University hockey teams struggle to bring fans out

Compared to the Halifax Mooseheads, university teams are drawing small crowds.

The Dalhousie Tigers and Saint Mary’s Huskies battle during an Atlantic University Sport hockey game at the Halifax Forum Oct. 15.
The Dalhousie Tigers and Saint Mary’s Huskies battle during an Atlantic University Sport hockey game at the Halifax Forum Oct. 15.   Payge Woodard

It is a mild, damp night in the north end of Halifax. The Halifax Forum is starting to fill up as a big game is about to take place between two old rivals.

The fans are excited for what they are about to see. They’re running across the street through traffic, hooting and hollering, as they enter the arena.

The atmosphere is intense. The Saint Mary’s Huskies and Dalhousie Tigers are putting on a fantastic display of hockey for the enthusiastic fans in attendance.

It is a Dalhousie home game tonight, but both teams share the same venue.

However, this is an exception to how the Atlantic University Sport hockey league usually goes in Halifax in terms of attendance. It is below what you would expect a league like this to attract in Halifax.

The quality of play is superb, but the attendance has not caught up.

“It’s good tonight, but not the rest of the year,” says local hockey fan Gordie Puddifant. He mingles with friends in the concourse during the first intermission, with the score tied 1-1.

He has a point, as tonight’s game falls on Dalhousie’s homecoming weekend and received plenty of promotion online.

“It’s bad marketing from the universities,” adds Puddifant. “They don’t draw until the playoffs.”

A lot people come just for the great hockey, not to cheer for either team. One of these people is Bill Hill, another local hockey fan in the group mingling in the concourse.

“I came to watch hockey,” says Hill. “It is not as attended as it should be.”

The Tigers averaged 165 fans a game last season, while the Huskies brought in 465 per contest. But, there are exceptions.

One of these is the aforementioned playoffs, where the Huskies averaged 1,213 fans in three league games last year and 4,791 spectators in three games at last year’s CIS University Cup at the Scotiabank Centre.

Another is special events, such as last year’s Bell Let’s Talk Game. It drew 3,000 people to the Forum for another Tigers VS Huskies matchup.

This is in stark contrast to the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds, the top team in Fredericton. They are not having trouble when it comes to attendance.

They averaged 2,231 fans a game last season and won the University Cup in front of 9,873 fans in the finals against the Saint Francis Xavier X-Men.

The Tigers and Huskies have to overcome a huge obstacle, the Halifax Mooseheads, arguably the biggest sports brand in Atlantic Canada.

Puddifant understands what that is all about.

“I’m a season ticket holder. I would be there if they were at home tonight.”

Hill echoes this sentiment when it comes to the scheduling of games.

“They need to look at the schedule and not match up against the Moose.”

As the game ends, Dalhousie walks away with a 3-1 victory in front of a crowd of 806.

Most of the players in this league have spent four years in the Canadian Hockey League, the top junior hockey league in Canada. Now they are able to display how great university league hockey can be.

Puddifant certainly shares this view.

“Everything is superb,” he says. Hill also understands how good this league is as well, in Halifax and the rest of the Maritimes.

“They’re way faster, older, and more mature,” says Hill.

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