Evan Daum, Canada West Communications
CALGARY — When it comes to university hockey in this country, no date is bigger and more boisterous than the Crowchild Classic. The annual event, which pits the Mount Royal Cougars against their crosstown rival the Calgary Dinos at the Saddledome, has taken on a life of its own over the game’s six-year history.
A total of 10,478 fans filed into the ‘Dome Thursday night to watch the women’s and men’s hockey doubleheader, which has evolved into one of the crown jewels of the Canada West regular season hockey schedule.
While both sides of the battle had their fun in the stands, it was Calgary who earned a pair of wins on the ice. In women’s action, it was Kelsey Roberts’ 27-save shutout that lifted the Dinos to a tight 1-0 win, while Cain Franson played the role of hero in the men’s game, scoring in double-overtime to lift Calgary to a thrilling 6-5 victory.
And while the games delivered on the ice, it was the atmosphere outside the glass which has grabbed the attention of both Calgary and MRU’s student populations, who scooped up the 14,000 available tickets this season.
Hatched casually on the golf course when Flames CEO Ken King and MRU President David Docherty tossed out the idea of showcasing Calgary’s crosstown campus rivalry, no one would’ve guessed the game would get this big, this fast.
“We only had about three weeks. I think the first meeting we had was in mid-December and we didn’t really finalize anything until the New Year, and then it was a mad rush. We really had no idea what we were going to get,” said Calgary assistant athletic director Ben Matchett of the game’s humble 2013 beginnings.
What they got was a Canada West regular season hockey record 4,275 fans, an a unique crowd split 50/50 in their allegiances.
Not bad for roughly a month’s work.
From there - and with a lot of work - the game has blossomed, with attendance figures pushing to 8,882 by 2015, and then 12,859 in 2016 and 12,205 last year.
“It feels like we haven’t had to do as much this year, because it’s just built momentum, but the first five years it was a heck of a lot of work,” said Matchett.
“It’s built to the point where students know this event is coming, so it’s less about convincing people why they need to come to the event, and more about when and how to get tickets.”
The game, which is a partnership between the two schools, along with the Calgary Flames and their Flames Foundation, has provided student-athletes the thrill of competing in front of a one-of-a-kind atmosphere.
“It’s literally split halfway down the arena. You know the difference when you’re skating in towards your fans, or into their fans. It’s a cool atmosphere and it’s something I had never experienced before until I played my first year here at UC, but I consider myself very lucky to have played in three of them,” said the OT hero Franson, who has played in three consecutive Crowchild double-overtime games.
The game is just one of many across Canada West and U SPORTS which has tapped into student interest via a big event approach.
Just a few weeks ago it was UBC’s chance to show what university sport can look like, as the T-Birds hit another homerun with their annual Winter Classic game, which saw 5,500 fans pack the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sport Centre to watch UBC down Lethbridge 2-1 in men’s hockey.
“We understand students are busy and there’s so much going on in their lives and in a city like Calgary with the recreational opportunities and everything else that’s going on...getting significant student participation at every single one of our games just isn’t going to happen,” explained Matchett.
“We’ve decided to focus on some key big events and just blow them up and this is one of them. To me, it shows us that this is possible when you have partnerships.”
“I think you’re going to see that this is the way forward for moving university sport and getting it in the student psyche on our campuses.”
So are three or four big crowds a year at each school good enough? No chance, but it’s certainly moving the dial in the right direction.
“It’s definitely not enough,” said Matchett of being content with settling for a few massive crowds per season. “It’s a start and I think it’s the way to engage with students. Our strategy with the big events is to go after the students. We’ve got our big football KICKOFF game, our Pack the Jack night next week, also against MRU in basketball, and for those we specifically go after students,”
“I think the next step for us is engaging with the broader community. That’s the group that is more likely to come to these events (more consistently). The people near our campuses, the minor sport community, the general public, especially in sports like football and basketball,” said Matchett.
“I think basketball has huge growth opportunities, but we’ve found something special here with hockey too in a very crowded hockey market.”
Special indeed, as the game proved yet again Thursday night just how good — and quite frankly fun — university sport can be.