Well done Marquette County

You impressed me Marquette County. A month ago, I wrote a column wondering why hockey fans, or just sports fans in general, weren’t attending Northern Michigan University hockey games.

I listed some potential reasons why this might be occurring, including the big national conference shift, the move from Lakeview Arena to the Berry Events Center or if it was just the program’s quality of play — the lack thereof — the past few seasons.

Although I never heard any definitive answers to my query, it appears from what I’ve determined since I wrote my column that the last reason was the main one.

As Upper Peninsula residents are probably well aware by now, the Wildcats are having an impressive season. Northern has already achieved its first 20-win season in eight years and its first 25-win season in 16 years. Its 19 wins in the WCHA are the most since the Wildcats won the national championship in 1991.

After outlasting Alabama-Huntsville and Bowling Green State in the first two rounds of the league playoffs, NMU was one Saturday night victory away from clinching its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2010.

To make things perfect for that situation, the Wildcats faced off against Upper Peninsula rival Michigan Tech at the Berry Events Center in front of a sold-out crowd with the game televised on Fox-U.P.

A month ago, I had my doubts that Northern would sell out a playoff game his year. The most recent crowds I had seen for games against Lake Superior State and Alaska-Fairbanks were better than what I’d previously seen, but I wasn’t positive that things would be better once the WCHA tournament began.

When Huntsville arrived two weeks ago at the BEC, the crowds were better than expected. They weren’t sell-outs, but still pretty good.

A year ago, I’d see as few as 300 fans in the stands, but when Northern played the Chargers in the deciding third game on a Sunday night, the BEC was about 75 percent full and that was without the student section swelling the numbers with their spring break starting.

That wasn’t great considering the Wildcats’ season was on the line, but the crowd was very supportive and it got loud at times, which has been rare outside of games against Tech.

Then Bowling Green came to town, a more talented opponent and one that gave NMU a tough series back in January. I figured the crowds would be better as the Wildcats were progressing in the tournament — and they were.

Friday’s game was loud and for good reason with the Wildcats putting six goals on the scoreboard and anticipation seemed to be high. Some fans left planning on coming back the next night and I knew people were canceling other plans to instead attend Saturday’s contest to see if Northern would clinch a spot in the title game.

It didn’t happen that way — in fact the Wildcats were shut out by the same goalie they scored six goals on the night before.

However, I could tell that fans were on the edge of their seats just waiting to erupt if the Wildcats put a puck in the back of the net.

Since Northern lost, I wondered if fans would show up again Sunday after a rough offensive performance the night before.

It turns out I didn’t need to worry much as the crowd was even better than for the deciding game against Huntsville. I’d say the BEC was about 85 percent full, which is pretty good on a school night.

As people know, those attendees got treated to a great game where BG tied the game with eight seconds left in regulation before the Wildcats won on an overtime rocket shot by Troy Loggins, which resulted in a crowd eruption that couldn’t happen the night before.

Now we’ve come to the highly anticipated title game and it’s the big story around town. For the first time in a while, an NMU hockey game has surpassed the always-popular high school basketball tournaments.

As I mentioned earlier, the arena s]old out quickly and trash talking has been pretty frequent on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media.

It’s really great to see and it’s something I’ve been waiting for since I moved up here four years ago. Rivalries are fun and the dislike between Wildcats and Huskies fans seems to be fully coming to the surface.

Two years ago, Marquette was crowned Kraft Hockeyville USA, but since then, it’s struggled to maintain that status.

Last weekend, though, I watched us and the county as well show how much we love hockey and how we love to support our local university.

That was reiterated again this week in the fight for tickets and one more time with the sellout crowd last night. It was really fun to see everybody come together once again in a short period of time.

You impressed me Marquette County. Now let’s see if you can do it again next season.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg @miningjournal.net.

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