Detroit, NCAA undertake bold experiment in college hockey

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Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Patrick Eaves and Jimmy Howard entered Ford Field and made a quick assessment of the grand experiment in college hockey that will play out in Detroit this weekend.

The Red Wings, both stars of the game during their college years, noticed the temperature in the first football stadium in which the Frozen Four — the NCAA’s hockey championship — will be played.

Eaves grabbed his cell phone and called his dad, Mike, coach of the Wisconsin Badgers, one of four teams vying to be champions beginning tonight.

“Patrick called right away and said, ‘Dad, you are going to love the building,’ ” Mike Eaves said. “ ’It is state of the art. It felt like a rink, because it was so cold.’ ”

Detroit is hosting its fourth major sporting event since 2005, amid some acclaim and comments there’s much more positive about the deeply-troubled city than folks around the country know. The Frozen Four, the college championship in a sport Hockeytown calls its own, is in some ways the toughest challenge.

It’s also a new frontier for the sport that will provide a significant measure for how much the college game can grow.

“It is almost like a test tube baby in that we are exploring to see if it is the same step basketball took some time ago when it entered football arenas,” said Mike Eaves, who grew up playing hockey in Windsor. “It gets the sport more notoriety.”

Tom Anastos, commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, the conference that’s one of the events’ hosts, said the hope is that the Frozen Four in Detroit will succeed and be remembered as a leap forward in the evolution of the college game.

“Back when we were even contemplating the potential of doing this, college hockey was really growing in popularity,” he said. “And what we were finding is that the Frozen Four had already taken some monumental steps in its growth.

“We had a priority ticketing process and the event was being sold out in the conventional NHL rinks — with 18,000 and 19,000 at each venue — in June, prior to the event.”

Then, in 2001, Michigan State ponied-up $500,000 and invited Michigan to play a game at Spartan Stadium. A crowd of 74,544 — 103 percent of capacity and the largest crowd ever to watch a hockey game — showed up, and an international television audience marveled at the scene, including two, 300-strong marching bands pumping out “The MSU Fight Song” and “The Victors.”

Fight songs, big, enthusiastic crowds and the ebullience of youth — the precise recipe for the mass-audience successes of college football and college basketball.

But will it work for hockey?

Perhaps.

Record setter

It appears fans will attend in massive, unprecedented numbers. Officials say 31,000 three-game packages (today’s semifinals and Saturday’s final) have been sold. Single-game championship tickets go on sale Friday.

With the rink placed at the west end of Ford Field, the stadium is configured to seat 37,000. Even at 30,000, the Frozen Four would shatter the previous attendance record of 19,342 at the Scottrade Center, home of the St. Louis Blues, in 2007.

“I would not claim college hockey has a national appeal at this point,” Anastos said. “But our regional appeal has continued to grow and the number of U.S.-born players is constantly expanding.

“Frankly, a lot of people did not have access to the Frozen Four previously. So in checking, we looked at it, especially in this area, and said, ‘You know, Ford Field is a very unique venue and in the forefront of a new design. How about doing it there?'”

To stage the Frozen Four officials at Ford Field, a crown jewel amid a scruffy downtown, had to improvise.

“It’s been a work in progress,” said Tom Lewand, president of the Lions, the main residents at Ford Field. “We learned a lot from last year and the NCAA (men’s basketball) championship about when you start putting seats on the field.

“But when you have 30-35,000 people in this building, I don’t think any one of them is going to have a really bad sight line. I think it’s going to be as intimate a setting as you can provide, with 35,000 people in the building.”

Unique situation

It’s all a long way from the old rink at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, the venue for 11 of the NCAA hockey championships from 1948-69.

If all is successful in Detroit, there may well be talk about moving the Frozen Four increasingly into football stadiums.

But Anastos and others involved in college hockey say it will be difficult to match what is available in Detroit — a rabid fan base for college hockey, in particular, and a domed football stadium.

Even in Dallas, where the NHL is a major draw and a new football stadium beckons, college hockey is, in large part, unknown.

“In the last 40 years, the changes have been significant,” said Red Berenson, who has coached Michigan, winner of nine titles (the most ever), for 26 years. “I think this is an experiment, really. This is a bit of a gamble, just having it at Ford Field. So that kind of conversation could be out there.

“But 20 years ago, if you said you were going to have it in a football stadium and you expected 30,000 fans, they’d have looked at you like you were crazy. A lot of people thought it would continue to grow, though. And it has.”

Frozen Four

What: NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey semifinals and final

Where: Ford Field, Detroit

Today’s semifinals: RIT (28-11-1) vs. Wisconsin (27-10-4), 5 p.m.; Miami (Ohio) (29-7-7) vs. Boston College (27-10-3), 8:30 p.m.

Final: 7 p.m. Saturday

TV/radio: Semifinals on ESPN2; final on ESPN; all games on WXYT 1270

Tickets: Three-game packages available at $40-$189 at (800) 745-3000 or ticketmaster.com. Single-game tickets for Saturday’s championship go on sale Friday.

Last Updated: April 08. 2010 1:32AM