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The Conference Tournament Experience: Year 2

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Matt Christians

Conference tournament weekend was last weekend and the results in the west were dismal for the second straight year. There was some great hockey played, but most of the focus was on the rows upon rows--and in some cases, sections upon sections--of empty seats. The Big 10/NCHC/WCHA combined to have 54,317 people in attendance for their 12 games this weekend. The last WCHA Final Five drew 87.295 for five games. Add in another 20,000 from the last CCHA championship and attendance at college hockey conference tournaments in the west has dropped nearly 50% since the big conference shake-up two years ago.

I'll defer to my colleague Nate Wells who covered the event live for deeper insight, but the first Big Ten Tournament held at Joe Louis Arena appeared to be an absolute flop. The tournament had Thursday all to itself in the college hockey world, which means people from around the country were able to tune in and see an absolutely empty arena. It was embarrassing for the Big Ten and embarrassing for the sport of college hockey. Attendance improved slightly for the next two days of the tournament, but the announced attendance number never cracked 7000.

Many used this terrible attendance as ammunition to attack Detroit as the host, or Michigan fans for not traveling to their local tournament to watch their team, but that's mostly misguided. The real problem is that the Big Ten offered a terrible product at a terrible price. The push to move the Big Ten Tournament back to campus sites will be very strong after this disaster.

I had the opportunity to cover both the NCHC Frozen Face Off(on Friday) and the WCHA Final Five(on Saturday) giving me a bit of perspective on both events.

The NCHC was the winner of the weekend at least from an attendance perspective, drawing over 11,000 both nights. But about 9000 of those people on Friday were wearing North Dakota green. Much was made of the North Dakota/St. Cloud State semifinal being the early game on Friday. It didn't seem to affect North Dakota attendance that much, but I think it definitely put a hit in St. Cloud State attendance. I wasn't there, but from the sounds of it, the North Dakota fans that didn't stick around for Saturday were canceled out by the extra St. Cloud State fans that came down for the final.

Meanwhile, the second semifinal between Miami and Denver started with about half of that announced crowd and dwindled as the game went on. When Denver cut Miami's lead to one goal in the third period, there were maybe 1500 people in the building, by my estimate.

That brings us back to the question of why we even made these conference changes in the first place. For North Dakota, their excuse for creating the NCHC was a fear of being 'held back' by their other conference mates. There's an argument to be made that that has worked from a competitive standpoint, but two years in, that's definitely not the case with the conference tournament.

It also doesn't help that the Target Center is still a terrible venue for hockey. Poor ice conditions and wacky bounces off the boards have been a theme each of the past two seasons. St. Cloud State's Patrick Russell got checked through a door in the corner that accidentally opened which could have caused a major injury on Friday afternoon.

I'll edit out hundreds of words, for the sake of the reader, on how terrible the elevator situation is at the Target Center but will say that after the Friday afternoon game, media ended up having to take the freight elevator down to the floor level. I passed on the opportunity but a colleague described it as "pretty scary".

I can't speak as much to the fan experience, but did hear rumors of a sizable "We want the X!" chant from some North Dakota fans on Friday afternoon.

Try as the NCHC might--and they do try very hard to put on a great event--Target Center just isn't a hockey building, and it really takes away from the experience of the event.

If there was a qualified success on the weekend, it was the WCHA Final Five. When it was first announced that the new WCHA would still hold their conference tournament at the XCel Energy Center, I thought the potential for disaster and embarrassment wasn't just high, it was a guarantee. That wasn't the case though. The league drew just over 8000 for their final and the game had a very fun atmosphere.

Part of that is because the league lucked into a dream match-up in the final. Minnesota State and Michigan Tech were both coming off fantastic seasons--ranked in the top five and each spending some time ranked #1 this season--and with fanbases that had likely never experienced their team having this type of success. Michigan Tech has a small but very vocal group of fans and coming from the old WCHA, a trip to St. Paul wasn't a foreign idea to them. Minnesota State is the closest team to the X in the league and brought a decent number of fans. Both schools had great bands.There were competing "Let's Go Huskies"/"Let's Go Mavericks" chants for much of the game. I'll never be a big fan of neutral site hockey, but the Final Five championship showed that under the right circumstances, it can be pretty fun.

The other half of the credit has to go the new WCHA administration, who put in a lot of work to get as many people into the building as they could to make it a positive experience for all involved. It was a good idea to close the upper bowl and keep everyone in the lower level. They offered discounted rush tickets to college students and people at Saturday's Minnesota Wild game. They got out and promoted the Final Five at places like the Mall of America. They did a great job getting local youth teams involved and in the building. The overall effort level from league administration is a night-and-day difference from the old WCHA administration and it really paid off with a successful weekend.

I did say qualified success, however. The number of fans they drew was much better than it could have been. The league hit the attendance goals they were shooting for, which means they probably didn't lose a ton of money on the deal. But they're also not making much money drawing only about 14,000 people over the weekend. If you equate what happened to the WCHA as being thrown into the ocean, the league is managing to keep its' head above the water, but they haven't secured a life raft yet.

The small turnouts over the weekend already have both the NCHC and WCHA looking at combining their tournaments in the future. It's an interesting idea, but again, it brings up the question of why we even made this conference split in the first place.

Many will say it's too soon to declare this realignment a failure and that it will take time for new rivalries to grow. The first questions is how is it going to grow when half the audience has already made the decision not to show up. The more important question though is why? Why is it important that we do everything we possibly can to make sure someone's terrible idea a few years ago isn't labeled a terrible idea? I would much rather move forward and start trying to find a solution that does work than trying to pretend that something that obviously doesn't work could maybe work in the future.