It’s probably the most terrifying word an NHL fan can consider right now, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. We have no choice but to wait and be without our favorite sport, possibly for an entire year… and it’s looking more dire every day.
But there is a way out. You can get your fix somewhere else.
You’re going to get that itch soon enough. With September here, we’re closing in on the usual start of training camps (sans-lockout). You know it’s almost time. You need to feel the chill as you enter the rink, to hear the sound of skates carving fresh ice, to celebrate unbelievable athleticism, to wear a hockey sweater and scream like a fool.
The solution is in NCAA hockey. Make no mistake: it’s not equivalent to and doesn’t feature the same level of play as the NHL. But when you’ve reached your wits’ end and need to see the sport, the college game is a pretty fine substitute.
But as we approach the worst case scenario, maybe you’re still not convinced, maybe you’re unsure what you’re getting into. Let’s assuage those fears and take a look at what makes the college game so much fun for fans.
Rich Tradition: The highest-profile college sports (football and basketball) have long histories of legendary teams, venues, and coaches. All those classical collegiate sporting elements translate to the ice in a unique (and sometimes more impressive) way. The chants, the fight songs, the pep bands, the alma maters, they’re all here. But pump that noise into an enclosed ice rink? The atmosphere gets cranked up to a whole new level.
Maybe you’re interested in some of the most classical venues in hockey. Head out to Appleton Arena in frigid Caton, NY, home of the St. Lawrence Skating Saints. Or drive over to Lynah Rink in Ithaca, home of the Cornell Big Red. These old barns are entirely functional to the current sport, but have a kind of mystical air and old-timey lived-in feel. The home-ice advantage in either place is immense. They leave opponents uncomfortable and stand as windows into days of old.
Or perhaps a shrine to North Dakota is more to your liking at The Ralph, or a legendary setting at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor. Maybe even that brand new cathedral-like building at Notre Dame can draw you out. Any way you slice it, there’s something special about every venue in the the NCAA.
What if you’re looking for continuity of programs to carry the tradition of a school? Then look no further than the legendary coach Red Berenson at the University of Michigan, a man who has led the Wolverines to an unprecedented 22 straight NCAA tourney appearances. Or we can focus on, Jerry York who has turned Boston College into the best program of the past decade (and has an overall resume easily puts him into elite territory). Storied successes can also be found in Denver with George Gowzdecky, Boston University with Jack Parker. The kind of historic success of these giants is something unique to the college version of hockey; in the current NHL, only Trotz and Ruff can even approach the tenure of their NCAA counterparts.
And these traditions didn’t even begin to cover a facet of the college game that deserves singular recognition…
Rivalry Games: The NHL has certainly developed some enjoyable rivalries (Pens/Flyers, Hawks/Canucks, Bruins/Habs are particularly zesty in recent years) but the rivalry games in college hockey are far more impressive. Wild college crowds, recruiting competition, decades of historic showdowns, and close proximity cause these games to rise above all others in sport.
I’m biased to supporting the yearly northern New York war between Clarkson and St. Lawrence, but Cornell-Harvard, Michigan-Michigan State, Minnesota-North Dakota, Colorado College-Denver, BC-BU are all long standing experiences of pure hate. Each one features stories of line brawls, bruising hits, battles that determine league titles. And each respective fanbase has been only too happy to help build the atmosphere. Vulgar, furious chants echo through the arenas. Inappropriate gestures are shared. Little old women curse at those who dare oppose their beloved team. It’s an even more exhilarating ride to set foot in enemy territory and watch your team win.
Add in some blossoming rivalries like RPI-Union and transplant rivalries from other sports (Ohio State-Michigan, among others) and you’re bound to find a bloodthirsty crowd and a wild contest on the ice.
The Future Starts Here: While many of the highest-caliber prospects come from the CHL or European leagues, coming to an NCAA game still gives you an advance look at some future NHL stars.
Yes, I said stars. Perhaps you’ve heard of Martin St. Louis (pictured here), Jonathan Toews, Thomas Vanek, or Ryan Miller? All former college stars (from Vermont, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Michigan State, respectively) who regularly dominate the NHL today. You can find a more exhaustive list of the 300 NHL players with college roots over at College Hockey Inc. Add in such rising stars as Torey Krug (MSU/Bruins), Justin Schultz (Wisconsin/Oilers), and the electrifying Chris Kreider (BC/Rangers), and the number of college-player-turned-NHL-force remains healthy.
And that legacy doesn’t stop with the most recent generation of college grads. College Hockey Inc also has a list of college-bound young men selected in the 2012 NHL Draft. The full list of NHL draft picks in the college ranks is even more exciting: it means you’re sure to find plenty of promising players this season. Cooler yet: all 30 NHL teams had at least one draft pick in the NCAA. Even without your NHL club on the ice, there’s a chance you could catch one of them anyway.
Conference Playoffs and The Frozen Four Tournament: I’ll admit, there’s nothing that compares to the Stanley Cup playoffs, but NCAA hockey playoffs come close and manages to distill the strengths of the sport.
Conference playoffs are where the hate really forms and underdogs can ruin the national playoff aspirations of leaders. High-caliber teams and blood rivals often meet in championship games that see teams fall at the hands of their most reviled enemies. In the “weaker” conferences these playoffs mean even more: victory guarantees a shot at the NCAA tournament, a loss means starting anew next year.
And it all builds to the Frozen Four Tournament. Much like March Madness in the world of basketball, this is set of single game playoff battles. With the do-or-die format, the unexpected is always moments away from happening; in the past few years unbelievable teams have managed to break through. In 2010 the upstart RIT, only five years into their Division 1 existence, managed to upset the #2 overall seed Denver and then beat New Hampshire to reach the Frozen Four. This past season, Union finally managed their first Frozen Four in only their second NCAA appearance. There, Union faced (and fell to) the equally-improbably-successful Ferris State, a team that broke through the difficult CCHA to reach the national title game.
It’s not optimal to consider your fall and winter plans without the NHL. In fact, it hurts a bit (and life will probably be more boring). You might briefly look into watching some NBA games, or just playing NHL 13 over and over. But don’t let it get you down. Get out there and find a college team. Or if that’s inconvenient, keep your eyes open for the NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network. Last season, NBCSN covered 16 college games and CBSSN had 24.
It’s not a perfect substitute, but it’s a fun, affordable way to get your hockey fix while the owners and players continue their dispute. Join the ranks of NCAA hockey fans and weather the lockout storm.