September 29, 2012

Lockout's silver lining: More exposure for college game

By Andrew Merritt

Garrett Vermeersch and his NU teammates celebrate a goal. (Dave Arnold Photography)

BOSTON – You’d be hard pressed to find a hockey fan who’s happy about the NHL lockout right now, but for a small group of diehards, there is a bright side.

While they agreed that the lockout is bad in the long-term for everyone, some Hockey East coaches recognize that the lack of top-level professional hockey, particularly in Boston, represents an opportunity for the college game to grab some attention.

“First and foremost, I think anybody who’s a fan of hockey is looking forward to a time when the best players in the world are back playing,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) said at Hockey East’s annual media day at TD Garden on Sept. 25. “The more hockey that’s being played, the better for all of us. I for one am rooting for this to be solved. It’s above my pay grade.

“But silver lining, yeah, there’s an opportunity for us – I don’t know if we’re going to win over pro hockey fans, but we can occupy their time in the meantime. College hockey is one of those sports that, once you come to one game, it can get in your blood a little bit. … I hope the lockout ends today. But in the meantime, if we can occupy some pro hockey fans’ time, we’d be more than happy to do that as well.”

Whether a lack of NHL options brings more fans to the area’s college rinks isn’t clear yet, but it’s no coincidence that the last time Hockey East sold out both nights of its March championship tournament at the Garden was 2005, when the NHL was six months deep into a season-long work stoppage.

Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.) doesn’t envision a huge bounce for college hockey, though.

“I’ve always felt that in the Boston area, the college crowd and the pro crowd are two separate crowds,” he said. “There are some generic hockey fans, but I think the Bruins group and the college group aren’t the same, and I think that year we were the beneficiary of some of that crowd.”

BU coach Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.) said the Terriers didn’t see a huge change in attendance in 2004-05, but the storied and beloved program isn’t usually hurting for fans.

“[This year’s lockout] might get people following college hockey in the newspaper more, on TV more,” Parker said. “I’m sure people will be hungry for hockey, but the lockout doesn’t help us in the long run. We want hockey to be played at the best level, we want Bruins fans to be excited about the Bruins, and to be excited about college hockey too.

Parker also noted that the 2004-05 alumni game was “probably the best alumni game we’ve had in our lives,” with former stars like Rick DiPietro free to come back to Commonwealth Ave. and relive the glory days.

“It’s too bad, we should have scheduled one this year,” Parker said.

The programs that could see more of a benefit from pro hockey’s absence are the lesser-followed teams like Northeastern, which doesn’t normally draw well outside of its rabid student fanbase but could take advantage of Boston-area fans looking for an alternative.

“I’m hoping we can take advantage of Northeastern being in the city,” Northeastern coach Jim Madigan said. “People are looking to spend their entertainment dollars, and they want to watch hockey, and Hockey East is a great league to come and watch hockey.”

Andy Merritt can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @A_Merritt.