College Hockey understands fandom better than the NHL

The College Hockey National Championship came to an end this weekend, and this year’s tournament made me more excited than a middle school kid taking his girlfriend for 20 minutes behind the snack bar at a high school football game. Sophomore left winger Jarid Lukosevicius buried all three goals for the Denver Pioneers, carrying the team to a 3-2 W over the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs despite a late-game comeback from UMD. Lukosevicius’ hatty was the first time someone potted three bingos in the National Championship since 1993. Who was the last guy to do it? It was Jim Montgomery, who is now the head coach of Denver. What a beautiful story to end one of the most exciting Frozen Four tournaments I’ve seen.

Despite my North Dakota Fighting Hawks taking a tough overtime L to the World Juniors All-Star Team – I mean, Boston University – this year’s Frozen Four tournament kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. Penn State didn’t even have a Division 1 team five years ago, and they absolutely smoked the Union Dutchmen 10-3 in the first round. Harvard’s Luke Esposito hit the crossbar with four seconds left, allowing the UMD Bulldogs to play for the National Championship. The Denver Pioneers trampled everything that was put in their way. But the main reason I love this tournament so much has nothing to do with the school pride, the teams or anything related to the actual game. My main love for Frozen Four Hockey comes from one thing: ESPN.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big critic of ESPN and how terrible Sportscenter is now. Nothing grinds my gears more than seeing a high school basketball team doing a mannequin challenge instead of some dunks and dingers. Despite this hatred, I look forward to ESPN’s coverage of the Frozen Four every year. This tournament is one of the only times that hockey is on a channel available to anyone, since the NHL cares more about money than coverage.

Take a look at all the other professional and major college sports. The NFL is aired on CBS, Fox and NBC every Sunday during the season. People can catch an MLB or NBA game on ESPN almost every night. College Football and Basketball are all over basic cable channels on Saturdays. Even NASCAR races can be seen on Fox. But, the NHL came up with the genius idea to make their fans pay an extra $15 every month for a premium sports package to watch games on NBC Sports, and they wonder why their casual fans are basically nonexistent. On top of that, these games barely even have their own play-by-play announcers anymore. They had Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk on most games in the past, but all they do now is feed local broadcasts through to the nation, forcing fans to listen to a biased announcer. If I’m a Washington Capitals fan, I don’t want to hear the Flyers’ broadcast crew when I’m watching a game on National TV.

To put this contract into perspective, Notre Dame’s hockey team has a contract with NBC Sports as well, and most of their games are aired on the network. One university should not have a contract with the same network as an entire professional sports league, let alone one of the big four leagues (even if that university is Notre Dame). The NHL is definitely doing something wrong here. The league’s front office is a marketing disaster, and this is one of their biggest issues. The NHL needs to have a TV contract with a real cable network to regain those casual fans that have been lost to other sports, but they are just taking steps backwards.

These backwards steps are leading to loss of interest, too. A perfect example of this comes from the Stanley Cup Finals this past year. Game 3 of the finals was aired on NBCSN rather than NBC, and the amount of viewers was atrocious. More people tuned in to watch a high school dunk contest airing at the same time. Just so we are clear, that means a game in a professional sport’s championship series was out-viewed by a damn high school skills competition! That is just unacceptable. If the NHL doesn’t take that as a sign that they need to change something up, then I don’t know what else will.

However, ESPN restores my faith in my favorite sport every year with the Frozen Four. The games are always exciting and the coverage is fantastic. I also have a soft spot for passionate student sections, nothing gets me going like hearing a “We Are! Penn State!” cheer at any sports event in Happy Valley. But the part that I love most about College Hockey is that their championship tournament is able to be seen on a national stage. Anyone in the country can tune in and watch some future NHL studs, like American hero and Anaheim Ducks prospect Troy “Five Hole” Terry. The former casual fans come back to the game because of this tournament, and it’s all thanks to a national broadcast. Take notes, NHL.

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