Thursday, January 26, 2017

North Star College Cup Swan Song Sees Longtime Rivals Bulldogs, Gophers Clash

It was probably the worst-kept secret in Minnesota college hockey. Going back to even before the point that UMD announced a four-year contract for home-and-home series with in-state rival Minnesota, the North Star College Cup was on its last legs.

Looking ahead, the tournament wasn't on the Bulldogs' schedule. If that wasn't enough of a sign, there was no need to announce a separate deal for home-and-home sets against Minnesota if the North Star College Cup were going to continue beyond its initial four-year arrangement. That deal included provisions for the Gophers to play weekend sets against its various in-state rivals, all of which of course used to play in the WCHA.

So when Tuesday afternoon's statement finally came from the University of Minnesota, confirming the end of the North Star College Cup (the U of M operated the event), it was no surprise. Here's the statement:
Following discussions between the five institutions, the decision has been made that the North Star College Cup will not continue after this year’s upcoming tournament. Our institutions had hoped the tournament would appeal more to fans, however the interest level has not grown over the last four years as we had hoped. In addition, teams have expressed interest in rewarding their fans with games at their home venues.
Boilerplate statement that gets the point across.

Attendance has been on the downswing in the two years since a successful inaugural run. An announced crowd of over 14,000 attended the championship game of the first-ever North Star College Cup, where Minnesota beat UMD in a shootout after a 4-4 tie. While the in-house attendance was probably closer to 10,000 or 12,000, it still had to be considered a successful first time.

After that, I opened up the suggestion box, both on this blog and via Twitter. The most common suggestions: Split up the daily sessions so fans don't feel like they're stuck at the arena for seven hours; More fan interaction during timeouts and intermissions; Saturday/Sunday tournament.

Well, they never figured out the sessions/ticket prices. Many fans felt it was too pricey to see teams that still play each other regularly. After all, Bemidji State, for example, was still getting games against Minnesota. The Beavers also are regularly playing UMD, so it isn't as special when they meet in St. Paul. If you're going to charge a premium price for those games, you have to figure out a way to make it more of an event than a "normal" home game for one of the five schools.

That doesn't just get solved by increasing the fan interaction during the games, but that never seemed to come around, either. The WCHA's "Dance Mania" bit was cooky and probably a little weird at times, but it kept fans engaged during the media timeouts. Kiss Cam and Simba Cam are things you can do in that realm, but they get old (especially Kiss Cam). And you can't just rely on marriage proposals in the arena to keep people interested.

The Saturday/Sunday format was attempted last year. It did not work, shock to be sure.

Ultimately, the failure of this event to catch on can be traced to a couple different factors.

I don't believe the money was enough. The statement eludes to this, talking about the lack of appeal to fans. In order for this event to work, the non-Gopher programs in the tournament need to be seeing enough kickback, at least over two years, to justify staying involved (lots of talk about lost home games, but realistically, you're probably going to gain two home games every two years if you don't play in the tournament, because there will be return trips required for non-conference home series most of the time). Doesn't sound like that was happening.

If there had been enough money distributed to the four "outstate" schools (sorry, I hate that term as much as you do, but it's the easiest way of describing them), we would probably not be here right now. Those schools wouldn't be as insistent on opening the dates back up for the possibility of home games.

Also, as already mentioned with ticket prices, which I don't think were outlandish, there is no novelty with these teams playing each other. You're charging more than a fan would pay to see a St. Cloud State or Minnesota State or UMD or Bemidji State home game, but are you giving them more than what they get in said home game? This event wasn't around long enough to truly become a destination event, which is what other traditional college hockey tournaments -- most notably the Beanpot and Great Lakes Invitational -- are.

(The argument here is the Beanpot matches three Hockey East teams and an ECAC team that play each other on a regular basis outside of the Beanpot. But this tournament doesn't have a half-century of tradition built up like the Beanpot. The equity just doesn't exist to make these types of comparisons.)

Am I saying this thing wasn't given enough time? Sort of, but there were too many people unhappy with how things were going for it to continue without changes. Plus, I'll cede to marketing and promotions wizards out there on how all of this could have been put together more effectively, because I am not that.

UMD coach Scott Sandelin brought up an interesting point this week. Was the tournament played at the right time of year?

All five Minnesota teams are in the middle of their conference seasons. League title races are about to heat up, followed by conference tournaments and then the PairWise finally matters. Sandelin wondered out loud: Would this event have been better served on Thanksgiving weekend?

We may never know. UMD's schedule is filled up for next season. Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore told me in December his was filled up, too. You might be looking at 2020-2021 before you can stage this tournament again. If the schools all band together and discuss doing that, you can bet it will take on a much different form.


Sad as we might all be to see this tournament disappear, it should be a bang-up way to go out. Friday's second semifinal features two teams found near the top of every available ranking, with No. 1 UMD facing No. 6 Minnesota.

The game features a combined 39 rostered Minnesotans on the teams (23 for the Gophers) as they line up in Minnesota's capital city. For UMD, it always seems to mean a little more, and the Bulldog players -- especially as of late -- have had little trouble getting prepared to play against Minnesota.

Over the last six meetings, all UMD wins, the Bulldogs have led in goals 17-4 while outshooting Minnesota by a margin of 33 shots per game to 25.

"They've been good," longtime Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "If you look at our scores, we didn't get many goals. They've been really good the last three years."

"Having been here a long time," UMD head coach Scott Sandelin said. "I remember not having those opportunities or losing some tough games to them. Everything goes in cycles. We know they're a good team, and we know we're going to have to play good hockey to beat them."

This Gophers team comes in hot. Minnesota lost to Ohio State 8-3 Dec. 3, and the Gophers are 7-1 since then, outscoring adversaries 33-18. Sophomore Tyler Sheehy leads with 32 points (15 goals), and two-year captain Justin Kloos has 11 goals and 27 points. Sophomore defenseman Ryan Lindgren is a good friend of UMD's Joey Anderson, and the two were teammates on the gold medal winning U.S. World Junior team.

You can question schedule strength if you'd like, but Lucia doesn't want to hear it.

"You look at our non-conference, I'd probably argue ours is as difficult as any in the country this year," he said this week. "We've been all over, from Alaska to Boston to New York, I think it makes us a better team."

Lucia is making a strong statement here, considering his team's schedule is rated 14th in the nation (RPI) or 24th (KRACH), depending on where you look (UMD is No. 1 in both). But he's talking about more than just the quality of the opposition. Separate trips to the Boston area and upstate New York (Minnesota played at Clarkson and St. Lawrence), along with a long trek to Anchorage can be taxing on a team. The Gophers didn't win every game, but they appear to have used the travel time wisely, and they're better now for it.

Lucia knows his team will be tested on Friday.

"They're a veteran team," Lucia said. "They have four senior defensemen. They were a goal away from the Frozen Four a year ago. They skate well, they have a nice mix of speed and size and skill. They don't rely on one line to score, but frankly I think the strength of their team is they don't give up much."

I like Lucia's team. They've got some really skilled forwards up front, a tenacious forecheck, and a dangerous power play. The Gophers have struggled a bit in the back, and maybe UMD can attack the blue line and goalie Eric Schierhorn, but the Bulldogs better be careful. Minnesota can torch anyone in transition, so puck management will be a huge key.


Since you can't get enough of me, you can find me on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities' Puck Dynasty podcast this week. I joined Nate Wells and Declan Goff for a North Star College Cup preview. Hear that portion of the show around the 37:30 mark.

I'll be on the KQ Morning Show Friday from 6am until whenever I bug out to leave for the Twin Cities. We'll talk plenty of UMD-Minnesota around the silliness. Puncher's chance I drop in on the KDAL Morning Show, too.

Finally, I'll be on Beyond The Pond with Brandon Mileski and whoever he drags onto the show with him Saturday at 10:15am. That's on KFAN in the Twin Cities or 92.1 The Fan in the Duluth/Superior area.

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