With an announced crowd of just 1,835 for its Big Ten playoff-opening game Friday against Michigan — and social media images painting an even more bleak picture of the attendance — the Gophers men’s hockey program garnered some negative attention.
First-year head coach Bob Motzko did his best to shrug it off while offering an explanation.
“They know there’s a big crowd 8 miles from here,” Motzko was quoted as saying after Friday’s game, referring to the boys’ high school Class 2A semifinals being played that night at Xcel Energy Center. “It’s a pretty tough night to have a hockey game in the state of Minnesota.”
Significant factors were certainly at play. Namely: the continued deterioration of the Gophers’ fan base, precipitated by both the downturn in the program and the unpopularity of the Big Ten Conference.
And when the Gophers advanced to the conference tournament semifinals Saturday with a sweep in front of a similarly paltry announced crowd of 1,911, Twin Cities residents were compelled to stay inside because of poor weather.
But blaming the poor crowds on going head to head with the high school hockey state tournament? History says that one doesn’t hold up.
Let’s take a journey back to March 2012 — the last time the Gophers had a home playoff series that went head-to-head with the boys’ hockey state tournament. That was the Gophers’ second-to-last season in the WCHA, and they ended up making Frozen Four that season.
They opened the WCHA playoffs with a first-round series against Alaska-Anchorage, drawing an announced crowd of 9,410 for a Friday evening game and another 9,018 in the Game 2 sweep Saturday, according to the Star Tribune’s accounts of both games.
There were more than enough hockey fans to go around seven years ago. Where did they go?
Minnesota that year averaged 9,539 fans — No. 3 in the country and close to 3M Arena at Mariucci Arena’s 10,000-seat capacity.
This year the Gophers are still No. 3 nationally, but with 7,944 fans per game — about 1,600 fewer than seven years ago, and a little less than 80 percent of capacity.
Their continued lofty position in the relative college hockey pecking order is a reminder that their “poor” attendance is a problem almost every other program would love to have. And this past weekend was a really low number, even compared to the average crowd this season.
But it’s a problem, and blaming it on the high school tournament isn’t going to fix it.
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It’s just two matches, but what a difference a year has made for Minnesota United. The Loons built on an opening 3-2 victory at Vancouver with an even more impressive 3-0 victory at San Jose on Saturday.
As of 4 p.m. Sunday, 14 teams in Major League Soccer had played two matches this season. Minnesota United and Seattle were the only teams with two victories.
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Barring an unbelievable string of upsets in conference tournaments, it looks like head coach Richard Pitino is right: The Gophers’ win last week over Purdue is going to be enough to get them into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament no matter what happens this week in the Big Ten tournament.
Minnesota isn’t listed anywhere on the bubble in ESPN’s bracketology, pulling in with a No. 10 seed in the Midwest and projected to face Cincinnati in Joe Lunardi’s latest report.
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Karl-Anthony Towns seemingly has avoided major injury after a scary moment with his right knee made him miss the end of regulation and overtime Saturday against Washington. Star-crossed Wolves fans (and executives) must have caused those heavy winds Sunday with their massive exhales.