See You Next Year?

The inaugural State of Minnesota Hockey Showcase was played last Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. No sooner had the final horn sounded that evening than the speculation began as to whether there would be a second one.

The event featured all four of the WCHA’s Minnesota teams — Bemidji State of the CHA is the state’s fifth Division I men’s squad — pairing off for two conference games. St. Cloud State took on Minnesota Duluth in the opening contest, with Minnesota against Minnesota State in the finale.

On the ice, the Showcase was a success. The action was entertaining despite lopsided scores, with the Bulldogs and Gophers coming out the winners. The venue, one of the NHL’s best, was a treat as always. The coaches and players were correspondingly positive in their reviews.

Scott Sandelin's Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs opened the State of Minnesota Hockey Showcase against St. Cloud State.

Scott Sandelin’s Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs opened the State of Minnesota Hockey Showcase against St. Cloud State.

“I think for the Minnesota hockey fan, it’s a great event,” said Minnesota State head coach Troy Jutting. “If you’re a hockey fan in Minnesota, I can’t believe that you don’t have a connection to one of these teams — maybe to all four teams.”

“I think it’s a great event from a fan standpoint,” agreed Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin. “It was good, and hopefully it’s something we can build on and grow.”

“There’s a lot of pride in Minnesota hockey, and it’s definitely a good thing,” concurred SCSU’s Nick Oslund.

Off the ice, however, the event’s future will require some consideration.

Always an issue is money. Paid attendance on Saturday was 10,495, a little over half of the Xcel Center’s capacity. Tickets were sold for one session at a top price of $40, with no single-game tickets.

That was probably a good move given the Showcase’s proximity to the Minnesota campus, which would likely have led to an overflow of Gopher fans in the evening if Minnesota’s game with Minnesota State had been sold separately from the SCSU-UMD tilt. But it may have prevented some fans who would have paid for one game from shelling out for a two-for-one deal.

Even with the package deal, at most half of the paid attendance was actually present for the first game, leading Oslund to draw a comparison that wasn’t entirely flattering.

“It was definitely similar,” said Oslund, referencing the Huskies’ 2008 NCAA tournament game in Albany, N.Y. “Not a lot of people, and you’ve really got to create your own environment.”

The timing was another concern. Some suggested that the Showcase should have been a season-opening event, while others preferred a date in the second half of the season, after the holiday break.

Said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, “Probably for a lot of people it’s not hockey season yet” with football still under way and baseball just ending.

Lucia had thoughts on how to enhance the attendance, as well.

“If we’re going to do this, put it on everyone’s season ticket package,” he said. “There’s no reason we can’t put 17, 18 thousand people here with the four teams we have.”

Naturally, to do that could involve giving up the extra revenue of a special event, a fact Lucia acknowledged. Jutting put a finer point on it in reference to the financial situations at the four schools.

“We’re not — nor St. Cloud nor UMD — at the point where we get a football check and a basketball check,” he said. “So our hockey team has some responsibility to our athletic department.”

UMD and Minnesota State were the nominal home teams, having given up true home games on the WCHA schedule for the event. The public address announcers at the X took that concept seriously, announcing goals, players and period starts as if the games were being played at regular home venues.

For instance, during the early game it was odd to hear the PA announce “your Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs” at a rink just a few miles from the Gophers’ campus, but if a team is going to give up its own ice, the thinking was that it was best to keep it as close as possible to a home atmosphere.

As it was, despite a sizable number of Gopher fans in attendance, if you weren’t looking it would have been hard to tell when the Gophers were doing well or badly against MSU, since the three other teams’ contingents were — unsurprisingly — overwhelmingly against them.

Lucia quipped that he had hoped that fans of the two University of Minnesota campuses would line up against the other state schools, producing a UM/UMD versus SCSU/MSU tag team of partisans. That didn’t happen.

“I turned around and asked them, ‘Where’s the love?'” Lucia said of the UMD fans, who were located largely behind the Gopher bench; the other three teams’ reserved tickets were dedicated to the other three quadrants of the arena’s lower bowl.

The coaches were hopeful but reserved about the Showcase’s future, and comparisons to the best-known regular-season tournament in college hockey were inevitable. That would be the Beanpot, which brings together Boston’s four Division I squads for two Mondays after the New Year.

“The difference is, the Beanpot is nonconference,” said Lucia, underscoring the difficulty of arranging an event around the WCHA schedule and the necessity of two teams giving up home games to play in it. The alternative would be to play the event as a pair of nonleague games, which seems unlikely since the WCHA’s 28-game schedule leaves a bare six nonconference games available per season.

The Xcel Center is, of course, the home of the WCHA’s postseason tournament, and as such the building is symbolic of success for the conference’s players, coaches and fans. Thoughts of returning to the same ice in March for the Final Five weren’t far away.

“Oh, that was brought up,” quipped Sandelin.

In the end, perhaps Lucia put it most succinctly in discussing the merits and difficulties of what could become an annual tradition, one which has great promise but may be subverted by logistical and financial issues.

“The concept is good,” he said.