By Will Sterrett, Special to WCHA.com
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the plan was hatched. The story begins with a three-day weekend from work early in the 2016-17 season when I decided to go check out Lake Superior State hockey. I was fascinated by the concept of a tiny school - smaller than my high school - that was seemingly at the end of the earth but had managed three national titles. This was something I had to witness firsthand.
I got sucked in. The facilities, atmosphere, the fans and the overall environment turned me into a genuine fan before the game was over. I listened to the next weekend's Lakers games online from my then-home in Kansas. Same thing next weekend. Then the next. Roughly midway through the season I subscribed to WCHA.tv for the sole purpose of watching Lake Superior State. That, too, grew on me and before long I was watching pretty much every game in the league, either live or archived.
This taught me what fans of WCHA teams have known since realignment; there's tremendous parity among the teams, leading to compelling matchups every weekend. The fan bases are intelligent, energetic, and passionate. The teams, and individual student-athletes, play with a chip on their shoulder, because they know they have something to prove. This was something I needed to experience first-hand in every corner of the league's footprint, and so #ChasingMacNaughton was born.
The premise was simple enough - watch at least one game in every WCHA arena in a single season. Pulling it off, however, requires a strategy. Once the league's schedule was released in the spring, I determined which pairings would make the most sense to attend in a single weekend and looked up the dates where they'd both be at home. Come fall, it was time to hit the road.
When I mentioned my plan on Twitter, I didn't expect it to take off as it did. After all, I'm just a fan going to some hockey games – but, as mentioned, WCHA fans are passionate and many graciously adopted me as one of their own. This included coaches' luncheons, alumni tailgates, welcome-to-town beers and plenty of interviews with radio, newspaper, and television. It was an incredibly warm reception and more proof to me that hockey fans are a fabulous group of people.
Minnesota State's environment is a party that just so happens to have a hockey game at the center of it. Alaska Anchorage draws die-hard Seawolves fans and true hockey enthusiasts. Ferris State and Bowling Green are loud venues, while Alaska Fairbanks and Alabama Huntsville are more subdued. The only constants are the parity of play and the intensity the member schools bring to the ice.
The fans at each venue have different levels of engagement, but they're always friendly, welcoming, and proud ambassadors of their hockey programs and schools in general. They freely share their knowledge and love of the game with newcomers, a scenario most apparent at Alabama Huntsville, the only WCHA program south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
It's no secret that realignment changed the dynamics of college hockey. It's also no secret to anyone who watches that every program in the WCHA, and every team member wearing those schools' sweaters, play harder, faster, more intensely as they prove that they do, in fact, belong at the game's highest level. The result is one compelling matchup after another in league play. In short, the WCHA is not the kiddie table of college hockey – the league remains as entertaining and competitive as ever.
The biggest takeaway from my winter on the road, which saw visits to all ten arenas in just under three months, is just how proud I am of the WCHA and its member programs. They've adjusted to a changing landscape, creating tremendous experiences for fans and student-athletes alike. They bring a purity to the game, where the question is less "How can we make as much money as possible from this?" and more about "How can we grow the game, the student-athletes who play it, and the profile of the schools we represent?"
I'm proud of the fans who support these programs, at times traveling across multiple time zones to do so, and proud of the teams who do so much on and off the ice for their schools and communities. As one league official once told me, "These guys would skate through a brick wall for their teams." And it's true.
#ChasingMacNaughton ended up being about much more than hockey. In the end, it's just a small factor. This was about people and the passion they bring to a game we love, and I'm honored and humbled to be counted among them.
|Date||Game||Venue (City, State)|
|Oct. 27||Michigan Tech at Minnesota State||Verizon Center (Mankato, MN)|
|Oct. 28||Ferris State at Bemidji State||Sanford Center (Bemidji, MN)|
|Nov. 10||Lake Superior State at Bowling Green||Slater Family Ice Arena (Bowling Green, OH)|
|Nov. 11||Alaska Anchorage at Alabama Huntsville||Von Braun Center (Huntsville, AL)|
|Dec. 1||Alaska Anchorage at Ferris State||Ewigleben Ice Arena (Big Rapids, MI)|
|Dec. 2||Alaska at Lake Superior State||Taffy Abel Arena (Sault Ste. Marie, MI)|
|Jan. 12||Alabama Huntsville at Alaska Anchorage||Sullivan Arena (Anchorage, AK)|
|Jan. 13||Minnesota State at Alaska||Carlson Center (Fairbanks, AK)|
|Jan. 19||Lake Superior State at Northern Michigan||Berry Events Center (Marquette, MI)|
|Jan. 20||Alaska at Michigan Tech||John MacInnes Student Ice Arena (Houghton, MI)|