As the first-ever NCAA tourney played in Pacific time winds to a close, the official verdict is that the event was a rousing success. With 14,447 college hockey fans cheering the 10th overtime title game in tournament history, the atmosphere in Arrowhead Pond was every bit as exciting as last year’s venue, where thousands of local fans packed the FleetCenter to cheer on their Boston College Eagles.
“The crowd was great tonight,” said winning coach Shawn Walsh. “I’ve been to a lot of them. I’ve been to Milwaukee and Saint Paul and Providence and Lake Placid, and I think that for venues, for the development of the sport…I think this was the best choice.”
Spartan head coach Ron Mason said that Anaheim was a natural choice to give college hockey greater exposure. “With the explosion of youth hockey in this country, more and more college programs are going to have to be created to allow these players an opportunity to play at this level. A Pac-10 hockey conference would be great for the sport.”
But what was the tourney really like? How was college hockey received where palm trees outnumber pines, where illusion is a billion-dollar industry, where acceptable adult headgear includes personalized mouse ears?
Golden Gopher fan Betty Deustermann said, “I’ve been to four other Final Fours, but I made sure I was coming to this one. We’re here for a week and making a vacation out of it. We usually only go when it’s in the Midwest, so we won’t be going to Providence next year. But we always planned to come here.”
So Anaheim was a vacation destination. But was the tournament successful?
Mike Stanfell, sales representative for Gear Sports, the official supplier of NCAA licensed merchandise, said that because folks were vacationing, they were spending more money on merchandise. “Sales (of souvenir merchandise) have gone extremely well. Attendance wasn’t nearly what it was last year in Boston, but sales are up about 20 percent.”
Maine fan Lou Hardy said that he and his family were enjoying everything Anaheim had to offer.
“I brought my three kids with me. We came out specifically because Maine was in the tournament, but we absolutely took advantage of all the tourist attractions. We went to Disneyland today and Universal Studios yesterday. It was a long trip, but with the other ‘touristy’ things to do, it was worth it.”
Eight-year-old Patrick Bourgeault of Timmons, Ontario, said, “It’s been fun coming here. I went swimming and on the Queen Marie [sic].” His dad volunteers that they went to Disneyland. But young Patrick adds, “It was fun, but I hope it will be closer to home next year.”
While many fans enjoyed making a vacation out of the trip and the atmosphere at the Pond was pure college hockey, there were signs that this tourney was far, far way from rinks with names like Abel or Kelley or Ritter.
This NCAA tourney is the first in living memory to offer as a gift to the media a souvenir so threatening that it can’t be transported in carry-on luggage because it can be used as a weapon. But the commemorative ulu makes a lovely decoration (out of reach of small children).
And you won’t see a sign in the Munn press box that reads, “No cutoffs. No flip-flops.” — thongs, that is.
And you probably won’t see Kurt Russell at Lynah.
And in what other sport would you have to travel more than three thousand miles to the west to watch a national championship game played by two teams from two schools located just over two hundred miles apart, three thousand miles back east?
Culture shock aside, the NCAA seems to have had some success in selling this product to Californians.
Charlie and Alanne Tourina, Mighty Ducks’ season ticket holders, said that they enjoyed their first college hockey game. “It’s a lot quicker than NHL hockey — a lot more up and down,” said Charlie, who also said that he’d “definitely see more” of college hockey if he could.
Alanne added, “I think the whole atmosphere with the bands and students makes the game more exciting.”
But one Mighty Ducks fan who asked for anonymity gave a more candid opinion of college hockey’s chances in the shadow of Hollywood, Disneyland, and Beverly Hills. “Southern California doesn’t have a very good reputation for following anything very well.”