What Canada can learn from NCAA hockey
Daniel Zakrzewski (@Art_A_Zak) Feb. 23, 2015
It's 7pm on a cold Friday evening in February. Snow gently falls onto the heads of the large gathering of fans who eagerly flock through the front doors of the local arena to catch this weekend's hottest ticket in town. The blanket of white snow that covers the ground is sharply contrasted by a sea of red and yellow, the home team's colours. The colours are a badge that the spectators wear proudly in support of the local hockey team -- the pride of their town. Yes, it's hockey night. But no, it's not in Canada.
The site is Big Rapids, a town in the heart of Michigan with a population of just over 10,000 people and home to the Ferris State University Bulldogs. A school that boasts the honour of having an NCAA division one hockey team -- a status Ferris has held for over 30 years. In this American town, hockey shares the throne with football as a fifty-fifty equal, and up until Ferris State's recent success on the gridiron, the game that Canada claims as its own stood alone a top Big Rapids' athletics hierarchy.
The opponent on the evening is Bowling Green State University, a conference rival in the WCHA (Western Collegiate Hockey Association). Even though the Bulldogs haven't been playing their best hockey -- sitting below .500 -- over 2,000 students as well as members of the FSU community have packed into the Ewigleben Ice Arena, a number that represents nearly twenty-five per cent of the total population of Big Rapids.
On February 11th, the Rams took on their OUA (Ontario University Athletics) and inner-city rivals, the University of Toronto Blues. The game was the first of two in round one of the OUA playoffs. The total attendance on the evening for this pivotal playoff match-up...625.
Before you burst into a fit of rage while reading this, tossing your phone into a wall or dumping your desktop out of a nearby window, I'll make it clear that it is well understood that both universities are situated in entirely different markets, which is a major reason for the large discrepancy in attendance. Ryerson is located in a major metropolitan area where a majority of the students commute to school and where the athletic program has to compete with a number of professional sports franchises and about a billion other events. While Ferris State sits within a much smaller community, where the hockey team takes centre stage.
The discussion here is not focused on why there is such a discrepancy in support shown to collegiate level hockey in Canada as compared to the NCAA, because there's a multitude of reasons that differ from market to market across the country. The question is not why, but what?
What kind of unique hockey experience are we missing out on up north?
Upon my arrival at the Ewigleben Arena in Big Rapids, visually speaking, it was immediately apparent that the facility wasn't exactly state of the art. In fact, Michael Corn, the Creative Services Coordinator for FSU Athletics and a current student described it as "kinda like a dive bar. When you go in, it's not the best looking and you're not expecting much." But once I opened the concourse doors and stepped foot into the arena, it was at that very moment I knew it was going to be a special evening.
Electric didn't even begin to describe the atmosphere inside the small but cozy confines of the Ewigleben. As the opposing Bowling Green Falcons skated onto the ice, the student section situated to my left, affectionately titled "the Dawg Pound", booed with the strength of 500 sets of vocal chords, but came off sounding closer to 5,000. Brutus, the Ferris State mascot ran laps around the arena, while a student alumni member dressed as an ape energetically lead the Dawg Pound in a strong willed chant of "F-S-U", with the students adding some percussion to the roaring crowd noise, stomping their feet so hard that you could probably hear the clattering of wood from outside of the arena.
The Bulldogs' arena capacity is nowhere near as high as some of the other division one schools, but opponents know it to be an incredibly intimidating place to play, a fact that Ferris students and players on the team are proud of. "A lot of teams are afraid to come here, because the student section is right on top of you" says Corn. Simon Denis, a junior defenseman for the Bulldogs praised the student section, saying "it gets so loud in here that the sound just echoes off the roof, we wouldn't change it for anything, you're really on top of the game and right on top of the team." Sophomore forward Gerald Mayhew added in, gleefully stating "we have a good bond with fans, they support us really well, every year too."
While Brutus and the man in the ape costume do a tremendous job at getting the Dawg Pound barking and involved in the game, a large amount of credit is owed to a special group of individuals who are a staple at nearly every NCAA arena, but are strangely absent at Canadian University rinks -- the school band.
It can be tough to lead a cheer or a charge, but with the assistance of a few brass, woodwind and percussion instruments, alongside a conductor, an entire arena can spring to life in a matter of seconds.
Another unique atmospheric-building act on the evening was local musician Andy Kirby, a guitarist who was plugged into the in-house speakers and tasked with serenading the already lively crowd with classic rock hits such as the Beatles "Come Together" and cherished sporting event melodies like Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."
I quickly came to realize, this was more than just a hockey game. This was a prideful celebration of what it meant to be a Ferris State Bulldog. The collection of alumni, mixed in with an assortment of town locals and the injection of a youthful cheering section makes for one of the most unique hockey events you'll ever experience in your life. The arena only sat 2,000 and the venue was less than modern, but by the end of the night, I myself felt the power of Corn's statement that "hockey is life here at Ferris State."
On the busiest night, which unsurprisingly was the home opener, the Rams got the chance to play in front of over 2,000 fans. But of the team's fourteen non-exhibition home games, half of them brought in a crowd of under a thousand. Something that doesn't bode well for creating an emotionally stimulating environment or provide the home team with much of an advantage. Rino Matucci, a former student broadcaster with the Rams, described the atmosphere at most home games as "dull", characterizing the crowd makeup as "bare for the most part and the seats that were filled, were filled with parents, girlfriends, or school friends and other athletes."
Although he wasn't overly impressed with the turnout as far as numbers go, Matucci did credit those who did show up, stating that "those fans could make noise." But he also underlined what could be considered a major issue that may also potentially be plaguing other Canadian University hockey programs, as well, describing the audience as what he felt was a "closed community where unless you were in, you weren't there."
Ryerson and other universities across Canada are well aware of the challenges they face in trying to fill seats at their sporting events, knowing full well that they're competing with not just professional franchises, but major junior teams as well. Ryan Sykes, who serves as a training and support staff member for RTA and their new sports media program, knows this issue all too well as a citizen of the megacity. "Toronto is such a large sports market. You've got the Leafs, you've got the Marlies already, so yeah that definitely cuts into it." Even though he recognizes the near limitless amount of events there are to attend in Toronto on any given night, Sykes stated his belief that there's a good chance that "students are really going to rally around the university they attend."
Although, the challenge of competing for program attention is not an issue that is exclusive to large markets. The same types of problems are affecting University teams in cities much smaller than Toronto, a point raised by Matucci. "You look at schools in Ontario like say Nippissing in North Bay, they joined the OUA in 2009 and had a very strong average attendance for each game. After the Battalion OHL franchise arrived, the attendance dropped in the first year, then the last couple of seasons it's dropped significantly lower."
Alex Bloomfield, a fourth year RTA student and current member of the Rams broadcasting team expressed his faith in the plan that Canadian universities have been implementing. "I think that we're on the right track. First of all, expanding the media coverage would certainly help in growing the audience. That's what the OUA has set out to do in the next 4 years. Not just media, I think the schools are doing a better job of promoting it to their students."
As for the addition of school bands to Canadian university rinks? Sykes certainly supports the motion. "I think that's something they definitely, definitely should be getting in to, because it will raise the profile of being at the games." We've all been to a sporting event that just seems to be lacking in spirit. Sometimes it just take a little spark to ignite the crowd into a frenzy. "You come together a lot more as a community when you get stuff like that as you see in NCAA games. I think they need to do it" says Sykes.
In the meantime, sure, the easier solution is most certainly to just pack up the family station wagon and make a trip down south to soak in the NCAA hockey atmosphere. But doesn't something about that feel a little off? With hockey being such an integral piece of the fabric of what it means to be Canadian, wouldn't you much rather experience this kind of event in your own backyard?
For my money, I believe that those that feel that the country already has enough hockey are closing themselves off to a truly unique experience. Also, as proven by major junior leagues, it's not just the level of play that dictates a viewers interest in a team, it's the sense of community around it. If you love hockey, you can find just about any reason to love any team (insert obligatory Leafs joke here).
Hockey teams located in smaller markets often bring their own brand of passionate energy to each and every one of their home games -- that much is undeniable. But what they don't have is student cheering sections that number in the hundreds, they don't have a band to get help get demure fans out of their seats and into the action.
I suppose you could argue that these additional elements are uniquely American and that there's no need to import them into the Canadian game. But the way I see it, it's an alternative take on the game of hockey that just makes an already fantastic game even more fun to take part in, and truthfully, isn't that what it's all about?
The World Junior Championships is the only event that truly comes close to the pageantry and youth-filled charge of NCAA hockey. But much like Christmas, it only comes once a year and it's over far too quickly. Not to mention, it's not always held in North America.
So, where will Canadian university hockey be in five years? Will we ever see a Rams crowd rock a building's foundation as heavy and as consistently as the Dawg Pound in Big Rapids?
Bloomfield remains optimistic. "Thursday nights are already pretty loud at the Mattamy (laughs) but I definitely think a few years down the road, it could be that way."