DETROIT — Something was wrong when, just 40 minutes before puck drop at Joe Louis Arena, the attendant at the box office scoffed when I asked if the game was anywhere near a sellout.
But it’s Michigan vs. Michigan State! And it’s the semifinal of the Big Ten Hockey Tournament, where the stakes are highest — the winner plays for a berth in the NCAA Tournament, and the loser sees its season end at the hand of a bitter rival. What could be better?
The attendant tried to talk me into paying extra for seats near the glass, but my friend and I wanted to be closer to the bands. So, with a pair of upper-bowl tickets in hand, we walked up the stairs, through the metal detectors and onto the main concourse. There were no lines for food, at merchandise kiosks or at restrooms — and anyone who has been knows there’s always a line at the Joe.
We figured we might have some difficulty sitting where we wanted, but the only busy section at the arena was the one occupied by the Children of Yost, the Wolverines’ student supporters. Across the rink from them stood just three members of the A-Team, Michigan State’s equivalent.
And believe me, the Children of Yost noticed the attendance disparity.
“Where are your students?” they chanted. “Where’s the A-Team?”
The three Spartans waved back.
But this isn’t a dig at either school’s students, because the rest of the arena was mostly empty, too. This is a suggestion of how to fix a flawed Big Ten Tournament, because a premier conference’s most important contests shouldn’t be played in front of empty seats.
The biggest game of Michigan’s season didn’t feel like it at all. And that’s a problem.
I’ve traveled the northern United States covering hockey, men’s basketball and football, and no one is quite as crazy as hockey fans. They’ll stalk Tinder profiles (Michigan), throw a fish at your feet (New Hampshire), ring cowbells incessantly (Nebraska-Omaha) and everything in between just to rattle opponents.
In Columbus, the band forms Script Ohio on ice, while, in Ann Arbor, the referees toss candy into the stands — just two of the countless traditions unique to the sport.
Standing with the Children of Yost is the best atmosphere you’ll experience on campus. But at Joe Louis Arena, their chants were routinely drowned out by pop music or commercials blaring over loudspeakers. Even the Blues Brothers dance, a second-intermission staple, was cut to only one round.
The game itself, a dominant 4-1 victory for the Wolverines, exuded the chippiness and intensity of the rivalry. But the scattered fans couldn’t match that energy.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
* * *
Three steps to improve the Big Ten Tournament
1) Don’t invite the conference’s worst teams.
Here’s a crazy thought: The 20-game Big Ten season should mean something. If a team is No. 6 in a six-team conference, it doesn’t deserve a chance to compete for an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. (Want that opportunity? Play better in the regular season!) Not only does this make for higher-quality hockey, but it also makes the end of the regular season more interesting. Suddenly, the end of February and the beginning of March isn’t just a competition for first place — it’s a battle for fourth place and a crack at the postseason, too.
2) Play at campus sites.
In the current format, the top two seeds receive a first-round bye. That’s not possible with a four-team tournament, so reward the regular season’s best teams by letting them host the semifinal games. The Big Ten has some great fans, and this is a good way to give the tournament the in-person support it deserves.
There would have been more than three Michigan State fans at Munn Ice Arena had the Spartans hosted Michigan in a semifinal. Minnesota’s hockey-obsessed culture would’ve loved another home game as well.
The arenas would be packed, and the passion would be unrivaled. That’s what college hockey is all about.
3) Keep the final the way it is.
The Big Ten Tournament’s goal is to determine the conference’s best team, so let them do it at a neutral site. Right now, the final rotates annually between Minneapolis and Detroit, and it’s reasonable to keep it that way.
Under the new format, this year’s tournament would have featured:
Friday: No. 3 Michigan at No. 2 Michigan State; No. 4 Penn State at No. 1 Minnesota
Sunday: Minnesota vs. Michigan at Joe Louis Arena
How much fun is that?
* * *
Fifteen minutes before Friday’s puck drop, stadium ushers invited my friend and me into the lower bowl — it didn’t matter what our tickets said.
So, for the most important night of both Michigan and Michigan State’s season, during a game played in the state of Michigan, I watched the third period from the fourth row. Nobody was sitting to my right or left, either.
And while I’ll never turn that deal down, I’d take a rowdy, sellout, true college hockey environment over better seats any day.
Zúñiga was also disappointed in the lack of alcoholic beverages available at Friday’s game. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ByAZuniga.