spokeswoman for Mayor Bill Finch, said the mayor’s office and other entities have worked to ensure that the city’s appearance is up to par as hockey fans arrive this weekend. The city has been preparing for the tournament since 2005, she said.

Since Yale’s 3,486-seat Ingalls Rink is not suitable for a tournament, Yale partnered with Fairfield University, which does not have an ice hockey team, to host the tournament at Bridgeport’s Arena at Harbor Yard, which seats 8,500.

Ficarra said the tournament will give the city a boost, highlighting Bridgeport’s options for downtown dining. Many restaurants are staying open later this weekend, or offering special discounts or pre-fixe menus. Four restaurants have been designated by the Chamber of Commerce as hosts for the teams and their fans: Roberto’s, Ralph ‘n’ Rich’s, Joseph’s State Street Bistro and Joseph’s Steakhouse will welcome Michigan, Yale, Vermont and the Air Force, respectively.

Roberto Mirafiore, owner of Roberto’s, said he will put some Michigan paraphernalia on display this weekend — “to make them feel comfortable,” he said — but that he will still show some Yale pride, too.

“This morning I got out my Bulldog scarf and blanket,” he said.

Mirafiore added that he will be offering some specials on pizza and lunch menus. He said he expects a big turnout this weekend.

Other events include the Fairfield County Sports Commission’s fourth Park City Sports Fest on Saturday from 1 to 6 p.m., which will offer games and other activities to visitors. This year’s event, which has an ice hockey theme, includes autograph signings, demonstrations at a small hockey rink and a performance by the self-described “hockey rock” band The Zambonis. Open practices for all four teams were also held Thursday.

The tournament could also provide some exposure to the city of New Haven, said Ginny Kozlowski, president of the Greater New Haven Convention & Visitors Bureau. She added that the Elm City, like Bridgeport, will also be welcoming hockey fans in hopes that they will return after the season is over. Hotels have been stocked with visitor guides and maps so hockey fans can “make a weekend out of it,” she said.

“They can get back [from the Friday’s and Saturday’s games] by nine,” Kozlowski said. “That’s early enough for dinner.”

Ficarra said Bridgeport was excited about the tournament, especially since there is a strong youth ice hockey contingent in the city: “There’s a lot of buzz,” she said.

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