ROCHESTER, N.Y. — When Robert Morris and Air Force played to a dramatic, 2-1 finish in the championship game of the Atlantic Hockey tournament on Saturday, it was a hockey fan’s dream.
The Colonials dominated the play, but trailed on the scoreboard nearly the entire 60 minutes. They pressured, fought and battled to try to find an equalizer, spending the last 2:30 of the game without a goaltender in net. They didn’t come up with a tying goal, but they never conceded, either, and the outcome was in doubt until the final moments.
On a bigger stage, it would be labeled an instant classic hockey game. Instead, almost no one saw it.
The announced attendance at Blue Cross Arena on Saturday was 650. They must have counted the RMU pep band, the media, the janitors and everyone else within a 100-yard radius of center ice to get to that number.
It wasn’t any better for the semifinals on Friday. Robert Morris and Canisius drew 200 for the early game, while Air Force and Army battled to a 1-0 finish in front of 600 in the nightcap. That’s a total of 1,450 people over three games and two days in an arena that seats over 11,000.
Furthermore, Atlantic Hockey charges for the video streaming access to the championship game, meaning that outside of Time Warner Cable customers in Western New York, fans had to pay to see the game.
Clearly, the attendance is an issue, especially with the league’s best-attended team RIT, which plays just down the road in Rochester, out of the running. Amy Moritz of the Buffalo News suggested on Sunday that the league could try for smaller venues in places such as Erie Pa., Binghamton or Elmira N.Y.
That is an option, though the league has a contract with Blue Cross Arena that runs through 2019. There are other options as far as holding a conference tournament. The WCHA held its entire tournament at campus locations this year. But that isn’t much of an option for Atlantic Hockey, which has several schools with under 2,000-seat arenas. With the league as geographically diverse as Atlantic Hockey, with teams from Colorado to Massachusetts, moving out of Rochester isn’t likely to provide for a better environment. It would just be a guessing game. A tournament in Erie without Mercyhurst would draw just as poorly as a tournament in Rochester without RIT.
One thing the league could consider is playing it a weekend earlier. Currently, the final four in Rochester coincides with the first weekend of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, one of the biggest weekends of the year for watching sports on television.
Bumping it up a weekend could provide for more of a crowd amongst general sports fan in whichever city is hosting. The league could easily accommodate the schedule change by eliminating the first weekend of the conference playoffs. In an 11-team league, not everyone needs to make the playoffs.
It would also be something different to draw more eyes of the college hockey world onto the conference. That, combined with opening up the video access to a greater potential audience could make the AHC finale a must-watch event while other conferences are still in their semifinals.
There’s no reason a league without a rich history shouldn’t be more creative when it comes to providing a better conference tournament experience.