O Dragon hockey, where art thou?
By: Martin Schlegel
During last year’s high school and college hockey seasons, the Fargo-Moorhead area witnessed possibly the best hockey ever.
The Moorhead Spuds battled for the Class 2A state title, losing to Grand Rapids. On the other side of the river, Fargo hosted the West Regional in the NCAA hockey tournament. The regional made history, becoming the first regional in which all three games were decided in overtime since NCAA hockey went to four regions in 2003.
A capacity crowd of over 5,000 filled Scheels Arena to watch the West Regional, and 19,109 made the trek to St. Paul to see the Spuds in the state title.
Additionally, the United States Hockey League (USHL) team, the Fargo Force, competed in the playoffs for the first time since the 2013-2014 season.
With all the interest in hockey in the Fargo-Moorhead community, it begs the question: Why isn’t there a hockey program at MSUM?
The simple answer: The Western Conference Hockey Association (WCHA) and the powerhouse National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) aren’t accepting new teams.
However, there was an opening in 2012, which leads to a more complicated answer.
MSUM put forth a plan to raise the necessary funds to create a hockey program. Edna Szymanski, the president at the time, believed the best way to raise this money was through private donors instead of hiking up tuition costs for students.
“She believed that if (MSUM) raised approximately $30 million, that would be an endowment,” MSUM President Anne Blackhurst said in an interview in April. “Then the interest off of that money every year could support what it would cost to add hockey.”
Blackhurst said Szymanski and others figured that amount was how much was needed to support and build a hockey program.
With the high amount of money generating interest in a bank, the university would have made roughly $300,000 in annual income. The annual income on the investment, however, would be based on the stock market – meaning MSUM would be at the mercy of the rise and fall of stocks.
“If the university lost money, (MSUM) would have had to put in additional money,” Blackhurst said. “It was not a given based on that financial model that it would have been financially sustainable.”
With those risks in mind, MSUM absolutely needed to reach $30 million to start a hockey program. If the goal was achieved, the university was set to join the WCHA to play with powerhouse teams like the University of Minnesota and the University of North Dakota.
However, the amount of money pledged by the private donors did not meet the required amount. Additionally, the most well-known teams in the WCHA were planning to start a power conference: the NCHC.
With insufficient funds and the fear of joining a less desirable conference, MSUM stopped all talks, and the possibility of Dragons hockey died.
Looking back five years later, MSUM avoided making a terrible decision. The University of North Dakota and others in the NCHC have done well, while those left behind in the WCHA continue to suffer in attendance and income because of the split.
Had hockey begun at MSUM, it’s likely that this university would have lost a big chunk of money because of the lack of local rivals remaining in the WCHA.
“Once you have a team, then thinking about cutting it is, as we’ve observed (with UND’s women hockey), that’s a huge ordeal,” Blackhurst said. “If down the road you have to stop a team, you’ve got athletes, parents, alumni, and the community really upset by that decision.”
The university dodged a possible debacle. While a lot of people were disappointed MSUM didn’t go through with hockey, other sports have gained their own momentum.
Without hockey, the football and basketball teams have had space to grow Blackhurst said.
The average attendance at football games in 2012 was 852 and has since increased to 1,615 in 2016.
Basketball is no different. Average attendance at women’s and men’s games both increased from 2012 by 128 and 145 fans respectively.
“In our community, there are so many athletic events to attend between NDSU, Concordia, and MSUM. There’s probably only so much interest to go around,” Blackhurst said. “So this way our football and basketball teams still draw pretty good crowds.”
In the end, MSUM’s decision to nix the conception of a hockey program worked well for the university, even though the interest remains.
“Athletic programs are expensive, and even though people assume big-time athletics or big programs pay for themselves, they often don’t, especially at the Division II level,” Blackhurst said. “It’s pretty rare for hockey, in this case, to actually bring in more than it costs to run it.”
The most recent example of this is the UND women’s hockey program, which lost $1.9 million in 2016 alone despite all the support in its wake.
The NCHC and WCHA have no intentions of adding teams anytime soon, and with colleges saving money by cutting athletic programs, the absence of hockey will remain so for MSUM.