The image was striking, and frankly, embarrassing for the Gophers men's hockey program and the Big Ten.

The Gophers were host to a 2019 Big Ten tournament quarterfinal series against Michigan, and most sections of 3M Arena at Mariucci were roughly 10% full when the puck dropped, while others had fewer than 10 spectators in seats. The announced attendance was 1,835.

That gathering represented the low point attendance-wise in recent Gophers history, and that 2018-19 season saw the program draw an average of only 5,325 tickets scanned per game during Bob Motzko's first year as Gophers coach.

Fast forward four years, and from those ashes has risen a skate-wearing phoenix. Gophers hockey is back to being a big on-ice success and a strong box office draw.

Through 16 home games entering this weekend's final regular-season series against Ohio State, the Gophers have announced seven sellouts at 10,000-seat Mariucci, and Saturday's game against the Buckeyes will make it eight. Friday's game also is nearing a sellout.

Average announced attendance is 8,980, the program's most since six seasons ago when it was 9,595. Scanned attendance — the number of people who use their tickets — is 6,768, the most since 7,073 six years ago and a 36.5% increase from last season.

"Gophers fans have never gone anywhere; they've always been here,'' Motzko said. "We had to give them a reason to come back.''

Motzko and his team certainly have done that.

The Gophers (23-8-1) enter this weekend's series against Ohio State as the No. 1 team in the nation in both major polls and the PairWise Ratings, the computer formula the NCAA uses to fill out the field and seed its tournament teams. They secured their second consecutive Big Ten regular-season championship with four games to spare and aspire to return to the NCAA Frozen Four and win it.

The Gophers play an entertaining, offense-minded game with star power. Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud are first-round NHL draft picks. Their linemate, Matthew Knies, is a second rounder who was named a Hobey Baker candidate, along with defensemen Brock Faber and Jackson LaCombe.

"What Bob has done, obviously, in his short time here is exactly what we were all looking for when [athletic director] Mark [Coyle] made the hire,'' said Mike Wierzbicki, Gophers senior associate athletic director for external affairs.

Indeed, the Gophers are back to being a national contender — and a contender for fans in the crowded Twin Cities sports marketplace.

Picking up the pieces

When Don Lucia was Gophers coach and the team won back-to-back NCAA championships in 2002 and 2003, attendance wasn't an issue. The Gophers routinely averaged more than capacity at Mariucci as they reached the Frozen Four three times and played in eight consecutive NCAA tournaments.

That started to change from 2008 to 2011, when Minnesota missed the NCAAs for three straight years. Announced crowds dipped under 10,000, then under 9,000 in 2017-18, Lucia's final season. The Gophers missed the NCAA tourney that season and in Motzko's first two.

Other factors contributed, too:

  • Gophers fans, upset over the breakup of the WCHA and its well-attended Final Five tournament at Xcel Energy Center, didn't embrace the Big Ten at all.
  • In 2018-19, that Big Ten quarterfinal series was not part of the Gophers season-ticket package, so there was no built-in sale. In addition, it competed directly against the boys hockey state high school tournament, which draws crowds of more than 18,000 nightly for Class 2A at Xcel Energy Center.

"It's a pretty tough night to have [another] hockey game in the state of Minnesota," Motzko said at the time.

  • The athletic department, then led by Norwood Teague, instituted a preferred seating plan in 2012 that required significant donations on top of the season-ticket price. That angered fans and drove some away.

Improvement follows winning

After COVID-19 wiped out attendance at on-campus events during the 2020-21 season, crowds didn't immediately come back strong in 2021-22. The turning point came later, when the Gophers announced 10,009 for their regular-season finale against Wisconsin, then an arena-record 10,774 for the Big Ten championship game against Michigan. The subsequent Frozen Four trip helped carry over the momentum to this season.

"It's like a sixth man out there,'' senior center Jaxon Nelson said. "Whenever we score, the place erupts.''

Leading the charge has been the student section, which came back in force after COVID-19.

"They've been sitting in dorm rooms and doing Zoom classes for a year-and-a-half. They couldn't wait to get together,'' Wierzbicki said. "It's cool to go to games, it's fun to go to games, and that atmosphere drives students coming back even more.''

While the Big Ten is improving — four teams from the conference are in the top eight of the PairWise — the Gophers still make scheduling Minnesota rivals and North Dakota a priority. That helps attendance. This season, the Gophers drew scanned totals of 9,041 and 8,615 against UND and 7,809 against St. Cloud State.

"You've got a team that's doing well on the ice. There's your springboard,'' Wierzbicki said. "Then all of those other pieces have more value.''

Those other pieces center on fan experience. Price is one, and a sampling on the athletic department website showed tickets for Friday's Ohio State game starting at $30. The get-in price for the Michigan State series was $25. Ticket packages during the Minnesota State Fair have been popular, too, as has the availability of beer and wine at Mariucci.

Together, those factors have aligned to return the Gophers to prominence and help them draw energy from a fuller house.

"Our fans, they're pretty smart hockey fans in the state,'' Motzko said. "And if you put out a product like we have in the last few years, they're gonna come back up and watch.''