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W. Hockey Plays to Empty House

By John R. Hein, Crimson Staff Writer

If you walk into Bright Hockey Arena on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon game to see the Harvard women’s hockey team in action, you’d never guess the team was off to its best start in program history. That’s because despite a talented team that has posted an undefeated record (12-0-1) and earned the ranking of No. 2 in the nation, few have caught on to women’s hockey this season, and game attendance shows it.

“We played a lot of away games at the beginning of the season and we haven’t had that opportunity to gain momentum at home,” says Harvard coach Katey Stone. “Some of those home games have been against weaker teams, so that’s contributed to some of the lack of enthusiasm surrounding a big rivalry.”

If students need incentive to cross from JFK Street and over Lars Anderson Bridge, the Crimson has a solution. Coaches, players and the die-hards hope that this Sunday’s match-up with No. 3 Dartmouth will have a similar and lasting effect like last year’s game to build both the team’s and fans’ momentum for the rest of the season.

Though attendance was drastically higher throughout last season, a record 1,741 fans swarmed into Bright to see Harvard post a thrilling 2-1 victory over Dartmouth. The very next day, the team drew its second-largest crowd of the season in a 9-1 blow-out of Vermont.

The Best Show in Town

Last February, Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan wrote a feature that ran on the front of the Sports section entitled, “See Here, Ruggiero a Talent.” In addition to lauding the play of co-captain Angela Ruggiero, the anchor of Harvard’s defense and an equally potent threat on the offensive end, Ryan referred to the upcoming Harvard-Dartmouth game as “the absolute Best Show In Town.”

Although Ryan could not make it to the best the Boston area had to offer that weekend (business called him to Florida instead), fans flocked to Bright arena, including about 400 students, in spite of a snowstorm.

Members of Radcliffe crew, sporting painted stomachs in support of the Crimson, lined against the glass behind the far-end goal. The band came in full force to egg on Dartmouth goalie Amy Ferguson and cheer on the home team.

After a tremendous on-ice effort, the victorious Harvard coaches and players acknowledged the effort of the fans.

“There’s no question in my mind that band and students helped us win that game,” Stone said after the game. “We thank them a lot and we hope they come back.”

“It was a great crowd—tons of support, tons of energy,” said then co-captain Jennifer Botterill ’02-‘03. “We were thrilled.”

This type of energy and fan turn-out has been notably lacking at games this season. Aside from the student body’s loss of watching arguably Harvard’s best sports program in action, this is a team that truly values it.

“I don’t think women athletes, particularly at Harvard, take [home crowds] for granted,” Stone says. “They see the band there, they see people come in—they truly appreciate that, so it’s not lost on our athletes.”

“It’s something I wish they had the opportunity to experience more.”

Following last year’s Dartmouth game, Stone’s comments reflected the appreciative attitude of the hockey team towards the fans. She said her only regret that game was that Harvard was unable to extend its one-goal lead so that the crowd could erupt.

A Tale of Two Cities

Amongst the nation’s top tier of women’s hockey programs, Harvard, receives significantly lower game attendance than No. 1 Minnesota, No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth and No. 3 Dartmouth.

The numbers can be expected to be slightly higher in the Minnesota region, where hockey is traditionally more popular than anywhere else in the nation. Minnesota averaged about 2,000 fans per game last year, while UMD averaged about 1,000. Last year, a regular season game between the two North Star State titans drew over 3,000 fans at Minnesota’s Ridder Arena, incidentally the only collegiate arena used exclusively for women’s hockey.

Dartmouth, meanwhile, has seen the largest rise in fan attendance this season. The Big Green averaged about 550 fans per game at this point last season. This season, nearly 1,100 fans on average pack into Thompson Arena when school in session.

“The men have only played two or three home games this year,” says Dartmouth coach Mark Kudak. “I think we’ve been getting a number of people that generally come to their games.”

That, coupled with the atmosphere in Hanover, N.H., helps the Big Green’s draw.

“Dartmouth is the big show in a small town,” Kudak says.

While their fan base expands, Harvard’s seems to have withered. The Crimson’s season attendance records are not only low relative to the other top teams in the nation this year, but also drastically lower than the support Harvard teams have received in the past.

Game attendance has dropped considerably relative to the past four seasons and is now at its lowest since the team’s 1999 championship season.

“We’ve got a tremendous product,” Stone says. “We’ve just got to get the word out.”

“It’s not something I’m concerned about,” she adds. “It’s just something we want to put as much energy into this building as we can every day we play and particularly for those big ECAC games.”

A comparison of Harvard and Dartmouth attendance records against the same opponent, New Hampshire, reveals the tale of two schools.

On Dec. 9 this season, the largest crowd of the season watched Harvard blank then-No. 7 UNH in what Stone called the team’s best game all season.

Ruggiero summed up the Crimson’s emotions after the game, saying “This is why I play hockey right here—these kind of games where it’s so intense and every little play matters.”

But 234 fans came to Bright Arena and saw the Crimson’s impressive display of smothering defense and well-executed special teams. That was the largest crowd the Crimson has attracted to Bright this season.

“I was a little bit disappointed about the attendance at our UNH game,” Stone says. “I really thought we would have much better turnout. It’s certainly not the environment we’re looking to create for our athletes, so we’re looking for ways to improve upon that.”

Through the first seven games of the past four seasons, game attendance ranged from peaks of 375-612 fans. This year shows a significant drop in support, with an average of just 185 spectators at each game.

“People I convince to come to our games after they’ve put it off and off finally come, and they’re hooked,” says co-captain Lauren McAuliffe. “They say ‘I can’t believe I didn’t come to this before.’”

Of course, the trick is to get those fans to come in the first place.

Flash forward to Jan. 3, when the same UNH squad, now No. 8 in the nation, was handed its seventh loss of the season by No. 3 Dartmouth. That night, a whopping 1,207 Big Green faithful packed into Thompson Arena in Hanover.

Though the game also offered the attraction of an interstate rivalry, the attendance still surprised Dartmouth.

“Usually, our games don’t compete with other events, so that helps,” Kudak says. “But that night there was a men’s basketball game, so I was a bit surprised with the turnout.”

If You Build It, They Will Come

The question seems to be not only why hasn’t Harvard been able to attract as large a fan base as Dartmouth, but also why fans—students in particular—have turned out in fewer numbers this season than in the last four years.

“I feel like when you have a good team, you’re taken for granted,” Ruggiero says. “I remember my freshman year. When we first started, attendance was really low, but then we packed the place.

“Back then we were new, exciting, and winning, so we were an attraction,” she adds. “We’ve been winning ever since.”

But the attraction seems to have worn off on Harvard students, if only temporarily. Few worry that Bright Arena will become the “Thompson South” for Dartmouth fans, as many claim it has become the “Lynah East” for Cornell faithful in men’s hockey.

“I think it’s just a fluky year,” Stone says. “One of the great things is we have the band coming to just about every one of our games now, That’s been a real jolt for our enthusiasm and energy in the building.”

The loyalty of the Harvard band has not gone unnoticed by the players, either.

“We love it when the band comes—they’re rowdy,” Ruggiero adds. “In fact, I’d say the band has been our biggest supporter all year.”

The team will do their best to regain their luster in the eyes of fans starting with alumni. On Sunday, Harvard celebrates 25 years of Women’s Hockey Sunday by inviting hockey alums to festivities, including an alumni hockey game, prior to the main event.

“Anything that can generate momentum and attention toward what we’re trying to do is a good thing,” Stone says. “You really have to gain momentum around here in order to gain support.”

The hope is that with a large alumni base to fill the crowd with Harvard supporters, more students will get into the games and turn out more often to see them.

“When you generate a big crowd, its fun, and if everyone enjoys the setting, you’re more likely to come back,” Ruggiero says.

If there’s one thing the team needs to build in order to attract the fans, it’s the right atmosphere.

“I think a lot of the times the fans are what make it intense,” McAuliffe says. “I think the onus is on us to rally some people to the games.”

Stone agrees, but adds that the crowd is not the team’s first priority.

“I try to have the players bring their buddies, but I also don’t want them spending too much time cheerleading and not enough time focusing on the game,” Stone says.

The Crimson will need to focus and not allow their past to haunt them. Dartmouth has long proved a thorn in Harvard’s side. The Big Green has eliminated the Crimson from the ECAC tournament in each of the last four years.

USCHO.com recently ranked the 2000 ECAC semifinal between Harvard and Dartmouth as the best Harvard-Dartmouth game of the past six years. Dartmouth’s victory knocked the Crimson out of contention for the national championship one year after winning it.

“Dartmouth-Harvard, as long as I’ve been here, has been the most intense rivalry,” Ruggiero notes.

Harvard hopes that the teams’ past performances will give the fans all the more incentive to turn out.

“Just like our players don’t really thrive on beating people 10-1, 10-0, fans don’t either,” Stone adds. “Fans want to see those tight 2-1 games. They have the opportunity to see a very close battle on Sunday.”

In the midst of reading period, students could seek refuge for two to three hours watching their classmates turn a rink of ice into a hotbed of excitement. Perhaps Ruggiero offers just the insight reluctant fans not accustomed to a women’s hockey game might be seeking.

“There’s definitely going to be some hitting and physical play,” Ruggiero says. “If that’s what fans are looking for, they’re going to get it.”

Staff writer John R. Hein can be reached at hein@fas.harvard.edu.

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