So Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow want to fight for the right to be the man who killed the game of hockey? Good for them. What more can you expect out of a Cornell grad and Harvard grad, respectively? They can destroy the NHL all they want, but ice rinks, ice skates, sticks, and Vulcanized rubber disks affectionately called pucks still endure. If you thought the World Cup was the last high-level hockey played in North America, let not your heart be troubled. There are alternatives — and I don’t mean football, or, cough, basketball.
We here at USCHO.com are the caretakers of another version of the world’s fastest sport — college hockey. If in the midst of this apocalyptic autumn, you, NHL-fan, stumbled across this web site looking for a hockey fix, welcome. Spend a season with hockey played the NCAA way and you may laugh as players and owners figure out how to divide up the proceeds from the NHL’s latest TV contract with NBC (how many ways can you slice zero dollars?) You may have caught the Frozen Four on ESPN, or shed a tear at the story of Travis Roy, but now that the NHL has gone away, may we suggest a closer look at our sport.
There are some aspects of the college game you will not be used to:
1) Speed: College players still gain full heads of steam and dart into and out of zones with the acceleration not seen in the NHL since the Pittsburgh Penguins went bankrupt. Part of the reason is that not everyone in our game is 6-foot-5, 250 lbs., so there is actually room on a standard ice sheet. There are more Brian Giontas and Martin St. Louis out there ready to dazzle with their quickness and creativity. While far from perfect, three-quarters of Division I does not play a version of the neutral zone trap.
2) No two-line pass: It will take you about five minutes to realize the playmaking possibilities of being able to annihilate an entire forecheck with one long, accurate pass. You’ll adjust to automatic icing too.
3) Creative fans: NHL fans are robotic. Like every other professional sports fan, you have been programmed to make Pavlovian eruptions to whatever mundane cheers come over the scoreboard. How many times can someone really chant, “Let’s Go Sabres?” Hockey is much better experienced with such ditties as, “Hey Army, is that all you can be?” And woe to any visiting goalie who allows a puck get by him. Think that the “Hex-tall” jeer from a few years back was cruel? You have much to learn. Fans exhibit much more inventiveness here as they pursue ever meaner and more colorful ways to deride a hapless opponent.
4) Passion: So the lockout wipes out half of the season, who cares? NHL players don’t really start playing until March anyways. With limited slots in the NCAA tournament and a much shorter regular season, college hockey ratchets its intensity level by Christmas and nothing beats the “one-and-done” format for pure emotion come postseason time. Watch your favorite players care. Oh, and college players don’t draw a salary.
5) Cheap tickets: Since the NHL insists on paying its players like a major league sport, but without the major league television revenues — see the zero dollars comment above — it has to finance its game on the backs of its fiercely loyal fans. Why not come to a game in a charming facility, take the wife and kids, and actually be able to afford hot dogs? As an additional bonus, you’ll actually be able to see the game. The $15 that doesn’t get you into the Fleet Center to see the Bruins, will get you into Walter Brown to see Boston University. Unlike a lot of college arenas, they will sell you a beer there, but if you want to save some bucks, you can bum a swig of some sophomore’s flask. It’s college!
Through it all, the game retains the physical intensity that the SportsCenter generation craves. However, the sport accomplishes it without the callow fighting that continues to limit the respectability of the professional game. If you want fights, go see the ECHL, but if you want to see the next generation of the game’s best players, the NCAA is where it is at.
Now that we’ve whetted your appetite, you probably want a primer on the structure of the league. College hockey spans the country, from Maine to Alaska-Fairbanks. There are six Division I conferences, peruse them all on this site. Each conference gets one automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and there are 10 at large bids, and the competition is fierce. Lately the WCHA, CCHA, and Hockey East have been the top conferences with the ECAC a rung below and newcomers CHA and Atlantic Hockey occupying a third tier.
You can start following the sport by finding your local team, or getting channels like CSTV or getting the Fox Sports Package on Satellite. To further help this process we’ve made an effort to match some of you with college programs that will fit you like an old pair of gloves. And be forewarned, this is still college athletics, so Boola Boola!
Colorado Avalanche fans: We start easy. Unless you’ve spent the last year 12,000 feet above sea level cavorting with a mountain goat, you should know that you are home to the national champion Denver Pioneers. Go cheer them on. Besides, whether the NHL plays or not this year, you weren’t going to see Peter Forsberg anyway.
New Jersey Devils fans: You can continue to worship at the altar of Lou Lamoriello by rooting on his old college team, Providence. Actually, you can pick any Hockey East team since they named the conference championship trophy the Lamoriello Cup. The Devils have always prized college players.
Nashville Predators fans: Help your brother obscure program toiling to popularize the game where hockey traditionally hasn’t thrived — Alabama-Huntsville. In fact, if you combine the total number of Predator and Charger fans, you just might be able to expedite that new arena they plan to build in Huntsville.
Anaheim Mighty Ducks fans: Since your franchise was inspired by a movie, we are going to match you with either of the Alaska programs in honor of “Mystery Alaska.” No, neither team was featured in that film, but they need your support anyway.
Philadelphia Flyers: Find a school that plays the hard-nosed style that would make Bobby Clarke proud. Clarkson, Ohio State, Michigan State all would work.
San Jose/Los Angeles: There are no college programs in the Golden State. How about taking a hockey vacation to Colorado College. You can go skiing and then watch some fleet action on an Olympic-sized sheet.
Pittsburgh Penguins fans: Mario Lemieux in his duel role owner and player in the middle of a labor dispute is worthy of Days of Our Lives. However, you can take a break from the schizophrenia and make some hockey history. Robert Morris University will make its D-I debut this year and can use your loyal support.
Tampa Bay Lightning fans: The last Stanley Cup Champs need to go take the Martin St. Louis tour of Vermont. You can see where St. Louis played, sleep where St. Louis slept (pay no attention to the frosh under the covers), booze where St. Louis boozed, heckle his old professors, track down his old girlfriends … Vincent Lecavlier, eat your heart out. Go Cats Go!
Chicago Blackhawks fans: One team with an ethnically insensitive nickname deserves another, go root for the North Dakota Fighting Sioux. As an added bonus, you will see more wins this year then in the past three Blackhawk seasons combined, and watch a game in a more modern facility. Say it loud and proud Sioooooooooooooooooooooooooux!
Detroit Red Wings fans: A place arrogant enough to call their city Hockeytown should find a school equally insouciant and successful. You know it well, it’s nine-time national champion Michigan. Unless, of course, you support Michigan State. Actually, I’m going to stop before someone sends me an email virus.
Washington Capitals fans: In these times of turmoil, how can a nation’s capital not support its service academies? Army & Air Force all the way.
Buffalo Sabres fans: As a recent host for the Frozen Four, and two programs in your backyard, you have no excuses. Niagara has more talent than Buffalo anyway.
Montreal Canadiens fans: The premier name in professional hockey should find its counterpart in American Universities, the Ivy League. The combined Ivy/Montreal legacy would encompass all of the sport’s tradition. Besides, Ken Dryden was a Cornell legend before he became a Montreal immortal, and the Canadiens have two draft picks currently on the Big Red roster.
Boston Bruins fans: Nevermind. You already have your Beanpot tickets. Could you let bygones be bygones and act as tour guides for the new Montreal Crimson fans?
Minnesota Wild fans: Between the World Cup, your five Division I programs, and playing fantasy high school hockey, have you even noticed the NHL lockout?
New York Rangers fans: You may have the roughest time making the transition to college hockey. First, you need to accept that players under 35 actually know how to play the game. Once you do that, you can watch your sixth-overall pick, Wolverine goalie Al Montoya, stonewall the nation’s best. You’ll watch him and dream of him in the red-white-and-blue. Of course, when the lockout ends, he’ll probably be traded for Chris Chelios.
This guide is only meant as a start. All of us college hockey fans have an obligation to initiate our NHL-only brethren into the ways of the NCAA. So if you see a Phoenix Coyote fan howling at the moon because he can’t watch Wayne Gretzky in the owners box anymore, please assist. The weeks may be unbearable without our favorite pros, but we can all commiserate on the weekends at our favorite college rinks.
Hey Bettman, we have only one thing to say to you: “Sieve! Sieve! Sieve!”