Whoever came up with the idea to call Minnesota the “State of Hockey” was some kind of genius, but that phrase is not working quite as well these days as the Gophers and Wild continue to struggle in the stands and in the standings.
It’s hard to understand why this state is having such a hard time producing winning teams from its NHL franchise and its biggest Division I program, but there’s no other way to put it.
Every team goes through ups and downs in terms of play, but this has to be the first time when the fans have really stopped going to the games for both the Wild and the Gophers men’s hockey program.
Looking at attendance at Xcel Energy Center, the Wild this season averaged 97.3% of its tickets sold per game, according to ESPN.
I believe that figure is higher than what the team is actually selling, because the Wild was taking out a lot of ads for single-game ticket sales all season.
And even if the figure is accurate, that is still the lowest percentage of tickets sold during a single season in franchise history. This has been the first time the Wild has averaged under 18,000 fans since the 2011-12 season.
The Wild ranked No. 15 in the NHL in percentage of seats sold when the season was suspended, a number that is hard to believe. The team had ranked third, second, fifth, first and third in percentage of seats sold in the NHL over the previous five seasons.
The Wild hasn’t been one of the greatest teams in hockey over the past decade, but the franchise has been competitive almost every season. The Wild recorded over 100 points three times in the past six seasons and reached the postseason for six consecutive seasons from 2013 to 2018. That stretch ended in 2018-19, when the team went 37-36-9 for only 83 points.
The Wild struggled again much of this season, and made a coaching change by firing Bruce Boudreau in February. But the team had played well before play was suspended.
But maybe the biggest reason that the Wild has lost fans comes from research done by Verve Search, a content marketing agency based in England. Earlier this year, Verve Search reported that the Wild has the highest season-ticket entry price of any NHL team at $2,200. That includes the New York Rangers, whose season-ticket packages start at $2,173.
While the Wild can at least say a decent amount of fans are attending every game, the Gophers men’s hockey team has really been struggling in the stands.
Some of the photos of the Gophers during major games — including the Big Ten tournament against Notre Dame in March — showed a nearly empty arena. Whatever the reason, it just doesn’t make any sense.
And it’s not a good look for either the Gophers or the Big Ten when the most notable hockey team in the conference has a 90% empty arena at its biggest event.
The numbers show that Gophers attendance has dropped every season for seven consecutive seasons.
The Gophers went from 115.5% of tickets sold in 2013-14, for a total of 231,057 tickets, to 74.6% of tickets sold this season, for a total of 164,027 tickets.
The decision to leave the WCHA for the newly formed Big Ten Conference in 2013 was a move the Gophers had to make, but there’s no doubt it has hurt their ticket sales, even as they have likely made more money from the Big Ten Network TV deal.
On top of that, the team has struggled of late, after it finished first in the Big Ten the first four seasons of conference play.
In 2017-18, their final season under coach Don Lucia, the Gophers finished 19-17-2 overall and 10-12-2 in the Big Ten, good for fifth in a seven-team conference. This past season they went 18-16-4 overall and 9-8-7 in the Big Ten, finishing third when they had a chance to win the conference title in the final weekend of the season.
Bright spots ahead?
Despite the struggles, there are positives for both teams.
The Gophers finished this season going 11-6-4 in their final 21 games and beat Notre Dame in three games in the Big Ten quarterfinals. They would have visited Penn State in the semifinals.
The Wild was making a big push after starting the season 4-9-1, getting right in the thick of the playoff hunt with a 15-7-1 record over 23 games.
Both squads have new coaches — Bob Motzko is in his second season with the Gophers, and Dean Evason is the Wild interim coach — who have a lot of support.
The Wild also has the rights to big-time prospect Kirill Kaprizov, one of the best players in Russia. The 23-year-old is ready to play in the NHL, and the Wild can sign him at any time. He was a fifth-round draft pick in 2015 who should really pay off.
The Gophers, who had a young team this past season, have to keep battling the state’s other big programs. Minnesota Duluth won back-to-back national titles in 2018 and ’19, and the Bulldogs might have added a third if the season hadn’t ended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
• Two football recruits the Gophers have offered scholarships to are Blaine and Bryson Green of Allen, Texas. They are the brothers of Gophers H-back Seth Green, and both are four-star wide receivers in the class of 2021. Their father, Bryan, was a Gophers running back in 1991.
• One of the most surprising Vikings rookie free agents was wideout Dan Chisena. He played two years at Penn State and had only three career receptions; one of those was a 20-yard catch vs. the Gophers last season. He was a fantastic track and field standout for the Nittany Lions.
• The Gophers men’s golf program seems to be turning a corner after junior Angus Flanagan was named a third-team Ping All-America by the Golf Coaches Association of America. He was the team’s first All-America since Jose Mendez in 2014. On top of that, 2013 Gophers grad Erik van Rooyen is ranked No. 42 in the World Golf Rankings, ahead of Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson.
• Baseball America ran a list of its top 500 MLB draft prospects and ranked Gophers starting pitcher Max Meyer No. 10, saying, “If you’re looking for the best pure stuff in the 2020 draft class, Max Meyer might be your guy.” At No. 236 was Max Carlson, the righthanded pitcher out of Burnsville who has committed to play at North Carolina next season.
• College Football News ranks North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance as the fifth-best prospect for the 2021 NFL draft. Lance graduated from Marshall High School and was the first freshman to win the Walter Payton Award for FCS Player of the Year. The Bison are scheduled to open the 2020 season at Oregon.
• If the NBA season ended with the current standings, the Timberwolves would be tied for the best odds to win the draft lottery. They also would have the No. 16 pick from Brooklyn and a second-round pick that would be No. 33 overall.