Why Friday Night’s Mankato Game Is So All-Fired Important

Friday night’s hockey game against Minnesota State-Mankato may be the most important game in UAH hockey history.  It’s so important that UAH and the VBC have come together to give away tickets to the game.  It’s so important because representatives of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, including WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod, will be in town to assess our request to be in their league.  Having a great fan turnout is a key component of our presentation to the WCHA.

You may be asking, “Why are we stuffing people into seats if we don’t normally get this kind of turnout for games?”  That’s a great question, but here’s the great answer: the WCHA can read a box score just as well as you can.  They can see that our attendance is dwindling.  But they can also see on Friday night that this community still cares about this hockey program.  That’s what all this is about: bringing people together for the common purpose that is varsity hockey in the South.

In fact, fan support the very point of Mark McCarter’s column today:

If there is a message to the fans, it’s a bit blunt, but it’s not inappropriate.

It’s put up or shut up time. For those who wailed in anger, who made pledges to help, who pleaded what a disgrace it was for an interim president to try to eliminate the hockey program, this is time to show you meant what you said.

You know the story: UAH hasn’t been affiliated with a conference the last two seasons. It’s nearly killed the program. Flatly, UAH director of athletics E.J. Brophy says, “Conference affiliation is essential to hockey’s future.”

The WCHA would be perfect for UAH — and vice versa — when the league shrinks after this season, losing teams to the Big 10.

If there is a message to McLeod and his colleagues, it would be this:

You have been here when UAH was a first-class program with conference affiliation. You have seen the support, the excitement, the talent level. You’ve felt the energy in the building. You know what a unique story Huntsville is in the hockey world.

It’s time for a little history lesson. Let’s look at last year and a decade before that in an effort to learn from our history. In short: attendance was >25% higher a decade ago because 1) we were winning, especially at home, and 2) we had more consistent home schedules.

Let’s look at the attendance numbers for last year, 2011-12, a season where we went 2-28-1, far and away the worst campaign of the program’s history: Lake State—2485, 1060; Bowling Green—1486, 1358; Air Force—1893, 996; Ohio State—2519, 1351; Mercyhurst—1056, 1062; USNTDP U-18 1105, 1089.  That’s an average of 1455 fans.

To give you context and provide a little analysis:

  • The Lake State series was Sat-Sun because you can’t start your season before October 1st; all other series were Fri-Sat.  We always have a hard time getting people in for Sunday afternoon games.  This past Saturday’s game against BAMA’s club team had 1929; Sunday’s game had just 804.  Some of that may have come from the fact that people did not expect a competitive game on Sunday after watching Saturday’s affair.
  • Bowling Green did surprisingly well despite being up against BAMA at Ole Miss and Auburn at home against Florida.
  • Air Force was against Auburn at LSU and BAMA v. Tennessee, which definitely explains the disparity.
  • Ohio State was against BAMA v. LSU—the biggest regular season game in 2011, and a prelude to the national championship game—but Auburn was off.  That game was at 7:00 p.m. Central, right up against our game; we pushed hard to let people know that they could watch the game in the concourse.  Even so, we were just over 100 fans below the average.  Thanks, Aubies!
  • Mercyhurst (12/30-31) and U-18 (2/24-25) had even attendance, but those games come after football is over and after there’s been a long layoff between home games: 54 games for Mercyhurst, 55 for U-18.  Our front-loaded schedule is a direct result of us playing an independent schedule; teams don’t have time for us in January and February while they’re barreling through conference play.

Let’s compare these results with 2001-02, a decade earlier.  That team went 18-18-1, 12-4 at home.  Jared Ross was a freshman.  You could tell that team was going to be even better the next year, but they were very good and faced a standard 20-game CHA schedule along with trips to Canisius, Cornell, UNO, and St. Cloud State and home series with Bentley, Sacred Heart, and Mankato.  In the football world, BAMA went 7-5 and Auburn went 7-4.

  • Bentley (10/12-13): 2180, 1406.  BAMA played at Ole Miss, while Auburn hosted Florida.  CNN’s TV listings for 2001 are incomplete for this weekend; according to CNN’s SEC schedule for 2001, Auburn played at 7:45, so they were probably the night TV game.
  • Air Force (10/26-27): 2170, 1945.  BAMA was off, and Auburn played at Arkansas in a 12:30 game that was probably televised.
  • Niagara (11/9-10): 1945, 1408. BAMA was at State at 12:30, and Auburn was at Georgia at 2:30, likely the ABC game.
  • Sacred Heart (11/23-24): 1612, 1341.  Both schools were off.
  • Wayne State (12/28-29): 2113, 1555.  Both schools were playing bowl games, but neither on the day of the hockey game.  These two games were half of the home losses that season.  Blame David Guerrera.  That WSU team was very, very good.
  • Mankato (1/4-5): 1824, 1862.  Football is a non-factor from here on out.
  • Findlay (2/8-9): 1963, 2102.
  • Bemidji State (3/8-9): 1993, 2283.  It’s a little surprising to see the Bemidji games this low, but again, we’re talking about a month’s lapse between games.

What we’re again seeing is a gap on attendance that’s driven by football; in the second half of the season, we did better on Saturday nights, probably because people weren’t rushing from work to the game.  We’re also seeing 16 home games, 10 of which were conference affairs.  Finally, the average attendance is 1856, 28% higher attendance than a decade later.  You can watch the attendance just fall off as the wins fell; this is no different than any other school.

So what’s the point in this history lesson?  We do better with regular home schedules, with games either on consecutive weekends or with just one or two weekends off.  We struggle when we compete against college football, and our Sunday problems are probably driven by the NFL as well.

Can the WCHA bring us some stability?  The answer is clearly yes: the league wants to play a 28-game schedule, which means 14 home games for UAH.  Those will have to be spread out more than the 2001-02 schedule was: we had a 20-game conference slate in a league that was focused on out-of-conference scheduling, so back-loading our schedule with league games wasn’t realistic.   Those seven home weekends would include some in January and February.  Avoiding football will solve some of our attendance woes, and hopefully it will continue to build a fan base that loves this program.

The WCHA is our way forward.  It is our best hope for the future.  If this doesn’t work out, it’s not entirely clear what will.  The WCHA gives us stability; when we have had stability, we have prospered.

The CHA started having problems in 2005-06, when Air Force announced that they would leave for Atlantic Hockey.  UAH’s record began dipping at that point, and you can easily attribute that to UAH being less attractive to both recruits and potential opponents—who wants to play (at) UAH when their conference might not exist in a few years?  Those naysayers were right, as 2009-10 was the last year of the conference.  Starting in 2005-06, the winning percentages: .588, .403, .258, .250, .409.  Instability has made it hard for UAH to be a successful program; a lack of a conference has made it even harder.

If you want to see UAH hockey succeed in Huntsville, you will be at the Von Braun Center on Friday night; and if you can’t make it, you better get three people to go in your stead.  I cannot stress that enough.  You wanted us to stay, and we need you now more than ever.

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