It’s a bold statement, but after a few days to complement and compare it to the other marquee U SPORTS events, I find it to be true. The Crowchild Classic is the crown jewel of U SPORTS events. The Vanier Cup has been an institution for years, the U Cup has a rich history of moments, but the Crowchild Classic feels by far and large like the most legitimate hockey experience you’ll find in U SPORTS. Rarely do I find myself blogging about my own personal experiences within the U SPORTS community, as I often like to make the story about the players, coaches, schools, etc. But today is an exception. From my time in Calgary I had a chance to really take in the whole ‘Crowchild experience’ and explore as much about it as I could. From that, here’s the experience I had and some of the lessons that can be taken away and applied to the rest of the country.
Maybe it was the pre-game walk into an NHL facility, running into Jaromir Jagr by the Zamboni entrance, or settling into the Peter Maher broadcast booth and borrowing Peter Loubardias’ chair, but this game felt like the NHL experience minus the NHL teams. Given, I’m still pretty new to all this, and before this trip the furthest west I had ever been in Canada was Sault Ste. Marie, ON. The whole experience of flying long distance to a new city for a big-time event made everything feel a little ‘bigger’ to me. When I got in on the Wednesday night, I made the impulse decision to head out to the Calgary Flames game that night to get a gauge of what hockey fans in Calgary are all about. Although the Flames lost in overtime to LA, the crowd felt to me what a Canadian market NHL crowd should feel like. Intently inching forward on their seat as a chance develops, nervously reacting to the way Mike Smith plays the puck, and launching out of their seat at the spectacle of Johnny Gaudreau’s unbelievable handles. Just 24 hours later, I found out the audience for the Crowchild Classic is nothing like that at all. But in its own way, it was the perfect atmosphere for a university hockey game.
Among all the atmospherics at the Crowchild, perhaps the most noticeable is the noise. It never stops. There’s 10,000+ students in the house to have a great time, and they go strong for the full three hour duration of the men’s game. The women drop the puck at 4:00pm local time, and as their game wears on the crowd slowly grows. By the end, there’s a healthy number of students in the building to make a noticeable racket for whoever takes the win. But the buzz really begins to pick up around 6:00pm local. Just from walking around the dressing room pregame, you can sense there’s a different feel. The two dressing rooms are separated by a curtain with the Mount Royal side setting up just beside the Calgary Flames dressing room. Both teams are led out to the benches by a pathway of carpet that’s been walked before by so many NHL greats it’s almost unthinkable. Before you know it, you’re center ice in the spotlight of the NHL’s second oldest currently operating rink.
As soon as the puck drops you’ll immediately notice how divided the audience is. The Mount Royal fans may have outnumbered Calgary this year, but it wasn’t by much. Both fan bases are equally loud and know how to have a great time. It’s the student sections that really make the Crowchild Classic the spectacle it is. This year’s hockey game gave them everything and more to cheer about. After a strong first period for Calgary, things got crazy the rest of the way with bounces on both ends winding up in the net. The boxscore will tell you the rest of the story. But the fans don’t really care about how well Mount Royal entered the offensive zone, or how many times Calgary turned over the puck. Few people come to the Crowchild Classic with the expectation of a well-executed hockey game where the better team ends up winning by a comfortable 4-2 margin. People come to the Crowchild Classic for the experience. The students come out to support their universities and have a big night out. Fact is, that’s a part of the modern day university experience, and a huge reason for the success of the NCAA. The students come out decked from head to toe in their school’s colours, and if they aren’t, there’s merchandise tables all over the concourse. I’ve never seen that much merch available for sale at a university hockey event. The fan experience is nowhere close to that of a pro or even junior hockey team. There’s no ownership, ridiculous ticket prices, or anything else that makes the business side matter to the students. It’s just hockey in it’s rawest form. Did I mention this event is free? Yeah, that makes a big difference too. You can thank Calgary Sports and Entertainment for that.
The U Cup is a different story all together. Having been to the last two, I can assure you, it’s a spectacle in itself. The crowds in Halifax were terrific, and the atmosphere for UNB and StFX’s games in Fredericton were very good last year. But the demographic in the seats is very different. Yes, there’s a student section for the UNB games and some of the other local AUS universities, but you’ll never see anything like the Crowchild. Part of the reason U Cups do so well in the AUS is because there’s an engaged demographic of older hockey fans in the Maritimes that appreciate what good hockey looks like. Not to mention, there’s far from an over saturation of high-level sport in Fredericton, Antigonish, Wolfville, etc. unlike Toronto or Montreal. Although the U Cup has a good record of drawing some of the better crowds in U SPORTS hockey, it can’t hold a candle remotely close to what it’s like to be in attendance for the Crowchild Classic. But that’s the nature of a tournament where around five or six of the eight teams are well out of town.
Then there’s the little things that separate the Crowchild Classic from the rest of university hockey’s top-tier events. Games like the Frosty Mug, Steel Blade, UBC Winter Classic, and the multiple ‘school day’ games universities host throughout the season are great for the league, but they’re not on the scale of the Crowchild Classic. Having attended a handful of the bigger U SPORTS hockey events already this year, I’ve noticed some subtleties under the hood that makes a difference in the final product. One of the biggest advantages the Crowchild Classic has is that the Calgary Flames event staff play a big part in running the event. You’re getting NHL-calibre employees when it comes to security, rink staff, game day promotions, and building ops. As a result, they’re highly prepared for an event like this. However, it can also be a double-edged sword. Both MRU and U of C are at the mercy of the Saddledome. If the schools had their way, they’d like to sell out all 19,289 seats for the game (and probably could), but the tickets are capped at 14,000. The Saddledome puts limits on this for a number of reasons (staff needed, cost of production, etc.). Elements of the event such as the start time are also determined by the Saddledome. But at the end of the day, it’s all worth it. Without Calgary Sports and Entertainment and the Scotiabank Saddledome staff this event never gets off the ground. They’re the reason this is a free event, and the biggest contributor to it’s large scale success.
Often times we talk about how underdeveloped U SPORTS is from a media standpoint, but that didn’t seem to be the case at the Crowchild. The press box is still at only about 20% capacity, but the organization and execution of handling media for the event is top-quality by U SPORTS standards. Apart from the U Cup, this is the first U SPORTS hockey event I’ve attended where roster sheets were issued to the media. It’s a small thing, but it says a lot about how prepared a school is to handle the media. SID’s from both the MRU and Calgary side were on site and readily available to help. Pregame chat with the coaches? No problem. Post-game interviews? No problem. Hardwire internet connection? No problem. If I really wanted, I probably could’ve had pregame interviews with the players too, but believe me, I wasn’t going to be the one to take Jamal Watson out of his zone. Everything I needed to effectively cover this event was right in front of me, and the line of communication and timeliness of response was excellent. I wish I could say the same for U SPORTS. I find it a little funny how two schools alone can blow U SPORTS communications out of the water. Ahead of the 2017 U Cup, CUSN sent four separate emails to U SPORTS communications detailing our intentions for coverage at the U Cup. We never received a response to any of them. Thankfully UNB’s communications department is also one of the best.
Nearly 1,500 words into this piece and I’ve barely even talked about the hockey game itself. What a gong show it was this year. But in some twisted odd sense it turned into a masterpiece of drama, unpredictability, and flat out entertainment. Any coach or player that tells you the Crowchild is ‘just another game’ is lying to you. It’s obvious, even in the pregame stretches, this game is a totally different level for both teams. You go from playing in front of family, girlfriends, and maybe a few other friends in a dingy arena to playing at an NHL facility in front of the loudest crowd in university hockey. There’s nothing that can get you ready for that. Because of that factor, the Crowchild always stays close. The Cougars have dropped three in a row to Calgary, but they’ve all required double overtime. The Crowchild Classic has never been decided by a goal spread bigger than two. You’ll be hard pressed to find an event like this which has score lines consistently as close as this one.
What we have here is U SPORTS hockey at its max potential. The student engagement, the facility, and the quality of hockey are the big three ingredients to making university hockey in Canada work. Nearly every school has the quality hockey, about 25% of schools have the quality facility, but I’d say absolutely none of the schools have the student engagement (maybe Lakehead), certainly not to this level. Let’s hope U SPORTS knows what they have here. Apart from Andrew Buckley and his nine slide Instagram story, there was no U SPORTS presence. When you have a hockey game that can completely take over Canada’s 3rd largest city for one night, it’d be nice to see someone like Graham Brown in attendance, or at least some high-up U SPORTS representation.
If there’s anything to take away morally from the Crowchild Classic, it’s this: Amidst all the issues this level of hockey has from its infrastructure downward, there’s still a glimmer of hope for what this league has the potential to become in the future. When I woke up the day after the Crowchild to see the fiasco surrounding the goalie interference calls in the NHL, I thought to myself, “If I ever live to see the day when goalie interference is the biggest issue in U SPORTS hockey, I’ll know we’ve come a long way”.
The Frosty Mug might be the closest representation of what university hockey can be on a night-to-night basis, but the Crowchild Classic doesn’t have to be a one-off event either. What’s to say we can’t have something similar in Toronto with Ryerson and U of T, Montreal with McGill and Concordia, or even Halifax with SMU and Dalhousie? As much as I say I’d like to see some U SPORTS representation at this event, there’s only so much they can do. If this event is to ever spawn off into something bigger across the country it’s only going to happen if Athletic Directors want it to. As much power as some may think U SPORTS has, they’re totally at the mercy of the schools and whether they comply in various cases. U SPORTS has virtually nothing to do with the success of the Crowchild Classic. That came from Mount Royal, the University of Calgary, and Calgary Sports and Entertainment. If we’re going to see this elsewhere, universities are going to need to take the initiative themselves. As is the case with most of the problems holding U SPORTS hockey back, it’s going to take a university to challenge the status quo for things to actually change. Who’s going to take the home run swing? Who’s going to put some of their assets on the line? They don’t have to look very far to see how it can be done. I just hope the powers at be are paying attention to what’s going on in Calgary, because it’s hard to tell for sure if they are.