Monday, December 30, 2013

Regionally Speaking

Popular opinion had it that North Dakota, the perennial NCAA tournament program which is more often than not a solid part of the national championship discussion, was probably going to beat a Yale team that had backed into the tournament after a dreadful ECAC tournament showing in Atlantic City. Even though the Bulldogs had just upset one of the tournament favorites, Minnesota, luck was supposed to run out on Cinderella the next night.

Through 50 minutes, it was looking good for the favorites. They hadn't been able to unleash a great many shots on Jeff Malcolm, but a Corban Knight goal from the first period was still holding up for a 1-0 lead. Clarke Saunders had been magnificent in turning away shot after shot, accumulating 25 in the first two periods alone.

Then, Yale took momentum and wouldn't let go, shocking the college hockey world in the process. A goal with 7:35 left tied it. Then a power play tally about two and a half minutes later put the Bulldogs in front. Another two and a half minutes later, it was 3-1, and 90 seconds after that, an empty netter put the seal on a 4-1 victory that ended North Dakota's season and put Yale, for the first time in several decades, in the Frozen Four on their way to their first national championship.

With a comeback on that magnitude, you think you'd probably hear a pin-drop in the arena, especially given North Dakota's fanbase, well-known as one of the largest and best traveling in the country. Truth be told, one probably could have heard a pin-drop in Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan that day. The problem is, you could probably have heard it at the opening puck drop. And during Knight's goal. And during the second period as well.

Only 1,918 people were in attendance for one of the biggest victories in the very, very long history of Yale hockey, sitting in a building capable of seating close to 11,000.

Earlier in the year, a reported sellout crowd of 3,500 had watched the Bulldogs win an exhibition game over the Russian Red Stars in a 10-2 laugher. Yale punched its ticket to the Frozen Four in front of fewer fans than had seen their poor play in Atlantic City, a location much maligned in the ECAC for its inability to draw fans. They'd played in front of fewer fans on only four occasions before during the year - in two games at the Ivy Shootout to start their season at Brown, neither game coming against a home team that draws notoriously poor crowds to start with, in a road game at Holy Cross, and then in a road game at... Brown. Even their game at similarly light-crowd-drawing Colgate managed 1,962.

The game set the record for the lowest official attendance at an NCAA regional final since the tournament expanded to 16 teams in 2003. The very next day, in Toledo, Ohio, St. Cloud State ended a drought for its long-suffering fans by earning its first ever Frozen Four berth, taking down the ostensible local team in Miami before only 2,460 fans. If not for the poor turnout in Grand Rapids the previous day, that would have been the record for smallest regional final crowd. The original record? Set in 2012 in Green Bay, Wisconsin between Ferris State and Cornell at 3,102.

RPI took on Denver in the middle of a snowstorm a couple of weeks ago, and managed an attendance of 2,703, which was bigger than two NCAA tournament regional finals last season.

Six of the 10 smallest regional final crowds ever have come in the last four seasons, and if the attendance figures for the 2011 West Regional final in St. Louis had been released, it is thought that it would also rank in that bottom 10. None of these crowds eclipsed 4,000 attendees, which means RPI/Union games in Albany and Troy during the regular season have regularly been beating out games that determine Frozen Four participants. So while regional attendance has never been earth shattering - only three finals have ever cleared 10,000 - of late it has certainly appeared to be getting worse.

Over the next four days, we'll be taking a look at regionals past, present, and future, and discuss just what can be done about major NCAA games frequently being played in front of practically no one.

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