The last few minutes of the game had all the fixings of an epic finish to a women's ice hockey championship game.
The home team, Quinnipiac University, had yet to win an ECAC Championship in women's hockey. The Bobcats' opponent, Clarkson University, already flew an NCAA Championship banner on their campus in Potsdam, New York.
The Golden Knights featured the tough, relentless and, most of all, poised play of a champion. But so did the Bobcats as they held on to a 1-0 lead with just minutes remaining in regulation. Could they hold on?
The burst of color on the scoreboard above center ice at the TD Bank Sports Center in Hamden, Connecticut, made for a great background as Quinnipiac's 24 players piled on the ice to celebrate.
They held on. They had won.
The 1-0 win was met with an empty bench, with gloves in the air. A patchwork of sticks resembling a lumberyard splayed here and there across a worn-out ice surface. Gold letters exploded all around the rink, screaming, “Bobcats Win!”
In the light of those flashing screens, the seats themselves were mostly empty. Noticeably empty.
“I think that the fans that show up to women's games are the passionate fans that really care about the team,” said Matt Bell, an ardent supporter in his senior year at Quinnipiac. “From my college experience following the Quinnipiac women's team for four years, they really appreciate the support. Not to say the men don't, but the men expect large crowds.”
That same game, earned in a battle resembling a street fight, was fought with women. Not men.
Would you still go watch it?
The game was the ECAC Postseason Championship, hosted for the first time by Quinnipiac University, the winners.
The message rang from Hamden, Connecticut, to Potsdam, New York; Quinnipiac, young upstarts to the ECAC, a perennially-close-just-to-come-painstakingly-short team, had finally won the conference postseason tournament. Finally champions, and victors over the class of the ECAC in Clarkson University, which hung a national championship banner high in previous years. For the first time in school history, Quinnipiac’s women’s hockey raised a trophy after postseason play.
Fun game, right? A huge championship match, at home, against the toughest possible opponent. Quinnipiac had never reached the championship game in the ECAC. The possibility of firsts were endless. A can’t miss final.
It was missed by the thousands, as empty blue seats adorned the TD Bank Sports Center while a trophy was raised. The final attendance? A total of 912 people, including just about 80 students.
That's the true figure at a college hockey conference championship game, on the home ice of one of the two teams. To make that figure seem even more tragic, the rink stands within either a three-minute walk from a major dorm, or a six-minute shuttle ride from the main campus.
Maybe 80 students.
This in relation to the men’s championship game, also featuring a talented Quinnipiac squad ranked in the top five in the nation. The game was held in Lake Placid, New York, roughly four-and-a-half hours from Quinnipiac’s main campus.
The attendance? 4,626 butts in Herb Brooks Arena seats, over five times more than those in the plastic blues at High Point Solutions Arena back in Hamden.
Oh, and the men’s hockey team won the Whitelaw Cup, eloquently named and adorned. The women’s hockey team won a trophy still nameless, unfairly to less of a fanfare.
Of course, this is not a shot at the men’s hockey team. Their efforts are well-documented, and their exploits well-earned. They didn't finish second in the nation after an NCAA championship loss for nothing. They earned an attendance.
But why can’t that be said for the women’s team?
The week after the Quinnipiac women’s hockey team became ECAC Champions, they hosted another high stakes game. An NCAA tournament game, held on home ice for the first time, against the same Clarkson opponent that was licking the Bobcat-inflicted wounds they had just suffered.
The storylines were endless, the tensions high, the outcome almost the same.
Clarkson won this time, 1-0. Same score. Same lack of attendance.
The first-ever NCAA tournament home game for Quinnipiac? That game with those tensions and stakes? 604 fans in attendance. The same lack of students, as well.
Those who showed up were the same students who came all year long, and it is safe to assume they were not pleased with the showing of students.
“Speaking in general for sports, and general at school besides men's hockey, our support as a school is very poor,” said Liam Kenney, a junior originally from nearby Cromwell, Connecticut. “We hosted a conference championship and an NCAA tournament game on our home ice! The stands were still empty. But yet, we will have a sold out crowd for a men's hockey exhibition game. To me, hockey is hockey.”
Massachusetts natives Bell and Alex Perrella, a junior in the Quinnipiac Pep Band, share the same mindset.
“I believe that hockey is hockey no matter who's playing, and that women deserve the same respect that the men do,” said Bell. “The women won the ECAC, and were a game away from making the Frozen Four last season. They deserve better from the students.”
“I personally think that the women's team doesn't get the support it deserves. The number of fans at a women's game aggravates me because the lack of fans makes it difficult to keep up the pep,” said Perrella. “(It) also makes me feel bad for the players and coaches who put in all of the time and effort to perform at a top tier level, and have it go almost unnoticed because no one comes to the games.”
The average attendance for a women’s hockey game at Quinnipiac is 432 fans. The average attendance for a men’s hockey game at Quinnipiac is 3,102 fans, near the sellout capacity of 3,386 attendees. The men ranked second in the nation last season in capacity filled, at 105.2 percent. In the same rink, the women filled only 16.2 percent of seats.
Sophomore Matt Kricheli, a constant supporter at Quinnipiac games— including a few road trips— was dismayed at the numbers.
“I think that for how good the women’s hockey team is, the lack of support they get is absurd,” said Kricheli. “(Quinnipiac) has been top five in the country since November of last year, and that should be reflected with people in the stands supporting them.”
Kricheli is questioning the attendance. Bell is, too, as is Kenney and Perrella. They're not alone in wondering, “Why?”
The reasoning? Not so simple.
It’s not as if either team is bad. Quinnipiac is one of only two schools in the nation with both teams ranked in the top seven by both the USCHO and USA Today polls. Minnesota-Duluth is the other. Last season, only Boston College and Quinnipiac had it’s men’s and women's teams ranked in the top five nationally, with Quinnipiac holding that distinction for more weeks..
Both teams have elite pre-game and post-game training, as well as top quality strength and condition programs under the direction of highly renowned coach Brijesh Patel. They also have nationally recognized head coaches in Rand Pecknold for the men’s team, and Cassandra Turner for the women’s team.
“With this program and coaching staff, I don't think any other team in the country is more prepared (for games) then we are,” said Emma Woods, the senior captain for the women’s team at Quinnipiac.
Both teams at Quinnipiac have held notable achievements, from ECAC champions to making NCAA tournaments to multiple players with 100-point careers. While the men traveled to Tampa for the Frozen Four earlier this year, the women finished the season with that 1-0 loss to Clarkson, which went on to the Frozen Four in Durham, New Hampshire.
Kenney has a theory. “If people can get over trying to follow trends and set a trend by going to other sporting events, then every sporting event can be as "fun" as the men's hockey games.”
Kenney has been an avid supporter at Quinnipiac events since his arrival on campus, currently serving as the Vice President of the Quinnipiac Spirit Group.
“I've always had a passion for sports. It's such a proud feeling wearing the letters across my chest that these athletes wear. It's a special bond,” says Kenney. “It’s different than being a fan for a major league sport because I know many of these athletes on a personal level. I love being able to hear how hard they are working in practice and in the weight room.
His favorite part of games? “I enjoy every aspect of a game, but what I enjoy most is when a fan comes to a game and enjoys his or her self in the student section.”
The group of supporters that attend each women’s game may be small, but they are dedicated.
“I attend games because I'm the type of fan that is "go hard or go home" regardless of what sport it is, and I like cheering on the Bobcats as much as I can,” said Perrella. “I like the intensity during the games, and how they seem to keep me on the edge of my seat because of how quickly things take place.”
The games certainly don't seem to bore the fans; this is especially clear considering the dominance of the Quinnipiac women’s team the last few years.
Love high scoring affairs? Quinnipiac beat Union 9-0 last season at home, in what also served as their senior night. The attendance on such a special night? 424.
Perhaps you prefer a game against a talented, household name college. Quinnipiac beat Boston University 6-1 last year in a game that many expected to be even closer. The attendance was a relatively high 1,024; however, a large portion of BU fans made up that number, which still pales in comparison to a men’s game.
Maybe a close, tight game against a local rival will do the trick? A 1-0 Quinnipiac win over Yale last season saw 396 fans.
Meanwhile, the men’s version of said rivalry featured an over-capacity crowd of 3,696 in which standing-room-only tickets were being sold for upwards of $50.
Men’s games feature $18 tickets for general admission, while premium games (such as those against Ivy League foes Harvard or Yale) go for $25. Each women’s game features $5 tickets, which is more than half price of the mere standing room only tickets for men’s games at $12.
Both teams have free tickets for students.
Affordability should not be, and is not, a realistic issue. If not because of monetary reasons, if not because of entertainment, is it because it is a game played by women?
A “different” style of hockey?
Professional photographer Rob Rasmussen, a Quinnipiac graduate in 2006 after growing up in the nearby North Haven area, has been around the team for years. He broke down the women’s game, one he has witnessed and analyzed for years in his line of work.
“I'm sure a lot of it has to do with the fact that there's no checking in women's hockey, but I do often hear people reference the speed of the women's game as being too slow for them,” said Rasmussen. “Both of these are frustrating things for me to hear because the game doesn't need checking to be wildly entertaining. Sometimes, the speed difference is a good thing because it allows you to appreciate the development of plays.”
Rasmussen built off of Kenney’s theory of trends and social events. “I'm sure some of it has to do with (the) advertising (and) marketing (of) the games, too,” said Rasmussen. “I think another big part of it is that there are so many demands on people's time that they make a conscious decision to attend men's games instead of women’s. Especially when they play on the same days. That may come down to education.”
Education? Rasmussen stressed the importance of fans witnessing the games for themselves, rather than relying on a common (and misinformed) stereotype that sports based off of female athletes are “boring.”
“The few people I've been able to bring to women's games have all told me that they were surprised by the level of play,” said Rasmussen. “I think that comes down to a few things, the biggest of which is getting people to the games.”
Kricheli agrees. “I enjoy the hockey— it is really good hockey. They’re a top team, and they have the ability to go really far this year. I think with people in the stands cheering them on, it’d give them the lift to do something special.”
Rasmussen ended with his own solution. “The real question (is)— other than checking and speed— how do we get more people in the building? How do we build an education for folks who love hockey, but don't think women's hockey stacks up? My response is always to get them to a game. From there, the quality of play speaks for itself.”
That quality features many talented teams nationwide, featuring multiple Olympic athletes among other talented players.
In Hamden, that features established stars such as T.T. Cianfarano, a participant in multiple U.S. National Team events, as well as fellow American star Melissa Samoskevich. The player known affectionately as “Samo” by the dedicated Bobcats fans is a homegrown talent. She starred in nearby Sandy Hook, Connecticut before playing at Shattuck St. Mary’s, a nationally renowned hockey prep school.
Shattuck St. Mary’s has produced players such as Sidney Crosby and Zach Parise. It has also produced players such as Amanda Kessel and Brianna Decker.
All are skilled hockey players, and all are nationally renowned talents, no matter what kind of hockey they play.
The attendance problem is not only affecting Quinnipiac, which ranked 11th in the nation in average attendance last season. While national powers such as Minnesota (First) and Wisconsin (Second) each averaged over 2,000 fans per game, they are also large state schools with a large crowd of students that could attend.
Both see their attendance pale in comparison to their male counterparts; Minnesota saw 9,849 fill the seats for men’s games, while Wisconsin welcomed in 8,849 fans per game. The women’s games saw a similar ratio to Quinnipiac, as 2,125 and 2,019 fans per game were seen in Minnesota and Wisconsin, respectively.
39th ranked Merrimack had more attendance for it’s men’s games— a team that went 13-19-7— than the women’s team at Minnesota, which won the NCAA national championship.
Both Minnesota and Wisconsin, along with Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota, were the only four teams nationally to see women’s hockey average over 1000 fans per game.
55 men’s teams had more than 1000 fans per game. Only 5 men’s teams did not.
Many former Quinnipiac hockey players were diplomatic in their responses, with hope for support in coming years.
“There definitely is a loyal and dedicated fan group that attend all the games at Quinnipiac and having their support over the past four years was amazing and it really meant a lot,” said Cydney Roesler, who graduated last spring after serving as last year’s captain. “It certainly would've been nice to get more support from students… (However), I do think things are slowly changing, and the student body is beginning to realize how good the team is.”
Roesler was the same captain who raised the ECAC Championship trophy high after the 1-0 win over Clarkson. The only goal in that historic win was scored by Nicole Brown, who graduated last year as well.
“There's no doubt that the fan support at the games is minimal compared to (the) male counterpart. However, I was fortunate enough to see an immense growth in the number of fans during my four years at Quinnipiac,” said Brown. “(My) freshman year, we had barely anyone come out and watch. (But) during my senior year, it was awesome to look up and see a good crowd of people behind our bench supporting us. More and more students and faculty started showing up to games to add to our already-dedicated super-fans.
Brown was also adamant that more fans should attend. She said, “Do I think they deserve more support? Of course. I hope that the students will give the women's team a chance and come out to a game or two and see for themselves that it's great hockey.”
Roesler added, “For some reason, it was hard to market the game to the students.”
With an eye towards the future, both alumni are excited and hopeful. They also were very ardent in appreciating the support they received.
“I miss everything about them! I was fortunate enough to get to know many of them on a personal level, and they're such amazing people,” exclaimed Brown. “They’re the kind of people you want at your games supporting you. They are always super positive and smiling when you see them after a game, whether we won or lost. They truly care about the team, and (they) go out of their way to show it. That's a special thing, and one I'm not sure I'll ever get to experience again.”
Many alumni from the team, as well as current players, are hopeful that the experience of having large crowds will happen often.
It is an experience that should.
Special thanks to everyone that participated in this article, as well as Professor Richard Hanley for editing the piece.