Ferris State University is one of several elite NCAA Division I hockey programs in the state and Midwest. Photo via fb.com
The news that Van Andel Arena has landed the new Western Collegiate Hockey Association men’s playoff championship is far from being an empty netter. In fact, it’s more like one of the building’s biggest power plays, as gaining the event puts the Van Andel on par with one of the Midwest’s best known venues.
The arena has captured the popular tournament, known as the WCHA Final Five, for March 2014 and 2016. In 2015 and 2017, the NCAA-sanctioned event will be held at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. — the tourney’s home since 2001 where every game has averaged 15,393 fans since then.
“Both Grand Rapids and St. Paul are wonderful travel destinations for fans, featuring first-class arenas centered in exciting downtown areas with noteworthy tourist attractions, great shopping, and fine hotels and restaurants,” said WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod in a statement.
“This is truly the best of both worlds for us,” McLeod added.
SMG Regional General Manager Rich MacKeigan, who heads the arena’s operations, told the Business Journal that hosting the WCHA championship tournament was exciting news for the building and the city, and also a genuine opportunity for the future.
“I think this is a chance for us to really develop a relationship with the conference, the schools, the alumni and the fans. The location of Van Andel Arena in relation to the WCHA schools is a major plus,” said MacKeigan.
“That, along with the strong support of the West Michigan Sports Commission, bodes well for the long-term success of the tournament. I hope this proves to be a very long successful venture for the WCHA, Van Andel Arena and Grand Rapids,” he added.
With the Big Ten Conference adding hockey next season, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association played its last game on Sunday when Notre Dame beat Michigan, 3-1, and won an automatic bid to the NCAA hockey championship. The Big Ten schools that were in the CCHA and the WCHA, like Michigan, MSU, Minnesota and Wisconsin, left the leagues, and the WCHA restructured as a new 10-team league.
Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan are the state universities in the WCHA. The University of Alabama at Huntsville, Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Fairbanks, Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Minnesota State and Mankato are the six other schools that make up the WCHA.
The Xcel Energy Center seats 17,954 for hockey and is home to the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. Van Andel seats 10,834 and the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins call the building home.
But local fans won’t have to wait until next March for top collegiate hockey play as the NCAA Division I Men’s West Regional begins on Friday with a doubleheader. Minnesota faces Yale at 2 p.m. and North Dakota takes on Niagara at 5:30 p.m.
The arena is one of four regional sites selected for the 16-team championship tournament, and as MacKeigan noted, all four buildings are managed by SMG. Van Andel has hosted the regional several times in the past and attendance has always been the highest when the NCCA tournament committee has assigned either Michigan or MSU to the building.
But neither school qualified this season. Neither did Western Michigan or Ferris State, which went to the Frozen Four final last year. And Notre Dame, the last-ever CCHA champion, was sent to the Midwest Regional that is being played at the Huntington Center in Toledo.
“While I applaud the University of Michigan hockey team for their spectacular run at the end of the season, undoubtedly their absence will have an impact on attendance. That being said, advance sales are good, and we look forward to hosting Minnesota, Yale, North Dakota and Niagara,” said MacKeigan.
“The level of hockey played during this tournament is exceptional, and hockey fans will not be disappointed by what they see this coming weekend at the arena,” he added.
Tickets are available through TicketMaster and at the arena’s box office. The regional championship game will be played Saturday at 4 p.m.