Good looks to UMass hockey

By Michael Wood

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian
Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Growing up, I never liked hockey.

I hated watching it on TV. It wasn’t fun to play. I didn’t know any of the teams in the NHL. The rules were confusing, and frankly, there were better things I could be doing with my time. It wasn’t until I arrived at UMass that I changed my mind.

To me, hockey has always been the neglected middle child between baseball and football. It’s a sport without a dedicated season, and one that’s much harder and more expensive to play than its brothers and sisters. Baseball had always been America’s pastime and football has become the world’s most successful and exciting professional sport. America has never had room in its hearts or on its television sets for a sport that didn’t originate in this country and didn’t generate a lot of money.

As an active kid in Stowe, Vt., you watched baseball games in the summer and cheered for the Red Sox or the Yankees, then you watched football in the fall once school started. Surprisingly, not many people cheered for the Patriots. Remember this is back before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, when the Pats were so bad it was embarrassing to call yourself a fan.

In the winter, some people watched the NBA, but basketball wasn’t too popular where I grew up. Once February rolled around, it was back to baseball for spring training and the light at the end of winter’s long, icy tunnel. That’s the way it was. It’s just what you did.

Growing up in northern Vermont, where the frigid winters demand that you find a way to enjoy them or face being miserable for six to eight months, I turned to the ski resort in my town for winter activity, as did most other people. Once the snow flew, everybody I knew either worked or skied at the mountain to stay sane through the winter. That’s not an exaggeration. The mountain became my winter home, and I loved it up there. I still do.

There was simply no room for hockey. It was a winter sport that clashed with ski season and didn’t have a large following in the first place. There were a few kids in my school who would occasionally show up to class in Colorado Avalanche or New York Rangers jerseys, but when they started to talk hockey, nobody really listened.

Even more surprising, I don’t remember seeing a single Boston Bruins jersey on any one of those kids. This just furthers my point about hockey having no consistent following when I was a kid. The Bruins are the closest NHL team to Vermont, but nobody wore their jerseys? Sounds like a joke of a sport to me.

But then I went to college.

I chose Sport Management as my major at Ithaca College in New York, and began to learn about the industry. Then I met a kid from New Hampshire who loved hockey. He is now one of my closest friends, and at the time he was the first person I’d ever met who worshiped the Bruins more than the Celtics or the Red Sox. His passion started to rub off on me a little, but, try as I did, I still couldn’t get into hockey. Sorry, Tom, it wasn’t your fault. You tried, but hockey still wasn’t exciting.

In the interest of space, I’ll spare you the details of how I ended up here at UMass since they would probably be edited out of this article anyway. But I did. I transferred in for my sophomore year, and began trying to find a way to fit in at a school with 20,000 students. Fortunately, I had a little help.

The only person I knew on campus was my cousin, Kathleen, and she was quick to inform me that once hockey season started, packing the Mullins Center was the thing to do on Friday nights. “Hockey games are awesome. Everybody goes,” she told me. “If you’re coming to UMass, you have to go to a hockey game. They’re so much fun.”

While that didn’t exactly thrill me, I was willing to give it a chance. Tom had taught me a little more about the game in freshman year and I knew what Hockey East was all about. I liked sports, and if 8,000 other people who liked sports filled an arena to watch a game, I was pretty sure I could have fun with it.

Looking back at it now, going to that first UMass hockey game was the best decision I ever made here.

I had discovered a couple friends in my dorm and heard dozens of other people corroborate what Kathleen had told me. So once it came time for the home opener, we were all pretty eager to see the Mass Attack in action.

When we lined up at the front gates at 5 p.m. and there was already a line for the 7 p.m. game, I had a feeling it was going to be a fun night. The Mullins Center was, and still is, the nicest indoor arena I’ve ever been in, and when we found our seats – second row, in front the faceoff circle in section S – it was the closest I’d ever sat at a sporting event that I wasn’t playing in.

Students filed in quickly and everybody was willing to wait an hour for the game to start. The unranked Minutemen were about to take on No. 2 Boston University in their first game of the 2009-2010 season, a team coming off a national championship the year before. The air in the arena was crisp and cool next to the ice, but there was a palpable energy there I’d never felt before.

From the second they dimmed the lights at 6:50, “The Funeral” blasted through the speaker system, fog rolled out of the tunnel at the far corner of the ice, and Sam the Minuteman skated out and began to hype the crowd, I was hooked. The crowd roared and chanted, and I can honestly say that when 8,000 people start banging on the seatbacks in front of them at the same time, the thunderous sound it makes is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen and heard at a sporting event.

Player introductions were exciting and enjoyably aggressive, and when the puck dropped and the game started, I got lost in it all. I got lost in UMass and what it meant to be at a collegiate sporting event. Every goal and every student chant made the experience that much better. The Minutemen won that night, upsetting the defending champion Terriers, 3-2, and I was hooked. From that point on, I’ve been a hockey fan.

For the first time in my life, I felt like I was in college. For the first time in college I felt like I belonged. And in that three hours, UMass managed to completely change my opinion about the sport of hockey.

Now, I can say I’ve been to every home game the Minutemen have played since I’ve been here, I’m a huge Bruins fan and hockey rivals football and baseball as the most exciting sport for me to watch. I love it.

In one night, I felt all that. That’s a pretty fantastic night. What’s even better is that I never expected it.

You say college football? Please. You say college basketball? Not a chance. I say college hockey. I say UMass hockey, and I’m proud of it.

Michael Wood can be reached at [email protected]