Monday, March 18, 2013

Thanks, MSU hockey team. But I fear for the future

I stood in awe.

It'd been 10 years since Minnesota State University's hockey team had done this well, come so far, cracked so many skulls, sung so many "Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!"s. Not since a couple of guys named Shane Joseph and Grant Stevenson glided across the Olympic-sized ice sheet in downtown Mankato had the men's hockey team done this well. In fact, this team has done better, is better. Instead of a pair of superstars, they've got four solid lines of players who will give anything to win. They'll block shots with their faces, play hard for 60 minutes, sometimes 65. In the game of hockey, sometimes things get ugly, but this crew sucks it up, bears down, puts its nose to the grindstone (whatever cliche you want to use) -- they come hungry night after night, and while they don't win every game, they win most of them, and they do so selflessly, with every player participating, every skater contributing to the common goal of winning.

And yet ... the stands sit mostly empty.

I don't get it. This is the season people have been waiting for. The hecklers who called for Jutting's head got their wish. He's gone. Fired. Clean slate. New guy came in. Fresh start. And what happened? In head coach Mike Hastings' hands, the team has had a stunning turnaround. Still, the stands sit empty. I just don't get it.

When I was a kid, I was one of those rink rats. When the rinks were flooded at Prosperity Playground, I was there. When it snowed, me and my buddies were scraping the ice with shovels taller than we were, a platoon of 10-year-olds in Bauer skates and hockey gloves doing whatever they had to do to play the game they loved. We'd arrive as soon as there was enough daylight to see a puck skittering across an imperfect sheet of ice, and leave when the guy in the warming shack finally shut the lights off at night. Throughout the day, we'd ding pucks off the boards, dig them out of snow banks when they sailed over (or when they slipped through the sliver of space between the wood planks that made up the board.) We drill slapshots off the goal posts of the wooden-framed nets, or see how far we could get the pucks to bounce off the chain-link "netting." Pick-up hockey was the rule -- if there were enough people for a game, a game was played, and if you wanted to just skate around and stick handle or something you were banished to the general rink, the one without boards where girls in white figure skates and pink snow pants came for a leisurely 30 minutes of silly skating fun. But we never did that. We were always on the rink, playing pick-up shinny hockey for hours and hours and hours until the guy in the shack kicked us off the ice, at which point we'd take off our skates, put them on the end of our hockey sticks, hoist the sticks on our shoulders, pull on our moon boots and walk the three blocks back home.

The next day, we'd do it all again.

So yeah. The game is in my blood. That's what happens when you grow up on the east side of St. Paul, a community where you learn to skate almost before you learn to walk, a community where the local hero's name was Herb Brooks, a community that, until the complexion of our neighborhood changed (for the better, I think) sent as many teams to the high school hockey tournament as anyone until it's name was gradually eased off the record books by the likes of Roseau, Edina, Hill-Murray. But I digress.

Hockey means a lot to me. I understand the game. I played for many years. It's a cerebral game with nuance and finesse, yet brutal and unforgiving. It's fast and dynamic, infuriating and evil. And while it was difficult to watch Maverick teams that struggled, those struggles make it all the more exciting to watch the ones that don't. And this team, folks, is a joy to watch.

But if you haven't seen 'em this year, you're sort of out of luck. You could still go see them Thursday when they play Wisconsin, but I'm guessing if you couldn't make it down to the Verizon Wireless Center for a game, you're probably not going to make the trek to St. Paul.

So I'm sitting here with my glass of Finnegan's Irish Amber wondering what the deal is, wondering what has to happen to fill that place up.

Next year will be a golden opportunity, I think. When the team rolls out its 2013-2014 edition, it'll do so in a newly renovated rink. New dasher boards, new seats, new ice. The rink will be physically smaller. The locker rooms fancier.

With all that change coming down, it strikes me that it'd be a good time to maybe implement some other changes as well.

The atmosphere at the games is almost identical to what it was 15 years ago when the team entered the WCHA. Visit other teams, see what they do. I find it hard to believe that there isn't room for improvement here. The special "happy hour" promotion last weekend, where they offered $1 hot dogs and $2 beers was outstanding. Why isn't that done EVERY hockey weekend? Why am I hearing the same 20 songs between whistles every game? Why is it that, in the age of instant replay, fans still can't see a replay of goal or a big hit on a jumbotron?

The experience hasn't changed much over the years. And I'm wondering if that has something to do with the number of people who show up.

What's that you say? The building was nearly sold out twice this year? That's true, but that's only because the fans from North Dakota and Minnesota made it happen.

C'mon folks. This is a Division I team, one of the best in the nation. What more do these guys have to do to get you to come to a game?

I remain in awe. But I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised next fall when the new season starts in the newly renovated Verizon Wireless Center.


  1. Jutting did a lot of damage to the fans of this team, they're not going to come flocking back overnight. Attendance was up overall for this season though.

    Hopefully the Verizon Wireless Center will get it's much needed upgrades as well and draw a few more fans. If they keep winning though, I have a feeling the fans will return. With the new WCHA the Mavs should do very well.

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