What’s going on, Marquette County?

Four years after moving here, this beautiful area continues to fascinate me.

I came up here with many questions and almost all of them have been answered. However, there’s one that continues to baffle me after four years and I was left bewildered again last weekend.

For those who haven’t noticed, and as Bob Uecker once said, judging by the attendance you haven’t, the Northern Michigan University hockey team has managed to put together a pretty good season.

Heading into this weekend, the nation’s No. 17-ranked team was on top of the WCHA standings, one point ahead of Minnesota State. The Wildcats also picked up their 20th win last weekend, the first time that’s happened since 2010 when NMU made the NCAA Tournament.

If that isn’t enough, Northern has also already clinched a playoff spot (something that took until the last week of the season last year) and also home-ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, which is something it hasn’t done since it left the CCHA.

Yet despite all of that, there continues to be empty seats at the Berry Events Center. Last year, it took until January for the Wildcats to get their first home victory. This year’s team has a home record of 12-2 and with the exception of one game, they’ve looked really good on the ice.

They’re fast, efficient and they’ve developed a good chemistry that translates into some pretty goals. It’s hard to ask for more out of this team, but with attendance numbers continuing to lag, it leads to me to ask this question:

What’s the deal Marquette County?

After watching NMU sweep Alaska-Fairbanks, I stayed in the BEC press box and tried to find the answer to that question. I’ve had long-time fans tell me that things haven’t been the same since the Wildcats left Lakeview Arena.

Based on some of the stories I’ve heard, that’s probably true in more ways than one. However, Northern left Lakeview almost two decades ago and they’re not going to go back, so it might be time to accept that.

Maybe it’s the type of competition that the Wildcats get each season. I’ll admit the Nanooks aren’t exactly a must-see opponent like former CCHA teams Michigan, Michigan State or Notre Dame, so that might’ve played a role in the number of empty seats.

Even powerhouse Big Ten programs like Minnesota are dealing with attendance problems that seem to have began with the massive conference shift in 2013-14. Apparently, Ohio State and Penn State don’t make Golden Gopher fans want to fork over their dough. Thanks a lot, Barry Alvarez.

Still though, the WCHA has been in its current state for six years now. Having the Big Ten programs decide they were above playing smaller schools definitely hurt (especially you Wisconsin — seriously, you can’t come up to the Upper Peninsula?), but it’s not like the WCHA is a mess.

There’s still good hockey teams in the league like the previously mentioned Mavericks, and Bowling Green State and Bemidji State have made some noise as well.

Even though it may pain NMU fans to say it, Michigan Tech’s resurgence has been a good thing. It helped bring more publicity back to the U.P. and it showed that you can still bring a program out of what was a lengthy coma.

The last reason that I came up with was simply the quality of play. This one I understand the most. The Wildcats have mostly underachieved the last few years and just when it appeared they’d land home ice in the playoffs, it would slip away.

Last year looked like a complete disaster at the holiday break, and if it wasn’t for a good second-half run, NMU would’ve finished last in the league.

The good thing that came out of last year is that it showed that there was some talent coming back and there was the potential for a good upcoming season. As we’ve seen so far, Northern has either met or exceeded many expectations, so the quality-of-play excuse just got run over by the Zamboni.

So I’ll ask again, what’s the deal? Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing anybody here. I’m just trying to wrap my head around it.

We’re the area that came together when it counted and brought Kraft Hockeyville USA to Marquette two years ago. We showed the rest of the country that we are proud of our hockey heritage, which includes various junior teams, a consistently solid high school team and most notably, an NCAA Division I program that boasts a national title and a list of players that have made it to the pros.

When the Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres competed on the ice at Lakeview, I saw the passion in people’s eyes out in the stands. It was a passion not only for hockey, but in community pride. People are proud to live here and it was evident to me in a matter of days.

Has that passion for hockey and town pride disappeared, or is it just waiting for the right time to come out?

If it’s the latter, the perfect time is in the next couple of weeks. Tech comes to town on Friday night and that will be a sellout as it typically is, but more importantly, the WCHA playoffs start the week after that.

Right now, NMU sits No. 16 in the all-important Pairwise rankings as the top 16 teams make the NCAA Tournament, but that position isn’t secure. For the Wildcats to earn a spot, they’ll have to go deep in the WCHA playoffs and crowd support could definitely help with that.

Like I said, this area fascinates me on a regular basis and I look forward to seeing what that crowd will be like for that first-round playoff game.

Will it be packed with screaming fans? I’m not sure yet.

But I’m definitely eager to find out.

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