They consistently perform in front of sellout or near-sellout crowds. They’ve been on television more than ever this season.
The growing spectacle that is college ice hockey comes to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City this weekend with the ECAC Hockey men’s tournament. Top-seeded Quinnipiac faces No. 7 Brown in a semifinal at 4 p.m., and No. 3 Yale plays No. 4 Union, the defending champion and a 2012 NCAA semifinalist, at 7:30 p.m. The championship game is at 7 p.m. Saturday.
College hockey might be somewhat foreign to fans in South Jersey. There are no Division I teams in nearby Philadelphia, and the only one in New Jersey is Princeton.
But in certain areas — mostly further north — college hockey is immensely popular. And people around the hockey community will be watching a tournament featuring the nation’s top-ranked team, Quinnipiac, and one of the best conferences in Division I.
“I think college hockey is unique in the athletic landscape,” Brown coach Brendan Whittet said in a phone interview this week. “You’re talking about student-athletes that are in it for the purity of the sport more than anything. They play the game with really, really high energy. It’s physical. There’s a lot that’s happening. It’s an exciting environment.
“You’re going to see four teams with players on them that are going to do whatever they have to do in order to hold that trophy on Saturday, and it’s just an environment that’s filled with all sorts of emotions, from elation to disappointment to anger to energy. It’s just a great, great sport.”
Quinnipiac, which is No. 1 in all three major NCAA rankings, played in front of an average crowd of 3,328 over its last 16 home games at TD Bank Sports Center in Hamden, Conn., which seats 3,386. Yale sold out its 3,500-seat Ingalls Rink for seven of its last nine home games this season.
ECAC commissioner Steve Hagwell said his league showcases the excitement of live hockey at high level combined with the passion of college sports.
“I would encourage the people of Atlantic City, those who are hockey fans, whether they’re Flyers or Rangers fans or whatever it may be, to come out and see the product because I guarantee you they’ll be impressed by the product,” Hagwell said in a phone interview this week. “A lot of these kids, not everyone on the teams, but a lot of these kids are going to be playing at the next level. The skill level is there.”
Indeed, Jeremy Welsh played in the NHL for the Carolina Hurricanes late last season after helping Union win the ECAC title at Boardwalk Hall. Harvard’s Alex Killorn, who scored goals in both of the Crimson’s games at the Hall last year, now plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While that skill is only on live display locally for one weekend, there have been more opportunities than ever to watch college hockey on TV recently.
NBC Sports Network increased its coverage from 11 to 24 live games this season, the Big Ten Network had 15 and CBS Sports Network, which always has shown a large slate, became available in more homes.
The upward trend should continue next season. The Big Ten Network has said it plans to show significantly more games next season with the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference. CBS SN, meanwhile, will start a multiyear deal with the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
“I think college hockey for many — those who maybe are not around it on a regular basis — once they come in contact with it, it’s like an undiscovered gem for a lot of people,” Hagwell said. “I hear that from many people.”
This area in particular will have much more exposure to it. Philadelphia will host next year’s NCAA semifinals and final, known as the Frozen Four.
Last season, the ECAC semifinals drew 3,462 and the championship 4,131. The Hall’s listed capacity for hockey is 10,500.
Whether or not local fans fill the seats this season, attendance should be strong. Quinnipiac and Yale are the closest ECAC schools to Atlantic City besides Princeton, both just more than 200 miles away. Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said he expects his team’s fans to travel well.
“I think we’re one of the better teams in the league in how we travel,” Pecknold said in a phone interview this week, “and certainly with everything that’s been going on with the No. 1 ranking and the excitement surrounding the program ... I think we’ll get a good turnout.”
Hagwell said fans, wherever they come from, will not be disappointed.
“We’re expecting four great games on the weekend, and we’ll crown a champion, and we hope that there are a lot of people there to see it,” the commissioner said.
Contact Jason Mazda: