View From Section U: Radio For Help

These are heady times for UMass hockey.  Jon Quick’s Stanley Cup win has brought unprecedented media attention to the Minuteman hockey program.  Shortly after receiving the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP Quick credited UMass and the coaching staff with having a part in his evolution into an elite goaltender.  The Stanley Cup sitting next to the hot cheese up front at Antonio’s?  A suddenly legitimate possibility.  Unfortunately the program was reminded today that it still has a long way to go to be properly respected not only in the world of  hockey, but on its own campus.

The athletic department announced today that the WEEI affiliate in Springfield is the new flagship radio station for UMass athletics.  Games and coaches shows will be broadcast on the station for at least the next five years.  “We have some of the most passionate and loyal fans in college sports, so it was important for us to provide the best possible exposure for our athletic program” said Athletic Director John McCutcheon. “WEEI Springfield is the go-to station for all things sports in our area, so it made sense to make it the broadcast home of UMass Athletics as well.”  Certainly, McCutcheon has a lot to be happy about.

WEEI is equally enthused as station manager David Olread said, “”We have worked hard to become the destination for sports in Western Massachusetts and being selected as UMass’ broadcast home is a real testament to our station’s success.”

It could end up being a lucrative deal for UMass as well, as being on a high profile sports station with the kind of brand recognition built up from being one of the leading sports stations in Boston comes with some good sponsorship opportunities.  Nelligen Sports Marketing, a third party marketer that works the school’s athletic department, noted that “WEEI Springfield’s stature as the #1 sports radio station in the region will provide outstanding exposure for our current and future corporate partners.”

Sounds great!  Go UMass!  The only problem with all this?  Hockey isn’t included.  Only football and basketball will be broadcast on the “go-to station for all things sports in our area”.  Only those sports will be on “UMass’ broadcast home”.  Hockey will not have the opportunity to line up sponsors on the “#1 sports radio station in the region”.  With RNX done and its country and western successor getting out of the sports business, UMass hockey is officially homeless on the radio dial.

That doesn’t mean fans will be unable to find somewhere to listen to the team when they take the ice on October 12th.  I believe SID John Sinnett when he tells the Republican that hockey will most definitely have a radio home for next season.  Where that will be, what kind of coverage and reception it will have, and what type of sponsorship opportunities may result remains to be seen.  Something tells me the advertising revenue the program can pull in now will likely be diminished than would’ve been possible if it was on WEEI or part of a package deal elsewhere with hoops and football.  No, in the end the athletic department decided it was worth making a radio orphan of hockey for the betterment of those other two sports.

Just so I’m clear, I have no problem with football and basketball being a key focus for the university.  I have had football season tickets for years, have cheered them on from Chattanooga to Ann Arbor, and fully support the move to FBS.  And obviously I know of the tradition in basketball and how it helped put UMass on the map.  I was a UMass basketball fan before I even knew the school had a hockey team.  From Julius Erving to the 1996 Final Four, you don’t have to tell me the importance of the sport on campus, especially given the promise of next season for Coach Kellogg and his players.  But this focus on basketball and football cannot come at the expense of hockey.  It should not be a zero sum game.  Hockey cannot and should not be put on some lower tier compared to these sports.  In hockey you’re talking about the only sport where UMass can legitimately say it plays in the top conference in the country.  Over 73,000 people came to campus to watch UMass hockey last year compared to 56,000 for basketball, and 40,000 for football.  UMass alumni and fans poured into Fenway last year to watch the hockey team.  Student crowds for hockey versus those other sports, in terms of size and enthusiasm, aren’t even close.  Between the three sports I would argue hockey has the best chance to win a national championship.

Yet, too often, it seems like hockey is an afterthought for parts of the athletic department.  This radio deal is just the latest indication.  From pep bands to basic training equipment, hockey usually does without.  Brand new facilities for basketball and football are soon to break ground.  The newest capital improvement for hockey was a compressor for the Mullins which did little to address the embarrassingly slushy conditions.  It’s not just expenditures however, it’s presence and hands-on involvement.  I counted exactly zero athletic department staff at this year’s Reverse Raffle, one of the major fundraising events for the program and a gathering of the biggest supporters of the team.  John McCutcheon’s absence from hockey events is especially disheartening.  I can safely say I’ve NEVER seen him in attendance in the many years I’ve attended the Reverse Raffle or the Pond Club Golf Outing.  Once in a while you’ll see him in his office while a hockey game is going on.  But that’s about it.  He made it to the Fenway game but then again he was mostly busy introducing football coach Charley Molnar to the UMass faithful.  Before that a friend suggested the last time they saw him at a hockey event was when the team was in the NCAA tournament in Rochester.  I wasn’t able to correct him since that’s the last time I remember seeing him as well.  That is flat out unacceptable involvement in the school’s highest attended sport and one which, if done properly, can provide part of the foundation for UMass athletics, much like the hockey programs do in comparable schools around the conference.

Too often us hockey fans look at each other at the end of the season, scratch our heads, and wonder what went wrong.  Insiders and outsiders to the program will point to the facilities, the great academic opportunity at UMass, the position of being the flagship school in a state that loves its hockey and will be unable to explain why the program continues to underachieve in Hockey East.  Blame will be thrown around.  The coach needs to go.  UMass can’t compete with the Comm Ave schools for recruits.  A freshman skater’s toe was in the crease for the go ahead goal in the championship game.  The team keeps losing players early to the pros.  Our alumni don’t have deep enough pockets.  But have we ever looked towards the athletic department and questioned whether they’re involved and committed enough to allow the hockey program to compete at the highest level?  Probably not.  At the very least not enough.  Well maybe it’s time to start.  To prove us wrong they can start by giving us the chance to hear John and Brock describe the action as the Minutemen return to the ice for the home opener in four months.  Preferably without having to put tinfoil on the radio antennae.

Matt Vautour writes about the opportunity that Jon Quick’s success has created for the athletic department and how they must make the most of it.

The morons in the LA news media never cease to amaze (via Puck Daddy):

FYI, I know Quick was deservedly the Conn Smythe winner, but the guys who run the LA Kings’ Twitter account each deserve a day with the Cup as well.  Or at least the Campbell Trophy (Lady Byng is likely out of the question).

Quickie, the Kings, and the Cup made the rounds on late night TV last night.

The schedule page has been updated with dates against Providence and Northeastern.  The tilts with the Huskies come via the Husky Hockey blog.

Vermont has lost one recruit to major junior this week and Boston University may soon suffer the same fate.  Mike McMahon over at the Mack Report has the news.