Big Ten Hockey: Final Thoughts on the first Conference Tournament, Attendance, Hockey & Community

Matt Christians

Last weekend drew a range of emotions in St. Paul from players to fans to coaches. Our own Nate Wells tries to make sense of it all.

ST. PAUL- Whether it was a part of a pre-assigned playlist, the luck of the draw or an employee trying to get overly cute with the music selection to make a point at Xcel Energy Center, how it happened doesn't matter. What does is the song choice. Moments before Penn State and Michigan began warm-ups for the first-ever Big Ten hockey tournament game Thursday, the perfect song to sum up the situation, and the weekend, came over nearly 18,000 empty seats.

Right before skates hit an unused sheet of ice was Anna Kendrick's version of "Cups (When I'm Gone)."

As the lights came up and strains of several different rhyming ways to say "you're going to be miss me when I'm gone" echoed, the elephant in the empty arena reared its head. This was different. This was making the point.

College hockey realignment has changed the game out West and none more so than with conference tournaments. The WCHA Final Five has spent the past 15 years being the Upper Midwest's crown jewel event. Tens of thousands WCHA fans annually made the pilgrimage to St. Paul, ending last year with an announced crowd of 87,235 for the three day event.

This year, the 3 splintered tournaments (Big Ten in St. Paul, WCHA in Grand Rapids, Michigan and newly-formed NCHC in Minneapolis) announced 88,276 fans combined.

What had been one full building ended up shifting the same fans into three separate ones. It's what was expected to some extent. Minnesota brought fans to St. Paul. North Dakota had a huge fanbase in Minneapolis. Ferris State had some representation in Grand Rapids.

Otherwise, what was a weekend destination turned into "watching my team in person if it's convenient" in year one.

"It's unbelievable," said Ohio State freshman goaltender Christian Frey, an Arlington, Texas native, about playing in an NHL arena. "Obviously it wasn't sold out tonight, but tomorrow night should be a really good crowd and it's the best part about hockey playing in front of all these fans."

Unfortunately, those fans that were Buckeyes fans were few and far in between.

The loudest the building got was Friday night when Minnesota played its lone game, followed by a number of Badger fans which made the trip and were there Saturday. Going through the Hobey Baker Awards nominees Thursday night, Wisconsin's Joel Rumpel had a nice section of cheers followed by Minnesota's Adam Wilcox getting a lot of applause. OSU's Ryan Dzingel, whose team was playing, had his cheers limited to the red and white instrument section off in the Xcel Energy Center upper deck.

Sometimes it was worse. Thursday in general, with Minnesota and Wisconsin on byes, meant the opening crowds were well under the announced 7,500 and even little things like Kiss Cam were rough around the edges. Despite knowing over a year in advance that their teams would be in St. Paul, few Penn State and Wolverines fans made the trip. Even fewer were there for a 2 p.m. local weekday start.

The worst came later Thursday night when a group of fans that paid money to watch Michigan State-Ohio State unveiled, for the second consecutive year, a sign saying "B1G Mistake."

Well not too much money. $10 could have gotten you on the glass seats Thursday. Two years ago, the announced attendance for Denver-Michigan Tech (2 teams not within 6 hours of St. Paul) on Thursday was 11,489. Both Thursday games may not have reached that total together. (Total conference tournament attendance was down 40% according to USCHO.)

Connected to St. Paul by an unopened train line was another half-full building in the Target Center.

To be fair, as Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" blasted through the X, even the most optimistic outlook would have been disappointing to many. There is no way that any conference was going to match the rivalries, the built in ticket sales, the crazy demand right away that the WCHA Final Five had. Year 1 is the beginning of a long-term plan.

"The people have been great, very gracious. The Big Ten people have been outstanding," said Spartans head coach Tom Anastos, the former CCHA commissioner, when SB Nation asked about how this compared with Detroit. "You know, obviously the crowds are going to be something that's going to have to take time to build.

"There was a long-standing tradition here. Those things don't happen overnight. The proximity of the schools to the locations is not accessible to the old league structure.

"The Big Ten does everything first class," he added. "I'm sure we'll learn a lot from our first go-around in this event. (Xcel Energy Center) is a terrific venue. The people are terrific. So for me, outside of losing the game tonight, it's been a very good experience."

The sad thing is that the games delivered. Those should the focus coming out of last weekend. After all, it is the reason why writers all over the country made their way to Minneapolis and St. Paul. All six teams, including two that left as #1 seeds for the Frozen Four, came in with each of the five games running a range of emotions.

From opening face-off Thursday to when Wisconsin was given the tournament trophy by someone who wasn't Commissioner Jim Delany, the action spoke for itself.

Three could not be settled in sixty minutes, needing the extra time and tense, quiet as church-like pressure which comes with a season on the line. Only one was not a one goal game and that - Ohio State's 3-1 win over Minnesota - was because of an empty net goal. There were seasons ending, desperate hockey played and a Buckeyes team that came ever so close to taking every punch last weekend.

It was like witnessing a boxer with a granite chin. Steve Rohlik's team took every punch and kept moving until UW's Mark Zengerle knocked OSU out.

"The games get tougher and tougher," Badger head coach Mike Eaves said Saturday. "The difference between each team now is so little. I don't know who we're going to play next week (author's note: Wisconsin found out Sunday that it would face North Dakota in the first round), but it's going to be one heck of a game just like we saw tonight probably."

Even Thursday had a pair of Twin Cities storylines on the ice despite the local team sitting out with Blaine's Eric Scheid saving a game for Penn State and Lakeville's Drew Brevig scoring the overtime winner for Ohio State.

In a different year, that would be the conversation. Scheid stated the win, a 2-1 double overtime victory in the 32nd longest college hockey game ever, was a big step for the Nittany Lions in its second year of Division 1. He sees the weekend, played at the same place where he participated in the high school state tournament, as a stepping stone.

"I think this is big for our program to build," Scheid said. "A lot of kids are going to see this and recruiting, it's going to go up from here. All-around it's only going to help us."

That feeling feels isolated to State College during a time where the rest of us discuss how new is not the same.

There is no single reason why fans become and remain fans. Like a TV comedy that strings along the mystery, some are there for the final chapter. Others tune in for the journey rather than the destination. The group dynamic is tough to take away.

When it is, like what we're seeing now with the conference tournaments, our divorced little communities, those that are left on the outside are the most vocal. There are new friends to be made, however, change is scary.

Right now is the worst of it. For all the Big Ten games nationally broadcast on BTN and the great job it did (in addition to other channels), realignment leaves college hockey in an odd place. It still registers as a regional sport. There is few, if any national coverage before the Frozen Four and in a way last weekend was a niche of a niche played during March Madness.

(Obviously SBN is one, however, we are in the thick of things focusing on one sport rather than debating if the WNBA has a bigger national presence. The fact you can't find this site - a middle child between college and hockey - in the lineup without knowing where to look doesn't speak well to that national broad picture argument. Neither does the lack of Getty and AP write-ups.)

Trying to change that perception, the conference has name recognition in a sport where explaining where Union and Quinnipiac are located outside of a close-knit online community is a regular occurrence. Some people like the close-knit community. Others don't. The problem is that, like Anastos said, these things don't happen and change overnight. In Year 1, the community is upset. The community is not open to trying to get a new one. There might as well be a "no Homers allowed" sign on the college hockey treehouse. The perception remains close to the same and there is no one to really hate besides a conference or three. Not a team, not a group of individuals, but the Big Ten and NCHC forming out of a splintered WCHA out West.

It'd be nice to see more fans make the trip to Detroit or St. Paul to build a new community. It'd be nice to see some of those Minnesota fans to find a Penn State fan or two that were swept up by the Nittany Lions upsetting Michigan to trade back some ribbing in addition. They can even have a "Timber" count.

Will it happen? That might just be wishful thinking.

Still, the event has shifted, the music has changed and the story goes on, "B1G Mistake" or not.

As the scene of Wisconsin fans partying in St. Paul Saturday faded, with the same going on across the mighty Mississippi in Minneapolis after North Dakota had two things out of its control go right, Anna Kendrick and the weekend at hand returned to mind. The Big Ten tournament product was great. It was good to meet new people. The timing of a Thursday at 2 p.m. game could be better fixed, but the players on the ice will continue to work and play for their season and a title regardless of if that is the focus of coverage.

There is more to cover now, even if the size of attention and fanbases haven't quite justified yet.

Mostly, passing by the five sweaters of Minnesota schools on display for the North Star College Cup - a local-oriented event that saw 15K fill the X for the inaugural NSCC championship this past January - I thought, "who is the ‘me' in this ‘you're going to miss me when I'm gone' situation? Will those who stay really miss them?" It's an honest question.

I thought the same thing passing by a Big Ten replica trophy on my way out of the building and into the night.

--

Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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