College hockey is being held back by it’s own blithe spirit of the actual joy of sport. But how long will it stay uncorrupted? An examination.
Written by Kyle Magin
College hockey displays all the telltale signs of desiring major sport status. New arenas, brawny new leagues, TV deals and rosters chock full of pro prospects make the sport as viable, relevant and entertaining as it’s ever been.
But, one thing is holding it back. College hockey still has heart. In today’s climate, that’s a hindrance.
We’re coming into sports’ high holy season in the next few weeks. College football’s bowl season kicks off soon, which will include contests on Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas. The NBA schedule finally starts to matter after two months of polite curtseying and bidding Kobe farewell with its Christmas Day slate.
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The NFL will soon pick up the Saturdays college football isn’t using as it steams toward the playoffs. The NHL takes a sensible Christmas break for the holiday and the two days leading up to it, but some of the biggest matchups of the year are scheduled for when the kids are out of school. College basketball continues apace much the same. There are a few pauses, but nobody really passes on making hay out of the ratings spike that comes with much of America having free time between now and the New Year. There’s no other time quite like it–when families are together, sheltering inside from terrible weather and desperate to find something on TV rather than actually speak to one another.
The one sport you’ll find conspicuously absent from the holiday sports calendar, though, is college hockey, where the kids still take their exams on campus with their classmates and then head home for break without a coast-to-coast schedule looming over their heads. December is sacred to the sport. After last weekend, exactly one top-10 game will take place before December 28, and numbers 4-7 in the rankings are off from now until the New Year.
It’s also probably not in keeping with the new direction of sports as the only reason people haven’t cut the cord, the last bastion of destination viewing and a product you can charge big money to stream online for.
College hockey wants to move into the big time. It’s the reason the Big Ten recently called home its six skating programs to create the first Power 5 league in the sport. It’s the reason Notre Dame and Penn State dumped tens of millions into new arenas to join new-ish offerings at Ohio State and North Dakota, and old barns like Munn in East Lansing and Yost in Ann Arbor received multi-million dollar facelifts. It’s the reason you can now find the sport regularly on ESPN, NBC Sports Net and any number of regional or league carriers and their accompanying streaming services. The race is on to introduce the sport to as many people as possible and the advertisers who care about them while everyone is willing to pay a premium for non-DVR-able content.
It’s why some of the sport’s old-time charm will inevitably fade, and it’s both necessary and sad. Even if you’re not a hockey fan (thank you for reading this far), it takes just one trip to a game to set the hook. There’s almost nothing like the passion on display at a home college rink on a Friday or Saturday night. I can still smell the stale sweat, popcorn and cheap puck-bunny perfume that signaled a home date for my Oakland University Golden Grizzlies during my college years. Weekend games at Lawson Ice Arena in Kalamazoo–home to Western Michigan–are the kind of place where the little boys still run right up to the glass and press their faces against it, screaming with delight when one of their beloved Broncos smashes an opposing player into the boards just inches away. There are the really unspeakably foul student section chants that’ll assure the sport of never getting crisp crowd noise attached to the broadcast like you’d see in hoops or football. These are some of the things that make the sport special, along with its insistence on honoring the holidays. Games are for students and families during the academic calendar–not Jerry Jones and a bunch of AT&T execs hundreds of miles away from the nearest dorm room. Yet.
But, with the current forces pulling on the sport, how long is it before we get a holiday tournament? How long after that will another league or school want to see how much it could make with a Dec. 26 game? When will TV execs ask for more dates after the dorms send their charges home for a little R&R when the semester ends?
Hopefully it’s a long time coming. But the winds of change say otherwise, and it’s heartbreaking.