Tuesday, July 04, 2006

College Hockey: Outdoors and Out of Control

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on February 16, 2006.)

We just passed a big weekend in the fringes. College hockey had several seminal events in its calendar: Michigan Tech University’s Winter Carnival, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Big Red Freakout, an outdoor game at Lambeau Field between Wisconsin and Ohio State, and Boston’s own Beanpot Tournament. I bet you missed it. This is what happens in the fringes, there's not enough hype leading up to an event and not enough coverage once it happens. But as we used to say in college: better late to the party than never at the keg at all.

I know what you’re thinking: Boston isn’t the fringe of a media center; Boston is the center, jackass. Why, yes, my donkey-loving readers, you’re right. But there is also fringe media in media centers. That’s topical fringe media, covering what the mainstream of the media ignores. College hockey coverage in a media center like Boston qualifies as topical fringe sports media.

With that out of the way, let’s begin with Michigan Tech’s Winter Carnival, a celebration of all things chilly and greek in Houghton, MI, just about the northern most point of Upper Peninsula. A two-weekend long festival of competing fraternities, sororities and campus groups, events include the queen’s coronation, curling, human sled dog races, ice bowling and broomball, ice fishing and beard competition (which sadly has no pictures). And according to the Detroit News, students there claim to have broken the world records for largest snowball, largest snowball fight and most snow angels.

This past weekend was the second weekend. That meant consecutive nights of ferocious hockey action. On Friday, the Huskies faced off against number 1 in the nation Minnesota, coming up short 7-4.

MTU got some revenge of sorts against the Gophers the next night. Right before the closing torchlight parade that concluded with fireworks and a snow ball fight, the Winter Carnival climaxed with the second game against Minnesota that weekend. The final score was 2-2, giving the Huskies a moral victory over the top rated team in the country.

In Troy, New York, RPI held its annual Big Red Freakout, a chance for students and alumni – particularly hockey alumni – to show some pride. The weekend included an alumni game, a buffet dinner for all Engineer fans, a meet and greet with the players and coaches, and a school spirit boosting session of face painting. The highlight, of course, was the game which the RPI hockey team handily won, 4-2 over Brown, extending their record in Big Red Freakouts to 18-7-4.

The biggest common denominator between these two events – besides being great events for the schools and the hockey teams – is the pittance of news coverage devoted to them. During this weekend – a big weekend in college hockey, like rivalry weekend in college football – the topical fringe sports media in geographic fringe sports media let the sport down.

I found three items on Winter Carnival, none of it local. The Detroit News wrote about the snow records, the Duluth News Tribune wrote about the first game (happy that it helped the Gophers), and the Grand Forks Herald wrote about the second game (happy that the tie hurt the Gophers and helped their rival, the Fighting Sioux of the University of North Dakota).

Troy wasn’t quite as bad, as the Troy Record covered the game, and reports on RPI hockey in general. What was disappointing about the coverage, though, was that there was no lead up. The Big Red Freakout was the biggest sporting event in Troy this weekend, and other than a write up on the game’s result, it was hardly mentioned in the paper. RPI deserves better.

Moving onto the frozen tund… er, ice… the frozen ice of Lambeau Field. The men’s hockey game between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Ohio State Buckeyes represent, to me, one of the most exciting developments in college hockey: outdoor games. In 2001, Michigan and Michigan State opened their seasons by restarting their in state rivalry – dubbed “The Cold War” – by playing one another where MSU normally plays football, Spartan Stadium. Almost 75,000 people turned out for the match, which ended in a 3-3 tie.

Last Saturday, Wisconsin got a solid win, 4-2, over Ohio State in front of more than 40,000 fans. The players and coaches raved about the game and the pastoral charm of playing outside. No one was playing on a pond, the way the Canadians meant us to play their pucking game, but it’s a lot closer than playing in frost covered basketball arenas.

I personally love the idea and would pay good money to see the UNH Wildcats take the ice outside, either on a temporary rink in Cowell Stadium – where the football team normally plays – or in a permanent outdoor facility. Unfortunately, neither are in the works. In Boston, however, there are plans for Boston College to play a game in Fenway Park next year.

By the way, that link would have been to the Boston Globe and not ESPN.com, but apparently the Globe makes you pay for articles less than a week after they’re first published. It can be tough following fringe media in a media center.

As I mentioned in an earlier article, I think college hockey is going to emerge from fringe media into mainstream media in a big way. I think it has the potential to be the next Next Big Thing, and making it an outdoor game only promotes that. Can you imagine the television spectacle that college hockey would be in the middle of a snow storm? You couldn’t put enough seats in stadiums; they’d all be taken up by insane frat boys who want to wear thongs and body paint while supporting their schools and catching hypothermia. And the TV ratings would go through the roof!

What bothers me about the coverage of Saturday’s Lambeau Field game and the Cold War game from 2001 is that it has all focused on the games as spectacles. The idea that this could be a legitimate long term vision for the sport has never seriously been entertained, not by ESPN, not by USA Today, not even by the NCAA News.

If I’m Ann Weaver (good name) Hart, the president of the University of New Hampshire, I’m making long term plans to make my hockey program an outdoors program. By doing that I immediately become the most talked about and recognizable school in the sport while also becoming the leader as the sport emerges into the big time.

Which brings me to the final event of college hockey’s big weekend: the Beanpot Tournament. The Beanpot is the annual show down between Boston’s four college hockey teams: Boston University, Boston College, Harvard and Northeastern. To be honest, it usually comes down to BC and BU, with BU typically winning. This year was no exception.

And I have a confession: the Beanpot Tournament doesn’t exist on the fringes of sports media, neither geographically nor topically. In Boston, the Beanpot is a big deal. People care. And Boston TV stations and newspapers cover it like people care. The tournament doesn’t exist on fringes of sports media, last weekend it was the biggest sports show in town.

Why is this tournament here, then? Why put a mainstream media event of a major media center in a column about the fringes of both? Because this is what I think college hockey can become. College hockey can become big and popular, and not just in Boston. Once fringe media provides more comprehensive coverage of the sport and the mainstream media takes innovations like outside games seriously, the coverage the Beanpot receives could be the wave of the future for college hockey.

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