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Zulgad: An empty feeling: Can Gophers hockey ever recapture attendance magic?

MINNEAPOLIS — There has been plenty of conversation in recent years about attendance at University of Minnesota men’s hockey games due to the rows, and at times sections, of empty seats at Mariucci Arena. Not all of these unoccupied seats were unpaid for, but in terms of fans in the building this was an issue for a program that once was accustomed to playing before capacity crowds.

Then came the Gophers’ 3-2 overtime victory over Michigan on Friday in their opening game of the Big Ten tournament at what is now called 3M Arena at Mariucci. The Gophers rallying from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Wolverines on Brandon McManus’ goal at 10 minutes, 10 seconds of overtime should have been the story but that wasn’t the case.

Instead, the focus was on the announced attendance of 1,835 in an arena that holds 10,000. If the fact that there were 8,165 empty seats wasn’t alarming enough, there also was this sobering visual evidence.

Things didn’t improve much for a 4 p.m. start on Saturday in which the Gophers beat the Wolverines, 4-1, en route to a two-game sweep and a berth in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. The announced attendance this time was 1,911.

Asked about the impact of playing before such small crowds, Gophers coach Bob Motzko said: “We just won two games. And, when you’re on the bench, and you come down and stand with me, and I’ll let you do it, I don’t think (the players) are looking around worrying about … I know there’s adrenaline when things are different because we had that this year, too. You asked, ‘Was it difficult?’ It wasn’t difficult. Do we all wish it was better? Yeah. But we had a game to play. Clock started at 20 each period and we had to play.

“I kind of thought tonight, ‘You know what?’ … That’s why I sent the guys down to the end (to salute the student section after the game). We didn’t have a big crowd but let’s go salute the ones that did show up. They were loud, you could hear them. There was some enthusiasm in that building. We’re not playing for the people that weren’t here, we’re playing for the ones that showed up tonight.”

First the facts:

The first-round of the Big Ten tournament — which is played at the higher-seed for each matchup — is not part of the Gophers’ season-ticket package but season-ticket holders were offered the chance to buy tickets at $25 apiece.

The same price applied for what amounts to Gophers’ perks members — football and basketball season-ticket holders, for instance — and student tickets were only $10. The price for the general public was $30 across the board, a difference from the regular season when pricing in the Mariucci bowl is subject to location. There has been grumbling about the price of regular-season tickets, and complaints about the additional charge that came with mandatory donations tied to scholarship seating.

While the Gophers knew they would be playing host to the first round two weeks ago, the general public was not offered the chance to buy tickets until this past Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, the small crowd on Friday quickly became a hot topic on social media. The two immediate responses: 1) The Gophers’ move to the Big Ten has ruined the program and no one cares; and 2) The semifinal games of the Class AA boys’ high school hockey tournament were going on a few miles away at the St. Paul Civic Center (excuse me, the Xcel Energy Center) and thus the Gophers were not going to draw.

Let’s start with the second statement. Did the high school hockey tournament impact some fans who might have elected to stay home and watch the Gophers and the prep tournament — the Wild also played — instead of going to the University of Minnesota campus? Yes, that’s certainly a possibility. There also was the announced attendance of 17,459 in St. Paul. But, c’mon, neither of those explains 8,000-plus empty seats in Mariucci.

The first statement has been the rallying cry for many, including me at times, since the Gophers made the move from the WCHA to the Big Ten in 2013-14. That is the season that Penn State became the sixth hockey playing school in the conference, thus triggering other Big Ten hockey schools to abandon their conferences and make the move. The University of Minnesota has taken blame for moving from the WCHA, but the reality is it had no choice and even voted against the change, although the vote carried no weight.

There is little doubt the shift from playing WCHA rivals, many of them in-state, to playing in a conference that includes Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame and, former fellow WCHA member Wisconsin, was a switch that many will never forgive.

Having hockey fans angry at them might not be ideal for the university, but it certainly has been worth it. USA Today reported last month that the Big Ten likely distributed a little more than $50 million to each of its 12 schools that got full revenue shares in fiscal 2018. That was an increase from the $37 million that the Big Ten reported it distributed to its longest-standing members in fiscal 2017.

The increase is due in part to the new television agreements that began in 2018 and the success of the Big Ten Network. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, who has announced he will retire in 2020 after 30 years, likely always saw hockey as tonnage for the Big Ten Network, meaning it was programming that could be shown to fill spots but wasn’t all that important.

There was a time when Doug Woog or Don Lucia could go into a recruit’s home and sell that player and his parents on the fact that almost every Gophers game would be shown on Midwest Sports Channel and later on Fox Sports North. There also was the factor that many WCHA opponents were within driving distance and that the puck would usually drop around 7 p.m.

Many of those advantages are now gone. FSN still shows games, but the Big Ten Network also airs a package and some simply aren’t televised. Depending on which network is showing a game, the start times also can vary. The comfort that came from the consistency that once existed is gone.

Nonetheless, the Gophers finished third in the nation this season in average attendance, according to the USCHO website. In 21 home dates, the Gophers drew 172,885, an average of 8,231, or 82.3 percent of capacity. Only North Dakota (11,421) and Wisconsin (10,044) averaged more fans per game. The Gophers’ total attendance was behind only North Dakota (205,579), although the Fighting Hawks had three fewer homer dates.

But if you watch Gophers hockey on television, or go to a game, your eyes aren’t lying. There are a large amount of empty seats that used to be full. According to Eric Vegoe’s story in The Athletic in February 2018 (subscription required), the number of Gophers season-ticket holders had fallen from 7,765 in 2010-11 to 5,474 in 2017-18.

Some of this is out of the control of the university and athletic director Mark Coyle, but certainly not all of it. What athletic officials needed to come to grips with years ago is they got a huge break when the North Stars left town in 1993. Until the Wild arrived in 2000, Gophers hockey was the biggest game in town. The move to the new Mariucci came in the same season that the Stars debuted in Dallas.

But when the Wild began play in their self-proclaimed State of Hockey in 2000-01 it changed things for the Gophers, even though fan interest remained strong. It helped matters that Lucia’s teams won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2002 and ’03. But the Gophers have made it past the first round of the NCAA tournament only once since joining the Big Ten and could miss the tournament for a second consecutive season this year.

Motzko, who was hired to replace Lucia after last season, has the challenge of getting the program back on top in a college hockey landscape that is drastically different than the one that existed during the school’s glory days.

Even if the Gophers return to where many feel they belong, is that going to be enough to fill 3M Arena at Mariucci on a consistent basis? Or do added fees for certain seats have to be eliminated and the price structure of tickets in the entire building drastically reduced?

While these moves likely would help, the reality is that recapturing the magic that once surrounded this program, at least when it comes to attendance, simply might not be possible.





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