The ECAC has announced it will move its Division I hockey conference championship weekend back to Lake Placid, New York in 2014. The move will end a three-year stint at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and it will move the conference championship to a site that last hosted it in 2002.
The move out of Atlantic City was widely anticipated after the league failed to draw anything remotely close to a marketable attendance figure in its second year in the resort city along the Jersey shore. Lake Placid, the historic host of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, beat out bids by Providence, Rhode Island and the capital district city of Albany, which hosted the championship from 2003-2010.
The ECAC came under fire this past year when its conference championship weekend failed to appear on any television station, doubling with extremely poor attendance. The two-day total for the weekend was just 7,593, well short of the 2009 championship weekend in Albany, widely recognized as the nadir of the New York state capital’s tenure as host. Both sites failed to capitalize on momentum brought forward by the near-sellout in Albany when Cornell defeated Harvard back in 2005.
For the ECAC, the move to Atlantic City was curious in the first place, especially at a time when the two programs near Albany (Union and RPI) were reaching a zenith. Union’s appearance in the conference championship game in 2010 accounted for an increase in attendance to about 6,000, providing a two-day total of roughly 12,000. But the move to Atlantic City happened the next season, and in its first year, the championship teams traveled 300 and 400 miles to the city, respectively. In fact, the nearest school to Atlantic City was Princeton, just about 100 miles away. The Tigers have not qualified for the conference championship weekend since its move to New Jersey.
Another factor facing the ECAC is the lack of a television contract. The conference televised several of its games on outlets like ESPNU and CBS College Sports, but the conference tournament never received attention. This was contrasted with Hockey East, which recently signed a national television deal with NBC Sports, and the newly-forming National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which has paired off with the aforementioned CBS College Sports.
After announcing the move, several message boards lit up with support. It appears fans are supporting the move back to the smaller Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid because of its widespread appeal to the hardcore hockey fan base. Many fans viewed the move as a reflection of the league’s ambitions to strengthen its core, which it seemingly got away from in recent years through its travels through Albany to Atlantic City.
The rink and arena is the site of what is widely regarded as sports greatest upset. In 1980, during the Olympics, a group of college kids from the United States defeated the pseudo-professional athletes from the Soviet Union, 4-3, to advance to the gold medal game. The game, played at the height of the Cold War, represented one of the biggest wins in regards to not only on-ice upsets but also off-ice impact. It would result in a legend that formed a Disney movie and various pilgrimages by professional hockey players and teams alike.
The arena, named for that US Olympic Hockey Team’s head coach, also represents the purity of sports. Nestled in a small town in upstate New York, it’s glitz comes only from its appeal as a sports town. Many of the venues from the Olympiad still stand, providing photo opportunities for fans who make the trek north. While it’s also not easy to get to, that hardcore appeal will appeal to fans of ECAC hockey teams, ones that rely on that hardcore fandom.
It’s also a virtual announcement that ECAC heard the calling of its fans and took note of the widely empty Boardwalk Hall last year. The pictures that arose showed an ominous, empty arena, filled with cavernous spaces and no loud fan noise. It felt less than sterile because it didn’t feel like anything at all, and while this year’s edition will be there, hope is springing for fans of their teams. There was the other element that hockey fans really didn’t care about what Atlantic City had to offer, simply because its reputation as the “Vegas of the East” is tempered by the fact that it’s really not that great of a place to begin with (at least in perception).
While the ECAC will still need to hammer out a deal with a television contract, Herb Brooks Arena will offer the league exactly what it’s looking for in this new era. Following the changes of college hockey’s landscape in 2013-2014, the ECAC is the only conference not adding or losing teams as of the present day. Selling the 7,000 seats will be a sell-out plus standing room in Lake Placid, and it’ll provide the real noise atmosphere harkening back to the days in arenas like the old Walter Brown Arena and old Boston Garden.
Lake Placid beat out bids by Atlantic City, Albany, and Providence, Rhode Island. While Providence served as an intriguing choice due to its proximity to schools like Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, and Quinnipiac (with not-as-outlying Union and RPI), it was a tougher sell because of its distance from Princeton, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Cornell, and Colgate. The Dunkin Donuts Center in the city also holds a maximum capacity of close to 12,000, making it larger than Boardwalk Hall. It’s unlikely the league would have risked the potential for a worse attendance percentage when the more-locally based schools cannot be proven as stronger competitors (for example, Hockey East can usually bank on a Boston-based school making its final weekend).