Thursday, April 02, 2015

Frozen Four Berth Opens New Eyes to UNO Hockey

For UNO hockey fans, the past seven days have been the most enjoyable in program history, surpassing even the Tuesday Night/St. Patrick's Day Massacre of 2000. It's not just UNO fans, it's the entire community as a whole. People who previously ignored or disregarded UNO hockey as a "niche" now are paying attention.  And it's all awesome, except for one little thing.

The new arena.

Raising that banner on October 23 is going to be a great experience for every Mav fan who endured that eight win season or the Bemdiji trap. (And let's not get ahead of ourselves...there's a little matter of what that banner is going to say. That'll be the focus next week.) Without a doubt, the place will be packed with about 7,500 fans.

But the question I have remains, and is even stronger today.  How many people would be there if the game was downtown at the CenturyLink Center?  I don't think for even one second that UNO would sell out a 17,000 seat arena.  But the sellout isn't as important to me as the number.  Eight thousand, nine thousand, or whatever is the important number to me.

I'm constantly reminded by the arena proponents that UNO hasn't drawn those numbers regularly for hockey, and almost never without some sort of promotion. They are right.  Or should I say, were right.

That was then; this is now. Everything changed last week.

Dean Blais noted it Tuesday in a Frozen Four conference call:
“There’s nothing you can do, as far as advertising or promotion, (better) than winning. My gosh, the radio and TV stations are just blasting us every chance they get right now on how we’re going to the Frozen Four. It’s a huge deal in Omaha, what we’ve just accomplished. And if we win it, it would just be another feather in the cap of the hockey program.”
This was the dream I had for UNO hockey. And I'm watching it unfold right in front of my eyes this week. Talk show hosts that last week that didn't even acknowledge that UNO hockey existed now have to cover it. They have to; it cannot be ignored anymore.

Before last week, I was fairly sure UNO hockey tickets would be sold out to the general public next season at the new arena. That doesn't mean that every UNO hockey game would be packed; it would be much like it was at the Civic. Packed for the big games, to be sure. But when the Huskers are playing at the same time or when the students are home for the Thanksgiving or Christmas break, there will be empty seats.

That's one thing that winning won't really change. UNO hockey is going to take a backseat to family or the Huskers, for the most part.  But when North Dakota returns to Omaha at the end of next February, you won't see that huge crowd that we'd get downtown.  The people you keep out aren't the Green Sue fans; they'll find their way in somehow.  It's the other Omaha fans that you'll be keeping out.  The bandwagon Jaysker fans who simply love to support a winner, whether it's Creighton basketball or Nebraska football.  The atmosphere at this year's North Dakota series was insane, the best I've ever encountered. A student section that overflowed their usual student section and took over the entire upper deck in the end zone. They won't be there next February; there isn't room for them at the new place.

That's why I've been opposed to the size of the new arena. And frankly, I don't see any way I can be convinced otherwise. Prior to last week, people could have said "UNO would have only sold out four games" at the new arena last season.  They were right.

But that was then, before UNO hockey made the Frozen Four.  This is now.  Things are different now.  Those past perceptions and assumptions simply aren't relevant anymore.

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