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Commentary: Don’t be fooled into thinking outdoor games are key to growing college hockey

The Big Chill.

The Big House.

The big misnomer.

A long-time subscriber to the Wall Street Journal, I almost choked on my breakfast reading the article on the outdoor game in Ann Arbor this weekend. I was never so excited to recycle a newspaper as I was after that read.

Talk about missing the point. To say that games like this are a way to sell college hockey, for it to reach a larger place in American sports, to reach its zenith in popularity is so misconstrued in its logic it is almost laughable.

There is no question in Ann Arbor that coach Red Berenson’s Wolverines are the best ticket in town; 20 straight years in the national tourney and all. The Wolverines are well represented in the NHL; it seems like every roster has a Berenson alum on it. A game at Yost Arena is a must-see for any sports enthusiast; it is just plain awesome. It is because it is inside. Michigan Hockey is Yost Arena and vice versa. It is not Michigan Stadium.

The story tried to sell us on the game Saturday being a shot in the arm for the selling of college hockey. I disagree. It does wonders for Michigan and Michigan State and is great for hockey fans in Southern Michigan and both programs, but what it does for college hockey is probably not much on the big scale.

How about some of the things that have done wonders for hockey in this country? The NHL in southern markets has been hit and miss, but in Southern California and Florida it has created a wave of players. California kids are sought after by the NCAA and major junior and are winding up in the NHL. Retired players are settling in non-traditional markets and helping to create great youth hockey programs that are developing NCAA players.

In a game within the last two NHL seasons, the San Jose Sharks boasted Douglas Murray and Ryan Vesce playing a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Rob Scuderi and Mark Eaton played for Pittsburgh. Those four were teammates on a junior team on Long Island before all were recruited to colleges (Murray and Vesce at Cornell, Scuderi at Boston College and Eaton at Notre Dame) and started playing in the NHL. That can be traced back to the New York Islanders’ success in the 1980s and the impact the Isles had on the Long Island hockey community and the ex-players who stayed there and started coaching.

Non-traditional markets becoming breeding grounds for players has done wonders for college hockey.

There is no question, as Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna pointed out, that players are coming to the NCAA to play hockey from markets that you would never have thought of 10 years ago. Cornell coach Mike Schafer said it best. At the Florida College Classic in 2004, he had a captain from Long Island in Vesce and a goalie from Dallas in David McKee. He said, “If you had told me that would be the case when I started coaching I would have said you were nuts.”

Then the author would have us believe that we’re lucky to have five schools that represent Big Ten institutions showing us the promise of what college hockey can be.

“Big Ten schools, and Michigan in particular, demonstrate the sport’s potential. The Wolverines draw near-sellout crowds at every home game at Yost Ice Arena,” the story reads.

Big Ten schools?

Really?

Show up in Orono, Maine, Friday night when New Hampshire visits Maine. Sellout? No question. The building will be packed by the start of warmups for what has been nicknamed “The Border War.” Described by coach Tim Whitehead as “our little Fenway Park,” Alfond Arena is an impossible ticket most weekends with students waiting at times overnight the night before camped out in the parking lot to get tickets. The same happens at Miami and North Dakota. No football stadium needed for these programs to demonstrate the sports potential.

The last three national championships have come from Hockey East. While there was an impressive run of Minnesota winning two and Wisconsin and MSU winning one each last decade, North Dakota, Boston University, BC, Maine and Denver are schools that demonstrate the sports potential because, outside of BC, they rule the roost on their campuses. Then again, BC has national titles in 2001, 2008 and 2010. Football and hoops haven’t come close in Chestnut Hill to matching that success.

Do packed buildings in Denver not show us the sports potential? The success of Denver and Colorado College and the recent emergence of Air Force as a pretty good program have done wonders for youth hockey in Colorado, and that state is now cranking out Division I-caliber players.

A Hockey East team has been in the national title game in 11 of the past 12 seasons, the exception being when Denver played North Dakota in 2005. Youth hockey up to junior hockey is rampant from Southern Maine all down the East Coast.

While Wisconsin and Michigan have arenas and atmosphere that rank in the upper tier of college hockey, “Big Ten schools” are not the be all and end all of college hockey, and to imply so is irresponsible or just uninformed.

BU-BC might be the best rivalry out there. Their outdoor game at Fenway was exciting but did very little to enhance the legend of the Battle of Comm Ave. The Beanpot does that; the Hockey East playoffs usually do that also. No other rivalry outside of maybe USC-UCLA boasts two programs with the great tradition of the Terriers and Eagles with their proximity to each other. They are three miles apart; you can take the subway to get from one arena to the other in about 15 minutes. Their coaches have been competing against each other since high school.

North Dakota-Denver, CC-Denver, and especially UNH-Maine are rivalries and programs that are every bit what the Big Ten schools offer. Minnesota hasn’t been relevant in a while, Ohio State hasn’t either. Penn State is years away from being a top program. Miami, Notre Dame, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State and Cornell all show the potential the sport has with the strength of their programs.

“Still, those close to college hockey understand that the sport hasn’t come close to its ceiling — and isn’t likely to get there overnight,” the story reads.

The ceiling of college hockey does not rest in the members representing Big Ten institutions. It rests in the NCAA’s ability to convince student-athletes play college hockey. USA Hockey plays a role here and does it very well, as does College Hockey Inc., the marketing arm of NCAA hockey under the expert guidance of Paul Kelly. He is the former director of the NHLPA.

The ceiling of college hockey rests in its ability to attract quality players, players that are the future stars of the NHL. People in the U.S. watch college hoops and college football because they’ll watch these kids become the next wave of NFL and NBA stars.

College hockey generates a ton of real good players that make up 30 percent of NHL rosters. Most of the gold medal-winning United States World Junior team last year played U.S. college hockey. The key is the quality of the product, not if it’s played outdoors. Kelly is making sure north of the border that those elite kids know there is an elite development system in place here in the NCAA and the continued influx of those Grade A players will help increase popularity.

College hockey loses great underclassmen every year to pro hockey. Folks like Kelly and College Hockey Inc. have made it a priority to try and see if there can be successful dialogue between the NHL and NCAA programs that help keep the student-athlete in school the full four years to, A, help the player and, B, help college hockey be as entertaining as possible.

When we have to rely of gimmicks like an outdoor game every year to get attention, we are in deep trouble.

The game at Michigan Stadium Saturday is a nice event for people in Michigan. Michigan Stadium is a historical landmark in the state’s great sports history. The rivalry between U of M and MSU is terrific. It should be fun for the 110,000 who’ll be there.

Sunday, it will be over and what will have college hockey as a whole gained by it?


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  • Stevet1210

    Nice article Dave, but I do think that venues like the Big House provide a special interest for fans. Would the Wall Street Journal even had mentioned the game if it was being played at Yost? You are right. Great players make great interest in the sport. But the spectacle of something special has its draw. I know because 4 of us are flying up from Charlston SC to take in the game.

    • LtPowers

      That’s a good point — The answer to Starman’s question, “Sunday, it will be over and what will have college hockey as a whole gained by it?” is “People who read the Wall Street Journal will know more about college hockey.”

  • JonSobel

    This article kind of reminds me of someone who follows an indie band, right up until the point where they decide to play an arena show. Then they get all indignant and angry and wonder how could they have ever followed them, the sellouts!

    One might ask, instead, “How many times per year is college hockey TRULY the focus of the sporting world?” If you answered “During the Beanpot” or “During the national tournament”, I would argue that the actual number is legitimately zero instead, because even at our best events, people don’t really care about college hockey except in a few specific places. People know little to nothing about the sport, and they’re ok with that. How many times will it be the focus of ESPN, the BTN, national newspapers, and other media sources this year? Yes, player development is important. But getting exposure of the game to those players and educating them on the positives of the college game is just as important. Events like this give exposure where it might not have been available prior.

    And as much as we in the college hockey community appreciate teams like ND, DU, BU, Maine, UMD, Miami(OH), LSSU, the Alaskas, and UNO, the average sports fan has no idea their history and often scoffs at their mention. But they sure know Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Minnesota, and Michigan State. Again, to gain exposure, there are some teams that need to be successful and showcased at times on an enormous stage. It draws the focus of the rest of sports for a moment, and in turn benefits the whole in those moments.

    • Speransky

      I agree. Contrariety for the sake of . . . well . . . contrariety. And pointless contrariety at that. Is the author miffed that the game isn’t being played in South Beach, thus expanding the sport? Or is he angry at the WSJ’s suggestion that the Big Ten, not Hockey East, is the center of the college hockey world, even in the absence of a Big Ten hockey conference?

      Like so much of what passes for sports journalism these days, here is an example of a cynical writer performing intellectual gymnastics to find fault.

  • Paula Weston

    You and I are in complete agreement, Dave. It’s a gimmick. It’s a shot in the arm for MSU, UM, and the CCHA — and, this being the State of Michigan, each entity can use that shot — but this game and outdoor games in general do nothing long-term for college hockey.

    College hockey talent is diluted more and more by early departures and (far worse) by players who would otherwise commit to the NCAA choosing what they think is a far more attractive option in the major juniors, an option that is not the have-it-all path that it’s marketed as by the OHL.

    I’ll be at the game tomorrow, live-blogging from 2:30 on, writing a piece to accompany Bob Miller’s recap, and I will take in the spectacle…but it’s spectacle wrapped around a college hockey game, and nothing more.

    • Goblue75

      Paula, as always, your sore sour grapes attitude is dictated because your beloved Buckeyes plain suck in hockey, too bad Paula! Plus, you are looking for brownie points in the college hockey usually predictable piece of crap articles by another Hockey East sore loser because he, Starman, wishes his team/s could have an awesome venue like the Big House! Sorry Davey, ain’t gonna happen, the Big House will always be the biggest house and biggest venue ever! Get used to it! Wolverines rule! Oh, and Paula, quit sucking up, Starman is a Hockey East Loser!

      • Estimated Prophet

        Just because Paula is off base on this one is no reason to turn it into a personal bash and a bash Hockey East, and bash Buckeyes forum!!! It would be much better for the CCHA (of future Big Ten Hockey League) if OSU had a strong team in a 10,000 or so arena instead of a mediocre one in the Discount Store Arena. It’s a hockey forum so I won’t mention the U of M vs. OSU football record this century.

    • wooderson

      Wow, I hate to agree with this guy but he’s exactly right. Dave, the jealously just seeps off the page, and you clearly either didn’t read the article at all or totally misunderstood the point the author was trying to make. Paula, it’s absolutely amazing how you can always find something negative to say when Michigan is involved. Oh and thanks for the cheap shot about the economy.

      Look, this event is going to be a very big positive for college hockey whether you guys like it or not. I know you all hate Michigan fans but let’s face it they sold out a 110,000+ seat stadium in LESS THAN A DAY!! That is a very good thing for college hockey. I just find it really sad that while major media outlets like the WSJ, NY Times and ESPN are providing very positive coverage for college hockey USCHO has nothing but negativity.

      Lighten up a little bit will you??

  • AJM

    I agree. The outdoor hockey game at Michigan — like the men’s and women’s college games at Fenway Park in Boston last year, and the outdoor NHL games — are nothing more than spectacles. They, like many things these days, are nothing but staged “events” benefitting few but the sponsors and stadium owners. They might be fun for players and spectators because they are unique outdoor events and are heavily hyped, but I doubt they do much to advance, let alone promote, the sport of hockey. (A great game, not incidentally, deserving of more attention because of things like its speed, the skills of the players, its competitive atmosphere, and its avid fans in places like Maine, NH, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and up and down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.) The truth of the matter is that the outdoor games have poor and extremely distant sight lines, generally bad ice, can be uncomfortable because of weather conditions (which also can interfere with the attributes of the game), and draw few real fans of the sport. These days, hardly any Division 1 hockey players (or any serious players) grew up playing outdoors on frozen ponds, so the nostalgia pitch is largely irrelevant. Giving greater TV exposure to events like the Beanpot — and practically any good collegiate rivalry game at a non-neutral rink — is the best way to showcase the sport of hockey and gain enlightened followers.

    • Estimated Prophet

      And, AJM, I’ll be looking forward to seeing your plan for the Beanpot and the other games you describe to get that greater TV exposure. After all, even this game is only on nationally on the Big Ten Network.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KBVOP7JEIJTGTBGPEMTI67KVLU J

    Sioux yeah yeah!!!

    • Teeder11

      Yeah, Yeah Sioux!!!

  • Mrozinskdm24

    I’ve been to 2 outdoor hockey games…1 at Lambeau Field and the other at Camp Randall Stadium…and I had a complete blast both times. College hockey is never going to be sold to the masses and be a national past time, but for avid college hockey fans and for just plain old hockey fans, I believe the outdoor games are great. Why is it a gimmick?! its for the players and the fan to experience something great playing outside in the big time stadiums. (not to mention the money the schools bring in by doing it). Why does it have to be more than a game played outside with whole bunch of fans going to and have a really good time???

  • scott

    I missed the part where every single game played had to in some way advance the sport in some amazing way. who cares if it’s a spectacle? it’ll be the most people to EVER watch a live hockey game. 110,000+ people will be watching a college hockey game. thats pretty freaking cool! how does that hurt the sport? wont that get more people to pay attention to it? is that a bad thing?

    • AJM

      First, most of the people in the stands won’t be able to see much of the action from so far away (let alone the puck), and I’ll bet the vast majority will be yucking it up texting, face timing, and eating. If they serve beer, well, even fewer will be actually watching.

  • Duluth05ChE

    I think maybe you missed the point of the WSJ article. I believe they were not referring to the strength of college hockey as you have, but to acquiring new fans to the sport. Look at the NHL. It’s not nearly as popular as basketball or football, but everyone knows that on New Year’s Day there will be an outdoor game played, and many people who never watch hockey will be glued to the TV to watch.

    Additionally, how many people around the country care at all about UNH playing Maine? It’s boring to them because they’re not big name schools in the sports they know about. Now tell those same people Michigan is playing Ohio State in hockey. They would think that’s the hugest game of the season when in reality it’s a nothing match up. Getting larger schools involved in college hockey is critical to expanding the fan base outside of it’s current boundaries and those schools come with a built in audience. I don’t agree with every point made in the WSJ article, but I think that while they may have missed the bulls eye, you’re interpretation of their article has completely missed the target.

  • GoDawgs

    Outdoor hockey is a spectacle and people may tune just to see how the players deal with the “elements.” Well, if you want to see elements come to Duluth where it is the last bastion of youth hockey in the US (possibly Canada too) where all kids prior to PeeWee’s still skate entirely outside and where each area of town is defined and known by the neighborhood hockey association and rinks.

  • Food for Thought

    Mr. Starman,

    After reading the Wall Street Journal article, I think you may have misinterpretted the message. Nicole Auerbach writes that this event is in fact a novelty but represents a potential trend. She seems to debate with herself about the potential growth of hockey and is using Big Ten schools merely as a reference point.

    I think having novelty events will be good for the game. Having a huge attendance will show sponsors the potential marketability of the sport and will obviously create some television coverage.

    If we are truly asking how to grow the game, I would suggest that college hockey should continue on its course with College Hockey inc and reconsider its regional host sites for the NCAA tournament. Furthermore, conferences need to be realigned to better deviate teams by talent and geographics.

    Part of the problem with collegiate hockey for the casual sports fan is the lack of knowledge of the sport’s tradition, rivalries, and venues. Realignment along with a continued flow of talented players (especially those from new geographic areas) would go a long way in improving the sport’s marketability.

    I sometimes wonder if the best case scenario for the sport would be for a nationally-prominent university such as Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, or Michigan to go on a 3-4 year domination to increase the sport’s visibility, in the same way that UConn women’s basketball is sparking more interest in women’s collegiate basketball. Of course, while that provides more visibility for the sport, it also destroys its potential parity that has developed in the last 10-15 years.

    I also wonder if, like lacrosse, hockey suffers from an image problem because of the history of student-athletes involved in on-ice and off-ice incidents.

  • Anegadatortola

    to me this blog sounds like sour grapes. when bu and bc played at fenway last season what was the attendence? hey, if college hockey can continue to grow, and it will, then thats more scholarships for more players. And the way this sport is growing you will see more players from the south and west.

  • KD

    I also believe you missed the point. Honestly, I can’t say that these games are trying to boost the popularity of college hockey. I think it’s just suppose to be a fun experience for the players, as well as the fans. Of course you’re not going to grow interest in college hockey with one game. It’s the same reason why the winter classic has become a tradition every year now. It’s special to see a sporting spectacle in which large amounts of fans are drawn to a game. The “Cold War” was something completely new for college hockey and started a trend among other schools. You asked what will be gained from this experience? Probably nothing, and I don’t think that there really was something to ever be gained. It’s a one in a lifetime event for those kids that get to partake in the largest hockey game in North America. I suppose if they played at Yost it would have done a lot more for the game though (sarcasm)…the truth is, not a whole lot of people enjoy/understand/like hockey. And as you pointed out in your article, the South has been a tough market to break into. But I’m sure that ESPN will have a 10 second clip on the game, which is probably more hockey than they ever show throughout an entire show. In conclusion, I would like to suggest to just stop analyzing this game, and just take it for what it is. Not an attempt to boost college hockey’s popularity, but a game in which two bitter rivals will play in front of one of the largest crowds to ever assemble for a hockey game. Perhaps you should think about the game from the player’s perspective.

  • chikenstrip12

    somehow i think it is wrong to leave out mentioning the biggest rivalry in college hockey between Minnesota and North Dakota. I don’t really see what he was talking about when he said that the North Dakota-Miami game was a sellout game. I went to one last year, and it seemed emptier than normal in the Ralph.

  • Anonymous

    I stopped going to NHL games twenty years ago when I realized the proximity to the ice in the college game made up for the skill differential. Tha extra passion was just a bonus. These gimmick games are all passion, since nobody there is going to be able to see anything. But you can get college students passionate about anything, so I’m unimpressed. Give me 3,000 seat sellouts anyday and the you can keep the rest.

    • Estimated Prophet

      Again, missing the point. Nobody envisions an Ohio State-Michigan game every year with stadium crowds in six digits. The point is, as others have stated, for this one afternoon, a CCHA game will be the biggest outdoor game ever played and in a few weeks the Caps and Pens will be on another big stage. (Sadly for the NHL and NBC, Penn State’s bowl game will be on another network directly opposite the Winter Classic, potentially killing any audience NBC might have between Pittsburgh and D.C.)

  • Frank

    110,000 people will be outside having a great time on an otherwise drab Saturday afternoon. You would have to be a sour-puss to take issue with people (including the players) having fun.

  • MP07740

    Dave & Paula … do us all a favor and get off of the bus. We don’t have room for your negativity in our sport. Thanks.

  • AJB

    Maybe the fact that UofM has just as many national championships than BC and BU combined, and the state of Michigan has 9 more national champions (in addition to UofM’s 9, MSU, MTU, LSSU have 3 each, NMU has 1) than the next closest state, and the fact that the 2010 USA Olympic roster had more Michiganders on it than any other state, and the fact that the winningest US based NHL franchise and the best team of the last two decades is in Detroit, maybe those are reasons the NCAA is showcasing hockey in Michigan, and college hockey in Michigan. The two schools playing comprise 12 national championships, two more than any other state has. So while there may be wild arenas locally, this is going to be a big deal nationally.

  • Goblue75

    Estimated Project, nor will I mention John Cooper’s 2-10-1, OOPS! Sorry! Anyway, jealousy will not help you my friend, hope you enjoyed the All Time record for an outdoor hockey game which will NEVER be broken, unless of course if my alma mater decides to do it again! Get a real stadium pal! Oh, and a real hockey team! Go Blue! Starman still is a sore loser! Hockey East is good, Michigan rules everyone, 9 National Championships and still counting! Oh, and since this is a hockey blog, I won’t spend much time talking about how you will get schooled by Ryan Mallett in your bowl game!

  • komey1

    The highlights of this game made SportsCenter – as part of actual highlights and not just Top 10 lists. THAT shows how big a deal this was, because no other regular season game – not even the Beanpot – gets any air time. Every bit of positive publicity helps college hockey.

  • Anegadatortola1

    Just wondering if Starman watched lastnight?

  • Mbbelleson

    Dave is just a bitter columnist that is mad that his Hockey East is not in the spot light. Who would seriously turn a great event like this into a negative????

  • http://twitter.com/chrislerch Chris Lerch

    Maybe next time we can have a game on the Moon! Please, let’s stop with the gimmicks. Football stadiums are for football. Stop the insanity.

  • Gooch

    Actually I thought the WSJ article was rigtht on the money.
    Starman’s column is definately the one to be quickly recycled!
    Go Sparty!
    Starman’s column is definately the one to be quickly recycled.

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