A rarity happened Friday night. I came across two back-to-back televised college hockey games while couch-ridden and channel surfing.
Actually that part was not unique. Most weekends have more than two televised games going on at the same time. The sport's television presence has grown up and gone off into the real world, both locally and nationally. Channels like ESPN, Fox Sports and CBS Sports Net all have more games than 5 years ago with TSN having a slate of games for Canadians to sample. Throw in online streaming and fans across the country have never had an easier time to follow their team.
What was rare was that the two games were a complete surprise. Neither was advertised locally, in this case Minneapolis, nor showed up on the cable provider as happening. That they did was a genuine shock. It was my own surprise secret doubleheader in an age where everything is available at the swipe of a smartphone.
When does that ever happen in 2015?
Friday was the first chance locally to watch a pair of Big Ten teams outside of an internet stream. To see either live would require a trip given the conference schedule hadn't started. The only way to find the doubleheader - Michigan at Boston University and Denver at Wisconsin - was to accidentally press the wrong button to come across a confusing "Walker Texas Ranger" episode where the villains are on ice.
Both games, produced by the American Sports Network syndication service, were entertaining. The Terriers came back with three unanswered goals in the third period to win 3-2 in a battle of top-15 teams in the opener and Denver tied the Badgers 3-3 on the road after falling behind 3-1.
The production was on par with other broadcasts although there were lulls and the occasional odd angle. Commentary was well done with veterans like Billy Jaffe and Pat Micheletti. Intermissions actually featured college hockey talk, which is more than can be said about other national broadcasts. (The BU-BC feature that keeps showing up in every ASN broadcast can take a breather, but at least it is hockey.)
At times watching college hockey can seem like it's a part of a cool club, one with ice and music and two kinds of cheerleaders. Those who "get it" get it. Those ones are not afraid to tell you what they think. They have their team. They will let you know regardless of the team's size, skill, or success.
In some regions of the country college hockey fans the fervor for their schools that match football with a back and forth soaked in equal parts camaraderie and blind hatred. Other parts have no clue that a sport with so many layers of infighting actually exists. The sport's regional structure doesn't stretch that far, even in areas with pro hockey teams, outside of the occasional one-off game.
And the thing is Friday's secret games weren't alone in being secret. Every ASN game has been like that. St. Cloud State and Minnesota State locally have home broadcasts on a distant channel that doesn't show up outside of the games.
In fact, only one of the five games (at least) available on my cable system this past weekend was marked as "college hockey."
Watching those other games require at least two steps of knowledge and knowing your blood type. Teams go out to promote where they are being shown. Only fans get that news, though. It's extremely difficult - not to mention bad business - to get anyone to casually watch in an age where TV time slots exist less and less in college hockey. There's no rhyme or reason. Good luck watching outside the college hockey bubble in the one sport that would rather hide itself on television.
Yet it's also very college hockey to do so. It's the kids being left alone at the table to do whatever they want, the small club that works. ASN has nothing to be ashamed. It has done a good job picking up the slack as the number of nationally televised games has slightly dropped this year. It is possible to watch teams on television during the first half of the season, but if no one can find them what is the point?
Or is that the point?
Still, I have to give some credit to ASN and Comcast 999 and all the other pop-up channels that can't be found in a television guide. A genuine surprise to come across a secret game on television is a feeling that doesn't come up much these days. Sometimes it is good to be surprised in the small club.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate