BOSTON — Raise your hand if you understand the expression “jump the shark.” (If you don’t, no need to feel bad. You can quickly Google it.)
Now raise your hand if you believe that college hockey has “jumped the shark” when it comes to playing games in outdoor stadiums.
OK, before you answer that, let me give you some background.
The first outdoor college hockey game — besides those games contested on frozen ponds many years ago, of course — was played between Michigan and Michigan State at Spartan Stadium in 2001. A number of other college hockey games have been played outdoors, including the original “Frozen Fenway,” which featured a battle between Boston College and Boston University one week after the Boston Bruins hosted the NHL Winter Classic at Fenway Park.
Frozen Fenway was, and likely will always be one of the most successful college hockey events ever. The 2010 college hockey doubleheader that featured New Hampshire and Northeastern’s women teams followed by the BU-BC feature matchup sold out in less than two days.
Since Frozen Fenway, a few have tried to imitate the atmosphere created at Fenway Park.
The most successful of those was Michigan State traveling to Michigan last December, where more than 100,000 fans packed Michigan Stadium. The least successful was Connecticut versus Sacred Heart at UConn’s Rentschler Field, a 40,000-seat stadium that saw 1,911 fans attend a men’s and women’s doubleheader, both featuring UConn.
Given that great variance, pardon me if I have concern that, on the day Hockey East and Red Sox executives announced the reprise of Frozen Fenway this coming January, college hockey’s outdoor games may have jumped the shark.
Understand this: I am hardly the judge or jury on whether such shark jumping has occurred. Truth be told, there are so many remarkable differences between what happened at UConn last winter and what will occur at Fenway on Saturday, Jan. 7.
Start with the teams. Frozen Fenway Part II, if you will, will feature four New England state schools. Vermont and Massachusetts will face off at 4 p.m. EST, with rivals New Hampshire and Maine squaring off in the late game. All four schools have strong alumni bases throughout the Boston area.
Then there is the difference is the marketing effort. The Red Sox marketing arm, Fenway Sports Management, is the engine behind the next chapter of outdoor hockey games. They have a proven track record for bringing anything from rock stars to soccer clubs to Fenway with great success.
Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna said that there is no financial risk whatsoever for the league in hosting such an event. In 2010, Hockey East realized a small profit — approximately $12,000 according to tax filings — in hosting the original Frozen Fenway. This time, there cannot be a loss, according to Bertanga, regardless of the success of ticket sales. He did acknowledge that the Red Sox will incur as much as a $1 million expense to install the rink that they will have to offset. Activities such as private skating events will help defray that cost.
That said, Bertagna acknowledged that it’s not yet known how successful this event can be, particularly in bringing four teams from significant distances to Boston.
When asked if there was a fear that this event, or outdoor hockey in general, might have indeed jumped the shark, Bertagna’s answer was direct.
“Not yet. I don’t think so,” said the 15-year Hockey East commissioner. “It’s a legitimate question. I don’t think we’re there yet.
“Now, if we put [tickets] on sale and they don’t go the way we think they’ll move, maybe we’ve misread it.
“That said, I still think it’s not just an outdoor game. It’s an outdoor game here [at Fenway Park]. I still think that all the components of coming downtown, the winter carnival atmosphere and the [Green Monster] looming over you, your event has some staying power.”
Bertagna said that the event may actually grow beyond just the Hockey East men’s doubleheader and may include a women’s hockey component as it did in 2010. That could include a game between Hockey East teams but could also be an exhibition between the U.S. and Canadian women’s national teams, which will compete for the IIHF Women’s World Championship at Vermont’s Gutterson Fieldhouse in April 2012.
The question now, though, is just how well tickets will sell. Bertagna said a sellout would be the goal but that selling 30,000 tickets would be successful. The average ticket price has been set at $40, $13 less than the average for the BC-BU game of 2010 and more than $150 less than the ticket average for the NHL’s Winter Classic that same year.
Schools themselves are enthused, particularly rivals Maine and New Hampshire, who will meet in the event’s nightcap. These two schools have twice faced one another for the Hockey East title. And few will forget the 1999 NCAA title game in Anaheim, Calif., where Maine took an overtime decision for the school’s second national title.
“[Tim Whitehead] and I and [late Maine] coach [Shawn] Walsh talked a lot of years about us playing a game like this in a big venue,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “I can’t think of a better place to play this than Fenway Park.”
Now, though, it is time for the schools — and, more importantly, their fan bases — to put their money where their mouth is. Tickets for Frozen Fenway go on sale Sept. 13. Standing room tickets are between $5 and $20. Lower tier seats, presenting a limited view of the ice, are $10 and $20. Top level bleacher seats are $30, while upper box seats and grandstands, as well as a limited number of roof box seats are $40 and $50. The most expensive tickets are located on the top level in the State Street Pavilion and Green Monster ($75). Private suite tickets will be sold for $100.
Yet another Fenway sellout will certainly prove that outdoor college hockey — at least in Boston — is a more-than-viable event. Anything less, though, and we may have our answer on just whether playing hockey in the most natural state has indeed jumped its shark.