By Joseph Beyda
As someone who’s lived in the Bay Area for his whole life, I recognize that there are certain things that we just aren’t supposed to know about out here. Snow plows? I thought those were only in movies. Ski goggles and mummy bags? I’ll rent them if I ever spend a weekend in Yosemite.
But ice hockey? Well, you’d be surprised.
We do actually know a thing or two about the sport, even though it’s never feasible here in its original, outdoor state. Thanks to several expansion attempts (some of them failed), “The Great One’s” trade to the LA Kings and the rapid emergence of youth hockey on the West Coast, hockey has become much more of a mainstay in California than you might expect. We have more NHL teams out here (Sharks, Ducks and Kings) than any other state or province — and as many as all of Eastern Canada, for that matter.
But the NCAA is another matter. Ignoring Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage (for obvious reasons), the westernmost school with a Division I men’s ice hockey team is the University of Denver. And when a quarter of the teams in the NHL — representing 16 combined Stanley Cup Final appearances — are located west of the Mile-High City, that doesn’t make much sense.
Even for an athletics powerhouse like Stanford, travel logistics would make it nearly impossible to spontaneously start a varsity hockey team. So what would it take for a significant portion of the Pac-12 to start playing hockey?
Less than you might think.
Though college hockey has traditionally only flourished in the Midwest and on the East Coast, West Coast interest in the sport should not be downplayed. Six Pac-12 schools (the four California universities, Arizona State and Colorado) are located within 50 miles of an NHL arena. And don’t get me wrong — I’m talking to you, cross-country runners and golfers — but as one of the four major American sports, hockey is much more student-fan accessible than some of the sports that are common out west.
Then comes the money issue. Club teams such as Stanford’s have to travel several miles to reach a practice facility, which is annoying to players but makes it downright impossible for much of a fan base to develop. On-campus facilities are a practical necessity.
At least from Stanford’s perspective, the cost of building a hockey arena shouldn’t be all too discouraging. College hockey facilities are generally modest, often holding fewer than 5,000 spectators, and new arenas of that size can carry about a $30 million price tag. By comparison, Stanford shelled out $26 million to renovate Maples Pavilion seven years ago while still maintaining significant parts of the original structure. And money doesn’t even seem to be much of a barrier for cash-strapped public schools; the upcoming renovations to Husky Stadium will cost the University of Washington an estimated $250 million.
Even once a facility is built, critics may point to the high operating costs of maintaining an ice surface, which requires large amounts of water as well as and electricity for constant cooling. Annual utilities costs can easily reach the low six figures for small hockey rinks as well as larger ones.
But this still pales in comparison to the operating costs of college facilities in other sports. One Olympic-sized swimming pool can demand $250,000 a year to maintain. Avery Aquatic Center has two such pools to support a pair swimming teams and a synchro squad; one ice rink could plausibly be enough for both a men’s and a women’s hockey team.
When it comes to revenue, college hockey brings in more in ticket sales than you might expect. While a 2010 NCAA report showed that men’s basketball and football are usually the only sports to make money at the college level, it also uncovered that men’s ice hockey teams lose an average of $356,000 a year. That’s quite a large sum, but still $250,000 cheaper than baseball — a sport of comparable popularity and even greater prominence to the American market — where Stanford teams have made a name for themselves nationally over the years.
With several club teams already in existence amongst Pac-12 schools, building college hockey on the West Coast shouldn’t be written off so easily. It would take some time for Stanford to rise to the prominence we all take for granted, but the same can be said for any other sport which has been proposed for adoption time and time again. (Apologies to Wyndam Makowsky, but men’s lacrosse loses $459,000 a year, on average.) While the Frozen Four isn’t in sight for the time being, Pac-12 teams would still get exposure through the conference’s new media network.
And since the NCAA is at least 20 years behind the curve in terms of bringing hockey out west, why not go for it? It’s shot in the dark, but maybe it’ll be a shot on goal.
Joseph Beyda can’t skate to save his life. I’m serious. As a young child he nearly died when he crashed into the limbo stick during an event at his local ice rink. To give him some skating tips (i.e. don’t do it), email him at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu.