Can The ECHL And Hockey East Coexist In Worcester?

Late last week Bill Ballou and Jennifer Toland, both great sportswriters for the Worcester Telegram, wrote a story with the news that The College of the Holy Cross has been approached by Hockey East to replace Notre Dame in the conference after the 2016-17 collegiate hockey season when the Fighting Irish join the Big Ten Conference.

According to the Hockey East by-laws (link opens to a .pdf) all facilities for new members must have a “minimum seating capacity 4000 with 20% of capacity being chair-back seats”. The Hart Center, Holy Cross’ current home for ice hockey, holds just 1,600 fans. Should Holy Cross move from the Atlantic Hockey Conference to Hockey East they would then need to play their home games at the DCU Center.

As the article by Ballou and Tolland states, this could potentially cause issues for the newly founded Worcester Railers, the Cliff Rucker owned ECHL franchise set to begin play in October of 2017. The premise is that there might not be a big enough base of hockey fans to support an ECHL team and a major NCAA hockey conference. Ballou, being an encyclopedia of such things, wrote of other times pro and college hockey went head to head. As Ballou notes, the history is mixed.

But I simply don’t see a situation where Holy Cross being in Hockey East negatively impacts the Railers with any significance.

In the past there’s been no real competition between the pro hockey teams and Holy Cross hockey. The two fan bases are very different and don’t have significant overlap. There are some fans that go to both, and as one that does I can tell you that you’ll find more Worcester pro hockey fans in Providence on a given night than at the Hart Center.

The number of Worcester pro hockey fans at Holy Cross games did go up last season and will likely do so again on 2016-17, but all that I recognized last season are Railers HC members, meaning they’ll be back at pro games come October of 2017.

The Crusaders have already played a game at the DCU Center, taking on the Princeton Tigers last season in front of a crowd listed as 1,059 in the box score. That is, ironically enough, nearly exactly what they average last season (1,061) for all home games. During the 2014-15 season when the Worcester Sharks were in town the Crusaders averaged 860. In 2013-14, it was 851.

When you look at least season’s attendance number for Holy Cross it would be automatic to say the cause of the jump was the lack of pro hockey in town. While it undoubtedly played a role, a look at the Crusaders numbers for 2012-13 (1,240) and 2011-12 (1,089) shows that they are down a touch over the past few seasons. The numbers actually show something important for both teams: people want to see a winner. That’s something the Railers should take to heart.

The biggest challenge might be for Holy Cross hockey fans themselves. Not only will tickets be significantly more expensive at the DCU Center than they currently are at the Hart Center, they will not get to park for free as they do on Holy Cross’ campus. Getting student to and from games at the DCU Center is also something Holy Cross will need to look at, as a large portion of their fans are current students who walk to the Hart Center from on and off campus housing.

When looking at a potential attendance bump for Holy Cross entering Hockey East the first thing that pops to mind are visiting fans. With closer fan bases in Hockey East comes more visiting fans, and that’s good for everyone. These are people the Railers likely wouldn’t reach in their current territorial footprint, so getting them to come to the DCU Center creates potential customers for the ECHL team.

It makes sense for both organizations to work together should Holy Cross join Hockey East. In both college hockey and the ECHL recruiting is the prime way to acquire players. At every Holy Cross home game the Railers will have the opportunity to scout potential players for their upcoming rosters, and those players will get to visit the DCU Center and see the type of off-ice opportunities they’ll have playing in Worcester during their pro careers. In turn, Holy Cross gets to tout the DCU Center as their home arena and all the amenities that brings with it.

You wouldn’t need much imagination to see doubleheader possibilities with opponents like the University of New Hampshire and Manchester Monarchs coming to town on the same day. Should Portland land an ECHL franchise they and the University of Maine would be another natural fit. If Holy Cross were to play Union College in a non-conference game the Adirondack Thunder seems like a natural pairing.

In short, this is hardly the death knell for Railers HC that some are trying to make this out to be. It is, in fact, a great opportunity for two organizations to grow their product together.

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