NHL's loss could once again be Hockey East's gain

NHL's loss could once again be Hockey East's gain
September 26, 2012, 3:26 pm
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Boston University hockey coach Jack Parker doesnt especially remember packed houses for Terriers hockey games during the last NHL lockout in 2004-05.

Thats probably because Terriers hockey has always been kind of a big deal on their Commonwealth Ave. campus, and the Scarlet-and-White crazed BU hockey fans have always packed the house.

How did the last lockout impact the BU hockey program? The detail Parker remembers most was the school's star-studded alumni game. New York Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro was there, carrying the puck up the ice like a forward from his place between the pipes, attempting to score goals. Tony Amonte, Mike Grier, Chris Drury, Tom Poti, Shawn Bates, Jay Pandolfo and Joe Sacco were also among the accomplished BU alums that showed up for the benefit game with the NHL just entering a year-long hibernation that year.

Weve always drawn well. It might have affected other schools with bigger crowds than usual, said Parker. I can tell you that it drastically affected our alumni game. I think we lost 9-2 and Ricky DiPietro kept trying to score goals from his net by carrying the puck out. We dont have an alumni game scheduled this year, but I probably should have done one if wed known there was going to be another lockout.

On a more serious note Parker guessed that no NHL will mean more TV face time for the NCAA hockey programs built in New England.

We have our own TV package with NESN, and I think were going to have some better choices for games being broadcast if the Bruins arent playing on a Friday or Saturday night, Parker said.

Even though there won't be a repeat alumni game this season with BU alumni like Matt Gilroy, Ryan Whitney, John McCarthy and Chris Bourque, Hockey East itself may once again be an unwitting beneficiary if the NHL misses significant time due to the lockout.

Programs like BU and Boston College wont see much of a bounce because theyre well-established programs with their own rabid following. But theres a reason Hockey East last sold out both nights of the Hockey East tournament at TD Garden in 2004-05 when the NHL was on a season-long hiatus.

Theyve sold out one night or the other during the two-night tournament in the seven seasons since, but that was the last year college hockey filled the Gardens seats to capacity for two straight nights.

Hockey East commissioner and Harvard alum Joe Bertagna is a firm believer there still isnt a very significant cross-over between pro hockey fans and college hockey fans. The lockout gives those NHL hockey fans the chance to feed their hockey hunger this fall and winter with college games.

It also arguably gives hockey fans a chance to view the game in its purest form.

Sure there wont be the blood and guts glory of NHL fights or the elite playmaking skills of a Sidney Crosby-type player on display -- there hasnt been an offensive talent like that in Hockey East since Paul Kariya playing for Maine in the early 1990s -- but every hockey fan should take in the rivalry of a Boston College-Boston University hockey game at least once. This might just be the year to do it while the TD Garden goes silent on Thursday and Saturday nights with most of the Bruins fleeing for paying puck gigs in Europe.

I dont know about nationally, but Ive always felt that the Bruins crowd and the college hockey crowd dont overlap all that much, said Bertagna. Maybe with more of the college hockey players in the pros that dynamic has changed a little, but when I was growing up they were two very different crowds.

The New England breed of hockey fan is going to be starved for hockey once October and November roll on without the NHL, and both Division 1 college hockey and the AHL should see a bump in attendance. Bertagna didnt want to be perceived as profiting on the misery of an NHL saddled by labor strife, but there is tangible evidence his league will gain some fans this season.

Bertagna further indicated both NESN and NBC Sports are going to be looking for additional programming if there are no NHL games until mid-December at the earliest.

I dont want to seem eager to capitalize on somebody elses misfortune because we are partners with TD Garden, and I can feel for what theyre going through, said Bertagna. But having said that I can see two ways the lockout could affect us . . . especially if its long. I think both NESN and the NBC Sports will be looking for other programming, and theyre already doing our games to an extent. It would be a natural place to look for more college hockey.

The reality is the last time we sold out the building on both nights of the Hockey East tournament was the last time there was a lockout. Weve had good crowds, 14,000-15,000, but that was the last time we banged both nights out. I think it was because those other parallel hockey fans that dont usually come to our games hadnt been in to Causeway Street all year. They were hungry for hockey at that point, and we were able to provide them with a good event at the Garden.

That could mean an expanded TV schedule for Div. 1 college hockey as well as greater exposure for a college sport thats been woefully under-promoted through the years.

Cory Schneider, Brian Boyle, Chris Bourque, Andrew Alberts, Daniel Winnik, Ryan Shannon, Jimmy Howard and Stephan Gionta all starred for Hockey East during that 2004-05 lockout season in an excellent showcase of future NHL careers. That same level of quality player will be in Hockey East again this season skating for Boston College, Boston University and the eight other schools making up whats arguably the best college hockey conference in the country.

The quality of local college hockey coupled with the inexpensive ticket prices offer a nice alternative to those puck fans flush with Bruins tickets for games that will never actually be played. The coaches across Hockey East are hoping to see some of those unfamiliar faces in their rinks this season while Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman keep hammering out a new collective bargaining agreement.

I hope the NHL lockout ends today just like I hope the referee lockout ends in the NFL, said Merrimack hockey coach Mark Dennehy. But were also very excited and if we can occupy some pro hockey fans in the meantime then were happy to do that as well.

There are people that dont cross over -- theyre more pro hockey fans than college hockey fans. College hockey is one of those sports where you come to it once and you can really get hooked. In these difficult economic times its definitely more fiscally affordable than the NHL. The students in the crowd and the culture of college hockey bring things to the arena that youll never see at a pro hockey rink.

The sad fact is NHL fans wont be truly happy until logic and reason prevails in the CBA negotiations between the players and the league.

But, just as was the case in 2004-05, there are hockey alternatives locally for the discerning fan. Perhaps the most effective message from the NHL fan base would be to simply move on to something else like Hockey East, and show stingy NHL owners just how easily they could be replaced if they dont get their act together.