As NHL lockout drags, no gain for colleges and minors

A recent game between UMass and Northeastern University at Matthews Arena. Some local teams are drawing fewer people to rinks.
Evan McGlinn for The Boston Globe
A recent game between UMass and Northeastern University at Matthews Arena. Some local teams are drawing fewer people to rinks.

Bill Sall usually watches about half of the Boston Bruins games on television, but two or three times a season he spends the money to see them at TD Garden.

“It’s one of my favorite sporting events to go to because the atmosphere is so great,” said Sall, a data analyst from Brighton, who writes a sports blog in his spare time.

This year, however, he and other professional hockey fans are still waiting for the first puck to drop, as the National Hockey League’s third player lockout in 19 years drags into its 12th week. You might think Sall would be desperate to see a game — any game — but that’s not the case.


“For me, hockey doesn’t really exist this year,” he said. “I don’t like it enough to go to a non-Bruins game.”

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That sentiment seems to be widespread. If college and minor league hockey teams were counting on bigger crowds at their games this season as a result of the NHL void, they haven’t materialized yet. In fact, some local teams are drawing fewer people to rinks.

Attendance at Boston University’s first six home games has been down by 3 percent compared with last year. Hockey crowds at Boston College — which is coming off a national championship — are no larger than they were last season, and Northeastern University’s numbers are off by 10 percent.

“It seems a little counterintuitive,” said BU athletic director Mike Lynch, “but having the NHL playing, and especially the Bruins, drives interest in other hockey teams.”

Some athletic directors and minor league club officials say the Bruins set the temperature for hockey enthusiasm. When the pros are playing, hockey fever is contagious — especially if the team is on a hot streak. And when they’re not putting on skates, the opposite holds true.


“We’ve always said that when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup [in 2011], it was great for us because it gets people thinking about hockey 24/7,” said Eric Lindquist, director of public relations for the Worcester Sharks, a minor league club in the American Hockey League.

“Kids watch [the Bruins] and say, ‘Hey, when can I go see a hockey game?’ ” said Darren Abbott, president of the Manchester Monarchs, another AHL team in New Hampshire. “And if you can take the whole family for the price of one Bruins ticket, maybe you go to an American League game, instead.”

But without Bruins games to spark those conversations, Abbott said, minor league teams suffer. Crowds for the Monarchs — an affiliate of the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings — have shrunk by 7 percent this season, and the Sharks reported a 13 percent dip.

“I don’t think it’s good for any of us,” Abbott said of the NHL lockout.

Even the added attraction of value prices — no more than $28 for a Terriers ticket compared with about $60, on average, for the Bruins — isn’t helping much, Lynch said.


One reason is that many Bruins season ticket holders don’t have more money to spend. A season ticket can set them back up to $4,000, and they won’t receive refunds until the revenue-sharing dispute between team owners and the players union ends.

Season ticket holders do have the option of receiving monthly refunds with 1 percent interest, but most are leaving their money with the club. By waiting, they earn 3 percent interest on tickets not used and can lock in next year’s passes at current prices.

Laurie Barnett, 48, of Winthrop is eager to attend BU games, but she is holding off until she makes the final payment on her Bruins package this month — $650 for a pair of tickets to games that may not be played.

“I think people are still in wait-and-see mode,” said Lindquist, who doubles as the Worcester Sharks’ radio play-by-play announcer. “They’re not ready to give up on the NHL yet, and they’re not quite ready to look for alternatives yet.”

The only hockey club in the region enjoying a notable attendance bump during the NHL stalemate is the Providence Bruins, Boston’s AHL affiliate. Crowds have swelled this season by 21 percent through nine home games. But Jeff Fear, the club’s chief executive, said the Baby Bs are benefiting not from the lockout but rather from a better schedule and bigger marketing staff.

“I don’t believe the lockout helps any of the hockey teams here in New England,” said Fear, adding that game-day ticket purchases are flat or slightly down. “People will call and ask, ‘Are you guys even playing during the lockout?’ ”

Evan McGlinn for The Boston Globe
Despite a lack of crowds, Northeastern University and other hockey teams have attracted more media attention.

Lindquist has fielded similar inquiries. He said fans who are unaware the AHL is active are missing excellent games. While many NHL stars are playing overseas during the lockout, some players are skating in the AHL and raising the league’s level of competition.

“The caliber of hockey has been unbelievable this season,” Lindquist said.

The NHL lockout does have some benefits for other hockey teams. NU, for instance, has been attracting added media attention this year, said Peter Roby, the Huskies’ athletic director. “There’s more space now without the NHL for coverage by media looking for hockey content.”

Since the lockout began, radio personality Damon Amendolara, who hosts “The DA Show” on 98.5 The Sports Hub, has devoted a segment of his program one night per week to non-Bruins hockey, interviewing coaches and players from college and minor league teams, and taking listeners’ phone calls. “I’m driven by the appreciation of people who hear it and say thank you for doing it,” Amendolara said. “There’s so much good hockey around here, and I’ve tried to spotlight other teams to show people that you can get your hockey fix.”

If the entire NHL season is eventually canceled, as it was eight years ago, there’s a chance attendance will surge, said the Monarchs’ Abbott.

“We really start ramping up in December, January, February,” Abbott said. “If the lockout goes that long, will hockey-starved fans come our way? Maybe.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.