Just call it life, liberty and the pursuit of hockey-ness.
In honor of Independence Day, this author has decided to make a sweep-check across the birthday nation and offer American hockey fans a holiday puck fix by examining some of the country’s under the radar hockey markets.
The United States has 50 states and only 23 NHL franchises to go around. But most every gap on the map is filled by the sport’s minor league system that is rivaled only by baseball, a decent smattering of college programs, an elaborate junior league system and dense grassroots interest.
Support for minor pro, collegiate and junior teams are generally the most indicative aspects of a community’s hockey loyalty. And the majority of the 10 towns chosen for this list have more than one such team in the area.
The same goes for many of those who fell short, including two towns in Alaska (Anchorage and Fairbanks) and Erie, Pa., the home of Mercyhurst College and the OHL’s Erie Otters. The entire state of Minnesota also deserves at least a fleeting honorable mention for its unequaled craze for youth and high school hockey.
But upon narrowing down the nominees based on the amount and variety of support for local teams, these are the top 10 non-NHL U.S. cities who happily settle for the next best thing, presented in alphabetical order.
Since 1996, the Ann Arbor Ice Cube has been home to the U.S. National Team Development Program, which was the launching pad for such NHLers as Dustin Brown, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk.
Barely 10 minutes away from the Cube sits Yost Ice Arena, home to one of the most storied programs and most rabid fanbases in college hockey, namely that of the Michigan Wolverines.
This coming winter―in part due to a renowned football facility, mind you―Ann Arbor will have the rare privilege of being a non-NHL city hosting a regular-season NHL game. The 2013 NHL Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs will be conducted at Michigan Stadium.
The Wolverines’ football abode already holds the world record for the largest hockey game audience, having admitted 113,411 fans to witness a tilt between the Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans on Dec. 11, 2010.
The Colorado College Tigers drew last year’s sixth-best attendance figures among Division I NCAA men’s programs with an average of 6,754 people coming through the turnstiles at World Arena.
Down the street from World Arena is a little place called 1775 Bob Johnson Drive. The building situated there is none other than the USA Hockey headquarters.
Need we say more?
Actually, we can say more, so we might as well. The Tigers have a crosstown, albeit nonconference rival in the Air Force Falcons. They were one of only three NCAA teams in 2011-12 to fill their arena at above 100 percent capacity, joining the Rochester Institute of Technology and Maine.
The University of North Dakota regularly places second behind rival Wisconsin for the national lead in attendance at Division I men’s college games. In 2011-12, they and the Badgers were the only two programs to have more than 10,000 fans come through the turnstiles on a nightly basis.
The same has held true for the UND women’s program each of the last two seasons, with Ralph Engelstad Arena joining Wisconsin’s Kohl Center as the only two venues to routinely reel in four-figure audiences.
The Hershey Bears are easily the longest-tenured franchise in the American Hockey League with 80 years and counting of continuous existence.
The Giant Center, which supplanted the old Hersheypark Arena as the team’s home facility 10 years ago, has a seating capacity that is barely eclipsed by the city’s entire estimated population. And the citizens of Chocolatetown have made their Bears the AHL’s attendance leaders for each of the last six years.
The old facility, by the way, is still standing and still hosting its share of hockey action at various amateur levels.
Despite being evicted from two leagues, the Kalamazoo Wings have not missed a single season since their inception in 1974, playing at either the Triple-A or Double-A level in the old IHL, the old UHL and now the ECHL.
Attendance at Wings Stadium has eclipsed 3,000 for eight years running and the annual “Green Ice Game” on St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t seem to get old. In addition, the Wings were joined by a junior team of the same name in the North American League this past winter.
Only one year after professional hockey came to Kalamazoo, the city gained a Division I college team in the Western Michigan Broncos, who have drawn extra interest in the wake of back-to-back NCAA tournament berths.
The University of Wisconsin Badgers men’s and women’s teams have each had the strongest following in their respective sectors of the sport for a decade.
In 2011-12, the men drew a nightly average of 11,773 spectators, making them national attendance leaders for 10 years in a row. The women topped all of their fellow Division I programs with 2,689 fans per home game, which more than doubled all but that of No. 2 North Dakota.
Both Badger teams will soon have a new state-of-the-art training and practice facility adjacent to their home ice at the Kohl Center.
The state capital is also home to a multitude of highly regarded elite travel programs, perhaps most notably the Madison Capitols. That expansive program is overseen by the likes of former Badger and 1980 U.S. Olympian Bob Suter.
The Manchester Monarchs have averaged more than 5,000 fans per game in each of 11 years of operation in the AHL. They were league-wide attendance leaders in 2005-06, the best-attended among eight New England-based AHL teams in 2006-07 and 2007-08 and have since been consistently second or third in the region.
The Monarchs home ice, Verizon Wireless Arena, is a go-to destination for special college hockey events. It is the annual neutral site of an intrastate college clash between the New Hampshire Wildcats and Dartmouth Big Green and regularly hosts NCAA men’s hockey regional games.
Only a 15-minute drive away from Verizon Wireless Arena is the Tri-Town Ice Arena in nearby Hooksett, the home of the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs. The Junior Monarchs have been the class of the Eastern Junior League in recent years, claiming three straight championships and churning out an annual host of NCAA recruits.
Despite the dismissive remarks you may have heard from some of the characters in Slap Shot 2: Breaking The Ice (the most underappreciated hockey movie of all), they know and love hockey aplenty in Omaha.
The AHL’s Knights may have had a momentary existence (2005-2007), but the Lancers top-tier junior team is a time-tested tenant of the United States League. They are set to move into a new arena in nearby Ralston this autumn.
Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks placed fourth in the nation last season with a nightly median of 7,864 fans at the pristine Centurylink Center. They have been among the six best Division I draws in each of the last five seasons.
The Providence Bruins have consistently attracted at least 6,000 fans per night each year and have seen an exponential increase at the gate despite three straight non-playoff seasons and a league-wide cutback from 40 to 38 annual home games.
In 2010-11, the P-Bruins pulled the unlikely feat of drawing a larger nightly average crowd to the Dunkin Donuts Center than their co-tenants, Providence College basketball. They fell only 67 people shy of outdrawing the Friars again this year.
To round out their second decade in the Rhode Island capital after moving down from Portland, the P-Bruins garnered the AHL’s President’s Award “for excellence in all areas off the ice.”
Elsewhere around town are the Division I men’s and women’s programs at Providence College and Brown University, who annually vie for the Mayor’s Cup.
Next season, the Dunkin Donuts Center will host both the AHL All-Star Game and the East Regional of the NCAA men’s hockey tournament.
The Rochester Americans, established in 1956, are sandwiched by the Bears and the Bruins as the AHL’s second-longest-tenured franchise. And thanks in part to their partnership with the Buffalo Sabres, they have enjoyed a healthy following.
Though eliminated in the first round of the 2012 Calder Cup playoffs, Rochester impressively drew 7,118 spectators to its only postseason home date at Blue Cross Arena. Most AHL teams see negligible audiences in the earlier rounds of the tournament.
Earlier this past season, Blue Cross Arena hosted the 2012 Atlantic Hockey championship as well as a successful home-away-from-home game for the Rochester Institute of Technology team this past autumn. The RIT Tigers beat St. Lawrence 6-5, before an audience of 10,556, more than five times the seating capacity of their campus arena.
On that note, there are plans to erect a new on-campus rink for the RIT men’s program as well as its newfangled Division I women’s team.
In addition, on the city’s outskirts in Henrietta, N.Y., the four-sheet ESL Sports Center houses the EJHL’s Rochester Stars and has held multiple USA Hockey national championship tournaments.