MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — For many looking out on a sea of empty seats, it’s hard to think Big Ten hockey has been anything but a big mistake.
College hockey held its men’s conference tournaments this weekend, and if you watched any of the games with Minnesota teams in them, you noticed a common theme — empty seats.
Playing postseason games in near-empty arenas could not have been what conference commissioners had in mind when college hockey had its big shake-up a couple of years ago, and it raises a big question: Did all that realignment hurt college hockey?
And can it ever be like it was, ever again?
“No one publicly says they regret (it),” Todd Milewski, who has covered college hockey for USCHO.com since 1998, said. “You get the feeling though, when people look at arenas like this, it’s hard not to imagine that there’s some regret in them, because look at what we had a few years ago.”
A few years ago, the WCHA was the best conference tournament in the country, held every year in St. Paul.
“They would sell out for three consecutive days and it was incredible,” Bill Robertson, who worked the tournament for many years and took over as the WCHA’s new commissioner this season, said. “Many people said it was better than the Frozen Four (national championship).”
That all went away two years ago when the Big Ten started hockey, triggering a wave of conference realignment and sending the WCHA’s teams into three different leagues.
“You started seeing a lot of schools reaching for what they thought was going to be better for their program,” Milewski said. “Has it been? I think it’s too early to tell, but you look at the attendance numbers over the last couple years and there’s some real concern there.”
According to data Milewski compiled for USCHO.com, conference tournament attendance hasn’t been nearly what it was before realignment.
“I think a lot of the leagues are realizing what happened may not have been the best for the conference tournament weekend,” he said.
The Big Ten drew an average of just 5,381 fans per day this year in Detroit, way down from last year’s already low numbers (8,522).
And that was tickets purchased – actual attendance looked even lower.
“It seemed like a couple hundred people in the seats,” Milewski said. “And it was sad.”
It wasn’t much better for the WCHA in St. Paul, which averaged 7,524 over its two-day tournament. That’s three-fifths of the Xcel Energy Center – empty. But was a big improvement from last year (3,721), leaving Robertson more encouraged than disappointed.
“We hope to build on this and only get better,” he said.
Across town at Target Center, the NCHC averaged 11,563, which was also up from last year (8,626).
“I thought it was a good number,” Commissioner Josh Fenton said.
But that’s still a far cry from the old WCHA. Combined, the three leagues drew a total of 54,318 this weekend – still 20,000 lower than the WCHA averaged its last five seasons before the shakeup.
“Publicly, they’re all standing behind that decision,” Milewski said.
But privately, looking up at all those empty seats this weekend, you wonder if Gophers coach Don Lucia wishes they could just go back to the way things were. Through a team spokesman, Lucia declined an interview request for this story, saying the team is focused on the NCAA Tournament.
“Don Lucia liked the WCHA,” Milewski said. “Everyone liked that structure.”
Many fans here in Minnesota feel like the state had something great, and now it’s gone. And what replaced it just isn’t as good as it used to be.
“I get that,” Jennifer Heppel, the associate commissioner of the Big Ten who handles hockey, said. “The WCHA was a great event. But the reality is, that took time to grow and build as well. While the Big Ten is a known name, obviously it’s new as a hockey conference. And I think that the fans need time to adjust to that.”
Fenton said he gets it too.
“I certainly understand the perspective of fans,” he said. “But the landscape is what it is, and I think it’s important for us to embrace that landscape and do what we can to grow the game and make the most of the game.”
Those who run the three leagues disagree that the Big Ten entering into the mix has hurt hockey.
“I would say the exact opposite,” Fenton said. “I think the Big Ten provides us so much more on a national landscape, frankly, so much bigger a voice in the NCAA. And we never really had that before, because hockey was made up of small single sport conferences that really never had a seat at the table, as it relates to national issues that affect our game. The Big Ten has a seat at the table, in fact they’ve got a big seat at the table.”
But that seat, so far, hasn’t translated to getting fans into seats in arenas.
Maybe the solution is putting all those old teams — or at least many of them — back in the same building again. Robertson said he and Fenton have had discussions about putting both tournaments in the same venue the same weekend, and said both sides are open to doing that. Doing that would be at least a few years away though. The NCHC is contracted with Target Center for another three years, the WCHA at the Xcel Energy Center for another two.
“Might be one of the alternatives to make this much better,” Robertson said.
It’s either that, or just get used to the new rivalries.
Or just get used to the empty seats.
“I think there’s a possibility that people will come around, and people will see that when Minnesota plays Michigan or Michigan State, that’s a pretty good matchup. That’s like playing St. Cloud State, just without the 70 miles up the road factor of it,” Milewski said, then took a long pause. “For the fans, you wonder if that connection’s ever going to be the same though.”