[The Alumni Club is our weekly glimpse into the wild, wonderful world of collegiate sports.]
Let there be hockey.
I awoke Sunday morning to a rash of celebratory Facebook statuses along a common vein — overnight the NHL’s fickle bunch of owners and players had finally come to seething compromise, and whatever’s left of this seemingly ill-fated season has been salvaged. Amid months of induced hair-pulling and verbal abuse, the league’s management shelved their ineptitude and assholery just in time to timidly avoid what would have been its second locked-out season in the past decade. It’s a long road to regaining any sort of goodwill, but for whatever losses the NHL suffers, those nefarious bigwigs bank on the knowledge that people are still going to want their damn hockey.
When the NFL similarly threatened a suspended season just over a year ago, many (myself included) took solace in the prospect of focusing more attention on the college game. Which leads me to wonder, in the wake of all the hand-wringing over the problems with the professional game, why does nobody seem to care about college hockey?
First off, obviously nobody is both literally inaccurate and severe. I’ve attended a handful of college games in which the atmosphere is (despite, or perhaps because of the temperature), loud, exciting, heated, and alive. The cavalcade of recurring chants (“Sieve, sieve, sieve!”) and quasi-songs might be the closest you’ll come to experiencing a European football crowd this side of the Atlantic. But even when the season is in full swing, the average sports fan could probably watch an entire week of ESPN programming without once hearing college hockey mentioned.
Take for example: on New Year’s Day, 1998, Michigan’s football team defeated soon-to-be-historic-bust Ryan Leaf in the Rose Bowl to claim a national championship. I fondly remember that televised game, Charles Woodson and company triumphantly clenching roses in their teeth. It was only a few months later that Michigan’s hockey team would match their peers’ feat by claiming a national championship against Boston College at the Fleet Center. But I couldn’t tell you anything about the images from that game beyond what was printed in the newspaper, because the broadcast was nowhere to be found beyond the radio dial.
Unlike soccer, the sport’s can’t-quite-fully-catch-on-here counterpart, hockey’s downfall begins at the youth level. Due to the huge expense of equipment, rink time, and transportation, it’s not feasible for many kids to get involved. For that reason, hockey may always remain somewhat of a niche sport, at least outside it’s historic footprint of the northeast. Still, studies show that youth involvement in the sport has increased in the past six years, largely due to concerted efforts. Since 1996, Ann Arbor, Michigan has been the home of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program — an attempt to identify and develop the country’s brightest young talents. Those selected live with volunteer families and attend local high schools (though I can personally attest they’re, to put it delicately, not always the best students).
The program has produced such prodigious NHL talents as Patrick Kane and Dustin Brown… two players who would never play at the college level. Wait, how does that work? To college hockey’s unfortunate detriment, there’s an attractive alternative for the many prospects who might prefer not to hit the books — the Canadian junior hockey leagues. The CHL operates under a professional model, with a game every couple of days (as opposed to every weekend in college), and a largely-Canadian talent pool. There’s no specific professional incentive for players to opt for the college game, due to the nature of the NHL draft.
Like baseball, the draft merely determines which team will own a player’s rights. All eligible entrants (18-20 years old, with some exceptions) are subsequently able to develop in the venue of their choosing, whether it be at a school or elsewhere. For all the other options, many standout players do opt for the college hockey route, at least for a year or two. So why aren’t more people interested in watching these future stars?
Part of the problem stems from confusion over conferences. Unlike football and basketball, hockey’s alignment will appear unfamiliar to an unseasoned fan. There are only five conferences: Atlantic Hockey, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), ECAC Hockey, Hockey East, and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), and each are littered with schools you’d never hear mentioned in the other premiere sports. This is a competition where you don’t just hear names like Minnesota-Duluth and Lake Superior State, but they’re legitimate contenders.
That’s because of the aforementioned regional footprint that hockey has struggled to break out of. In comparison to football, which fields 120 teams at just the upper-half of Division I competition, only 138 colleges or universities total sponsor men’s ice hockey squads. Only 59 of those compete in Division I, with only a handful of those residing west of the Dakotas (see above map). With so few schools even competing, it’s inevitable that a huge portion of the sport’s potential fanbase is left without a rooting interest.
Hockey may never catch on nationally to the degree that it has in places like Minnesota and Michigan, but there are measures it can take to become increasingly relevant. One is schedule more event-type games, a la the NHL’s annual “Winter Classic,” played on an outdoor rink. 2010’s “Big Chill in the Big House” (pictured above) between Michigan and Michigan State, drew over 100,000 fans. Games like that can only help to build the profile of the sport and convince people to tune in to the regular old indoor games as well.
Which brings us to probably the most important thing in the strive for popularity: TV. Somehow, marketing departments need to get to work in terms of promoting the sport as a product. ESPN may now broadcast the Frozen Four every year, but it’s an ordeal to track down regular season games every weekend. Making those matchups more visible, whether it be somewhere across ESPN’s networks or elsewhere, would go a long way. Like all college sports, college hockey prides itself on tradition, but some recent administrative moves have showed that it may be moving in new directions.
One thing that the sport shares with basketball and football is the recent trend of realignment. With Penn State making hockey a varsity sport, the Big Ten decided to cash in by forming a hockey division of their established brand that will formally begin next season. If you thought conference branding was growing absurd in other sports (a Big 12 with ten teams, and a Big Ten with twelve?), note that the Big Ten hockey conference will debut with, drumroll please… six teams. Arithmetic long since disregarded, the league cripples the longstanding CCHA and ECHA, removing premiere programs from both. It has also encouraged the expansion of the Hockey East, as well as the creation of a new “superconference” called the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
How the sport’s popularity will be affected by these changes is yet to be seen. But even if it never truly reaches the types of audiences held by basketball or football, collegiate hockey will endure as a thrilling showcase of speed and physicality. For those who seek it out, a joy awaits: that in watching a wealth of talent fly across the ice, fling the puck around, and beat each other up. If you’ve ever thought about watching, and can manage to find a game buried in your cable channels, now’s a great time to tune in.