The Gophers men's hockey team missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in four seasons and hasn't advanced past the first round of the tourney since 2013-14 — the first year of the Big Ten Hockey Conference.

Attendance is falling. Enthusiasm is lagging. So how can the Gophers fix what ails them?

First take: Michael Rand

Short of traveling back a decade or so and convincing Penn State not to add hockey — or at least stopping the Big Ten from forming its own men's hockey conference — the Gophers face real challenges.

Average announced attendance this season was 7,944 — down 2,000 from where it was the last season of the old WCHA in 2012-13 — and selling fewer than 2,000 tickets for the Big Ten quarterfinal games this year was dismal.

But we can't blame all of this on the Big Ten (or at least that would be counterproductive). It seems like the perfect storm of apathy and some down years for the program. Winning is the first and most important key.

Randy Johnson, producer, editor and writer for Puck Drop: Yep, winning, as the saying goes, is the best deodorant. If the Gophers can get back to the point where they're winning the Big Ten and being a threat in the NCAA tournament, people will come back.

I don't think a return to that status is far off, because I believe Bob Motzko has the program pointed in the right direction. We saw the promise this team has with freshmen Sammy Walker and Nathan Burke, and Motzko's recruiting should result in an increase in talent.

Of course, there are off-the-ice changes that need to be made, and my first suggestion is to lower the ticket price. Season tickets on the sides of 3M Arena at Mariucci were $700 plus a seat gift of either $300 or $200. That was roughly $40 to $45 per ticket per game. Though those prices aren't at the level of Wild games, two tickets plus concessions will easily surpass $100 for an evening of college hockey.

We did see progress in this area late this season, with the athletic department advertising single-game tickets at $20 for select series.

Rand: If I might step back into Big Ten-bashing mode for a moment, though, I do wonder how much the Gophers' on-ice struggles are connected to the overall lack of quality in their conference.

In the six seasons since the Big Ten was formed, conference teams are a combined 25-69-9 against teams in the NCHC. St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth are thriving in that league, and Minnesota State Mankato from the WCHA could join them as No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. The success of those programs only magnifies the woes here.

Johnson: You put that one right on a tee for me, Mike. I'll certainly welcome, and usually encourage, your Big Ten Hockey Conference bashing.

Gophers fans, especially casual ones, have little connection to the other Big Ten teams, aside from Wisconsin. The level of hockey has improved in the league — just look at the three Frozen Four teams last year.

But with UMD winning the national title at the X last year, St. Cloud State being ranked No. 1 for most of this season and Minnesota State Mankato dominating the WCHA, Gophers fans feel they're missing out on something great going on in this state because they're stuck in a marriage they never wanted.

Rand: Gophers fans can't even revel in North Dakota missing the tourney. Sad times, indeed.

Final word: Johnson

Actually, UND fans were missed in St. Paul this weekend at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. They're the straw that stirs the drink.

More Rand:

More Puck Drop: