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HITTINGER COLUMN: College hockey changes hit home this weekend with Final Five, Big Ten Tourney

Anyone who skipped watching the first day of March Madness in favor of the Big Ten Network’s coverage of the inaugural Big Ten Hockey Tournament might have been fooled into thinking they were watching a glorified intrasquad scrimmage at the Xcel Energy Center.

I had trouble finding any solid attendance numbers but the afternoon game — featuring an on-the-bubble Michigan team against feisty Penn State — appeared to be a strictly friends-and-family affair.

It’s a shame, too, because the Wolverines and Nittany Lions skated to a thrilling double-overtime finish that Penn State eventually won 2-1 to advance to today’s semifinals against Wisconsin.

One expects tonight’s games — which will feature the Badgers and top-seeded Minnesota — to have slightly more spectators, but Thursday’s attendance woes are harsh reminder of just how much has changed just a year into the strange new college hockey landscape.

Granted, the Big Ten was at a distinct disadvantage for Thursday’s games due simply to geography — of the four teams playing Thursday games, Michigan State’s home campus of East Lansing, Mich., was the closest to St. Paul. Only 624 miles!

That’s a tough distance for fans to travel for a Thursday game, especially knowing their team might not be playing again the next day.

It’s a problem that barely existed in the old WCHA (or, for that matter, the CCHA).

Case in point: Last year’s games at the WCHA Final Five at the X had at least 15,000 spectators for each Thursday quarterfinal game. Minnesota State and Wisconsin had 15,971 fans at the 2 p.m. game while North Dakota and Colorado College 17,308.

For three of those four fan bases, it was a quick drive to St. Paul and back home — one that could easily be done in a day if your team was eliminated.

The CCHA, which played its championship at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, never had as impressive numbers for its finals and semifinals but the teams that made it last season — Michigan, Notre Dame, Miami and Ohio State — were likewise an easy drive for fans of each school.

That just isn’t going to happen anymore.

This year’s WCHA Final Five is at VanAndel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. It begins this afternoon with Minnesota State taking on Bowling Green at 1 p.m. Ferris State is in the nightcap against Alaska Anchorage.

Of those four schools, Ferris will undoubtedly have some sort of home ice advantage — Big Rapids, Mich., is less than an hour from Grand Rapids. WCHA officials are counting on a big Bulldog contingent to give the tournament decent attendance figures in the first Final Five outside Minnesota in 15 years.

But what if Bemidji State had defeated Ferris last weekend? The closest team would have been Bowling Green.

I don’t think WCHA officials were “rooting” for Ferris State to beat the Beavers, but you can bet that when the Bulldogs’ Scott Czarnowzan scored the game-winning goal in double overtime last Saturday to send the Bulldogs to the Final Five they all looked at each other and gave a sigh of relief.

And the NCHC, which is holding its first-ever Frozen Faceoff at the Target Center in Minneapolis, surely had a similar reaction when North Dakota held on to defeat Colorado College in Game 3 of their playoff series Sunday. The other three teams in the tournament are Western Michigan, Miami and Denver — not a Minnesota school to be found.

Obviously it will take a few years for these new conference alignments to feel “normal.” Once these tournaments have been around for a while in their new formats and locations people will be more used to filling up the X for a Thursday afternoon game between two teams they don’t care about.

Likewise for Grand Rapids. That city — which doesn’t have the same kind of college hockey history as St. Paul — maybe will come to see the Final Five as one of its premier sporting events and fans in West Michigan will come to the games no matter who is playing.

But at least for now, we’ll have to get used to the fact that things still ain’t like they used to be — and that’s not always a bad thing.

Sertich a class act I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention former BSU women’s head coach Steve Sertich in this column.

After eight years at the helm of the Beavers, Sertich decided Monday to retire from coaching. He’s been involved in hockey for his entire life — he played at Colorado College and was a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic Team before taking up his coaching career in 1976.

In other words, you’d be hard-pressed to find another person so deeply ingrained into the game as Sertich.

And even though his team struggled sometimes, he always had something interesting and thoughtful to say after games, no matter the result. He knows hockey and liked to talk about it.

For a sportswriter — especially one who sometimes asks dumb questions — that’s the best kind of coach to deal with. (And if that coach comes into Tuesday afternoon press conferences quoting Bob Dylan on a weekly basis, all the better.)

I’m sure whoever BSU hires as its next head coach will know his or her stuff. If that person can quote Bob Dylan in interviews, even better.

But chances are they won’t know the game quite as well as Sertich — that might be impossible.

Jack Hittinger

Jack Hittinger is the sports editor of the Bemidji Pioneer. He is also the Bemidji State beat writer. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.

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