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The Leftovers

By John King, 01/24/18, 5:30PM CST


Five ideas to bring energy back to Mariucci Arena and Gopher hockey

Full disclosure: I love the Gopher hockey team. I’m a season ticket holder and believe in them blindly each and every season. Thanks to The Rouser and a few lopsided games against Alabama Huntsville, my kids could spell M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A before they could walk. And, while I went to Boston College, I still cheer for the Gophers when they play my alma mater. It runs deep; it’s in my blood.

Increasingly, the Gopher hockey program has lost some of its luster. The U.S.S. GOLDY is taking on water for sure. But this article isn’t going to be about how moving from the WCHA to the Big Ten ruined everything. I’m not going to attempt to design a better non-conference schedule, fix recruiting practices, or deliver a more consistent TV schedule. I won’t even cry about the Gophers’ recent lack of success against in-state rivals.

What am I going to do? I’m going to try to bring solutions instead of more problems. More specifically, I’m going to deliver five ideas that would make it more fun to be in the building at Mariucci when the Gophers are playing. Because the program has lost something, and you can feel it in the building.

I’m not naïve either. I think the chicken littles need reminding that the Gopher hockey heyday (recent era—Bonin, Crowley, Kraft, Spehar, etc.) in the 1990s benefitted greatly because the North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993, and the Wild didn’t arrive until 2000.  It’s no wonder the building was full, and Gopher hockey was a tough ticket—it was the only show in town!

Turns out people like beer.

1. Please Let Us Drink

Beer and liquor sales would go a long way toward bringing new energy back into the building.

It’s a fair point that part of the appeal of Gopher Hockey over the years has been its squeaky clean family atmosphere. “Look, son—the marching band just went into the bathroom. Isn’t this crazy!” But desperate times call for desperate measures.  We need beer in the barn. Start the petition! #beerinthebarn

And for any holdouts who might think alcohol is the devil and worry we’ll all drink too much and it won’t be only Goldy’s head that’s spinning, there are ways to be smart about it. I’m picturing a small fleet of Uber-like “Gold Cars” or Dinkytown shuttles that are painted accordingly, providing safe and complimentary transport to and from Gopher hockey games for people who plan to imbibe.  

“Why’d you wanna play cawlidge hawkey?” “Isn’t it obvious. For the girls.”

2. Embrace Cawlidge Hawkey

Recently (new scoreboard and piped-in music included) the Gopher Hockey program seems to be trying to act more and more like a professional team. A push the other direction to truly embrace college hockey and everything that it means might be more beneficial. I believe the band should be a fixture at every single home game. It doesn’t need to be the entire band, but there should be some version of the band. We should also consider more analog touches like an in-arena organ or perhaps a rotating house band (think The Roots on Jimmy Fallon) like they’ve done at the University of New Hampshire.  

“Cawlidge Hawkey” is different because you feel like you know all the players personally, and they’re still kids in a way. You want what’s best for them. The Gophers should lean into this, considering family-style highlights of players on the jumbotron each game. Fans would enjoy learning the background of each player while getting a tour of where they’re from. Maybe each Gopher player gets his own night during the season to be spotlighted and brings a ton of friends and family to the rink from his hometown. Gopher hockey could benefit from truly embracing college hockey and all that it means.

$3 cheap seats could fill the building and mint new fans.

3. Fill the Building at all Costs

Besides maybe a North Dakota series, Mariucci is barely half full for home games. For those of us who know what it’s like for the barn to be raucous and full, it’s been sad to watch the change. A big reason for the empty seats right now is that as a season ticket holder, it’s extremely difficult to pass off your seats if you can’t use them. The program needs to better use technology to make it dead simple to transfer your seats. Other local teams have figured this out (See Timberwolves and Flash Seats), and it’s time for the Gophers to catch up.

Another way to fill the building would be to invest heavily in the next generation of Gopher Hockey fans. How might this work? Why not have 3M sponsor $3 standing room for youth hockey players all season long? I can think of nothing better than filling all of those empty seats with Mite, Squirt and Peewee teams that can come to Gopher games on a budget with tickets priced at only $3 per kid. And, by providing the special rate just to our young hockey stars (under age 12), you won’t turn away or upset buyers paying full price. Besides it’s simply better business to invest in making new Gopher fans than it is to chase old fans that have lost interest or become disenchanted with the program.

A new coach could energize the program like The Don’s arrival did years ago.

4. Coaching Change

There are many ways to create energy for a program, but at the beginning they need a spark. Often this is a new head coach. We see it with P.J. Fleck and his “Row the Boat” mantra, and presumably you’d get a group of people who would be energized by a new head coach after The Don. I know some people are critical of The Don because from the outside he seems smug, went to Notre Dame, and is rumored to prefer cabernet over beer (the horror!). Personally, I’ll always like him because he helped us win two National Championships. But of course, an easy way to get people to come back to the program for another look would be hiring a new head coach.

First step to make your players a big deal: Act like they are!

5. Marketing, Marketing, Marketing

Sorry, folks. It’s not 1995. People have more options. Times have changed, and Gopher Hockey needs to change with the times. I firmly believe there should be a plethora of crazy and creative ideas to create energy and market (yes, market) the team each season. While I’d love the University to sign me (or better yet, Mike Veeck) up to consult, here are a few marketing idea freebies:

  • Streaks & Status. My 16-year-old son’s biggest fear is losing his phone because, god forbid, it would end his Snapchat streaks. How do we bring a little streak and status to Gopher Hockey? Is there an award for fans who have perfect attendance for the entire season? Do they become the Mayor of Mariucci sitting between the benches for a game? If we want the building full, it’s common sense to celebrate the people who show up every night.
  • Alumni Outreach. The history of the Gopher hockey program is unmatched. Every night there should be an ex-Gopher great signing autographs in the building.
  • Next-level Chuck-a-Puck. It’s time for Chuck-a-Puck to get a Top Golf makeover by inserting microchips into the pucks. Rather than having everyone toss pucks blindly at center ice, could we create a more interesting and entertaining Chuck-a-Puck game that feels like something you’d find in a video arcade? I think we can and, really, isn’t Chuck-a-Puck innovation just about the most American thing you can think of?
  • Hype Your Stars. It wasn’t that long ago that Nike’s Phil Knight bought a billboard in Times Square to promote his alma mater’s Heisman hopeful, University of Oregon QB Joey Harrington. In the age of LaVar Ball and Conor McGregor, hype is everything. If the Gopher hockey program were to treat its stars like stars, people would believe they are. And, yes, that means there should have been a Casey Mittelstadt billboard larger than the Bob Dylan mural posterizing downtown Minneapolis this season!

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but it’s crystal clear the program needs change. I reached out to numerous season ticket holders and longtime Gopher hockey fans before writing this article. Everyone was longing to once again see the “spirit” and “soul” of Gopher Hockey. As one longtime fan put it, “It hurts not to care.” Well said, so let’s fix it. Here’s to hoping a few of these ideas might help. Go, Gophers! Rah.

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