The Boston Bruins will visit the Minnesota Wild Sunday afternoon in what has been implicitly anointed the marquee event of Hockey Weekend Across America. The 3 p.m. EST face-off will cap an NBC telecast doubleheader as the day’s only matchup to be broadcast in every U.S. market.
What could be better for this weekend? After all, it is the defending Stanley Cup champions and America’s longest-tenured NHL franchise venturing into the self-proclaimed State of Hockey.
On a personal level, this proud Rhode Island native who also spent three years in Minnesota has to objectively concede that the “State of Hockey” moniker is thoroughly correct. But this is a time when one needs to ask “What is the sound of one commentator debating?”
The fact is, with the probable exception of Michigan, New England and Minnesota are the only two U.S. regions each with enough ammo to engage in a footrace for the title of the country’s best hockey sector.
Between each level of play and every mode of involvement, there are both close shaves and decisive victories for both sides.
Certainly, in terms of grassroots, the data raises an emphatic upper hand in favor of Minnesota, which recorded 65,653 USA Hockey registrants for the 2010-11 season. With an overall population of about 5,303,925, that translates to one person actively involved in hockey for every group of 81 Minnesota residents.
Massachusetts has its own separate USA Hockey district, which recorded 52,637 amateur players, coaches or on-ice officials at the annual count last summer. That means only one out of every 125 Bay State residents are skating in some capacity.
As a whole, the six New England states have one USA Hockey registrant for every 155 people.
But those of us who cannot skate to save their lives are living proof that there are ways to exhibit one’s penchant for pucks without going between the boards. It takes more than the action to sustain any given rink, league or franchise.
Working our way down from the summit to the schools, here is a quick, compare/contrast capsule of hockey in Minnesota and New England at each significant level.
NHL: For the longest time following their 2000 inception, the Minnesota Wild effortlessly sold out every home game and attendance has never exactly waned to an alarming extent.
While it is true that the Bruins have had some leaner years at the turnstiles, that has not applied since head coach Claude Julien rejuvenated their relevance among NHL contenders.
And one has to wonder what would happen amongst the Wild fanbase if their team was struggling and they were more passionate about other sports and/or had more alternatives to get a decent hockey fix.
On that note…
Minor Pro: Only once has there ever been a high-level minor league team in the State of Hockey, and that was during the interlude between the North Stars’ departure and the Wild’s arrival.
The Minnesota Moose played in the late International Hockey League at the late St. Paul Civic Center for all of two seasons (1994-96) before moving to Manitoba.
When the Moose were originally established, there were already three Triple-A hockey teams in New England with a fourth, the Worcester IceCats, coming along simultaneously in 1994.
For two decades and counting, the Bruins have had their AHL affiliate one hour south in Providence as part of the longest successive AHL-NHL partnership. Less than three quarters of an hour west are the Worcester Sharks.
And the Connecticut Whale, Manchester Monarchs, Springfield Falcons, Portland Pirates and Bridgeport Sound Tigers are all within a three-hour radius of the Hub.
The Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Toronto markets have all variously sustained an IHL/AHL and NHL team at the same time. Until someone successfully pushes for an AHL tenant at the Target Center, the Twin Cities cannot make the same claim.
Division I College: On both the men’s and women’s side, Minnesota has five programs all within the WCHA. But other than the University of Minnesota-Duluth, no one tends to compete with the Golden Gophers on the ice or in the way of publicity.
Conversely, the rivalry between Boston College and Boston University is arguably the best feud not only in college hockey, but in college sports as a whole.
Most of the fan bases in Hockey East, a New England-exclusive circuit with 10 men’s and eight women’s teams, tend to look at the Eagles and Terriers as the Red Sox and Yankees. That, in turn, promotes healthy contempt for the Boston bigwigs and passion for one’s own school.
And outside of Hockey East, there are an additional 10 men’s and six women’s New England-based programs in either the ECAC or Atlantic Hockey.
Division III College: There are 10 men’s and 11 women’s programs in Minnesota at this level. New England has 37 men’s and 19 women’s.
Junior: Neither region can claim to have a team in the top tier junior league, namely the USHL, but Minnesota has the next-best thing in two active and two former North American League franchises.
There was a time when the major-junior Canadian Hockey League oozed into New England, but the Lewiston Maineiacs folded last spring after eight years of operation. With that, the East Coast has no junior hockey on a par equal to or higher than the NAHL.
Still, on the whole, New England has 28 junior teams between four different leagues as opposed to Minnesota’s 11 teams spread across three circuits.
High School: There are not many places in this country where the high school state hockey championships are regionally televised on basic cable. Minnesota is one of those places, if not the only one.