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Matt Wellens column: Don't blame fans for North Star College Cup burning out

The National Anthem plays before the final North Star College Cup championship game on Saturday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Photo by Matt Wellens / mwellens@duluthnews.com

After just four years, the North Star College Cup's brief chapter in college hockey history came to a close Saturday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

It was an exciting end, for sure, with an overtime goal by Minnesota Duluth's Kyle Osterberg needed to decide final ownership of the big red oak cup.

That kind of finish no doubt left Bulldogs fans feeling great when they left Xcel Energy Center on Saturday night, and the victorious feeling of euphoria likely continued Sunday.

Today, the mood should shift. Bulldogs fans should join the rest of their in-state rivals feeling disappointed and even betrayed, but not by this weekend's results.

College hockey fans in Minnesota should feel disappointed and betrayed because the North Star College Cup is dead. The State of Hockey no longer has its own tournament to celebrate the college game, as they do in Michigan (Great Lakes Invitational) or Boston (Beanpot).

And you — the fans — are wrongfully being blamed for this tournament's demise.

Now, I know the attendance numbers weren't great, especially when you compare them to what the NHL's Minnesota Wild draw at Xcel Energy Center (19,008 average so far this year) or the records that the Minnesota State High School Hockey League boys state hockey tournament sets every year (22,224 last year for a Friday evening session featuring two Class AA semifinals) in St. Paul.

This year's North Star College Cup was the lowest in four years, drawing a two-day total of only 23,265. The first tournament drew 28,906 in 2014 — and those are just the announced attendance figures. The truth is, there were a lot fewer butts in the seats.

But what do you expect out of a tournament that's just four years old? It needs time to grow, especially since four of the five participants don't get to take part every year. Only the host Golden Gophers participated in all four tournaments.

As St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko pointed out last week in discussing the future of the North Star with me, it's tough to get excited about a tournament that you play in one year, then miss the next.

This tournament didn't exist long enough for the Huskies, Bulldogs, Beavers or Mavericks to really feel like they were ever being left out. Instead, some saw their North Star College Cup off year as a bonus. It was a chance to add a couple extra home nonconference games to the schedule and make a few extra bucks.

UMD, SCSU, Bemidji State and Minnesota State-Mankato were given very little financial stake in the North Star College Cup. This was Minnesota's tournament, and it was going to keep most the profit and even the prestige.

It's why Fox Sports North was contracted to televise only the Gophers' games this weekend and not the other two, not even the championship.

Bemidji State's Tom Serratore — an Iron Ranger from Coleraine — hit the nail on the head as to why the North Star College Cup failed, and it had nothing to do with the fans.

Everyone has to buy in, he said.

"If the schools really feel it's very important for the state of Minnesota to have this tournament, then I think you do it, but it's all predicated on buy-in. All five schools have to buy in and want to do it," he said.

Serratore believes his program and the other four NCAA Division I schools in the state owe college hockey fans in the state of Minnesota the North Star College Cup, and I agree with him.

But I'll add, the tournament needs more than just the five schools to buy in by giving up home dates and being willing to split the pot evenly.

It needs the Minnesota Wild to buy in by being more flexible with its dates — try giving the tournament Thanksgiving weekend or a few days between Christmas and New Year's, when people have some time off to attend a 4 p.m. semifinal.

It needs the Xcel Energy Center to come up with better promotions and deals for families to attend. Ticket packages ranging between $55-$81 for a single seat are too high, especially if you aren't going to toss in a soda or snack.

And Fox Sports North needs to be there to broadcast all four games. Show people what they're missing. The cameras and crew are already on site. Was the bad publicity FSN suffered on Saturday night worth the few extra bucks required to do both games?

The fans didn't kill the North Star College Cup; greed did, and it's a black mark for college hockey in the State of Hockey.

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

(218) 723-5317
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