Fans stick with team despite trying seasons

by Michael Rand

MARQUETTE, Mich. — The gray-haired gentleman wearing a Northern Michigan hockey jacket and a Wildcats hat sat down on a tan seat resembling a school desk next to his wife at Lakeview Arena.
He sat in a relaxed position, awaiting the start of Saturday night’s hockey game between Northern Michigan and Minnesota. He didn’t seem tremendously concerned that the team he was rooting for had lost eight games in a row.
He and his wife have occupied the same two seats in Northern Michigan’s quaint, 4,105-seat arena since the hockey program came into existence in 1976. For Mayo and Mary Lou Tillison, it isn’t all about winning and losing.
“I keep coming to the games because I’m a tremendous fan of hockey,” Mayo said.
Fans like the Tillisons, however, are a dying breed in Marquette, a town of 27,000 located near Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Six years ago, the Wildcats won the NCAA hockey title. A year after that, their average home attendance peaked at 4,171 — a figure larger than the actual rink capacity.
Since the 1991-92 season, attendance has gone down each year. Last season, Northern Michigan averaged less than 3,000 fans for just the second time in 15 years. Both games this weekend drew less than 2,500 fans.
The reason is simple. Since the beginning of the 1994-95 season, the Wildcats have compiled a record of 23-64-6.
“In 1991, when we won it all, you couldn’t get in here,” Mayo said.
Last year’s dismal effort, which produced just seven wins, left many fans wondering how everything could turn sour so fast.
“There’s been some good stuff here and recently there’s been the bad stuff,” Mayo said. “It’s no fun to watch the bad stuff. We were out of so many games so early last year.”
Although a large recruiting class sparked talk about a fresh start this season, the Wildcats were 2-10-1 going into Saturday night’s game.
After Friday night’s game, in which Northern Michigan kept the score close until Minnesota pulled away in the third period, there was a hint of guarded optimism mixed in with a large dose of frustration in fans’ voices.
“At least they played some good minutes tonight,” one fan remarked to another.
Still, the arena had the atmosphere of a intramural scrimmage for the first two periods on Saturday.
Then, something very important happened.
Angered by a questionable 5-minute major penalty called on Northern Michigan’s Curtis Sheptak and fearful of the potential results of the infraction, the fans at Lakeview Arena came alive. The Wildcats scored a shorthanded goal to break a 1-1 tie and rode the momentum to a win.
“They’re good hockey fans,” Northern Michigan coach Rick Comley said. “They want to believe in this team. They want a reason to come back.”
As the final buzzer sounded, the handful of Northern Michigan players who were seated up in the press box area jumped up and ran down toward the locker room.
When asked how big this win was for the program, most of the players couldn’t find words to describe it. “Huge” was the only adjective that could be heard above the roar of the crowd.
Comley said it was nice to have something other than a moral victory.
“It’s been hard to keep their faith,” he said of both the players and the fans. “They needed to be rewarded.”
As the players skated off the ice and into the tunnel toward a locker room where Comley said, “music was finally playing,” a quick glance toward the seat normally occupied by Mayo Tillison revealed that the chair was empty.
Instead, Tillison was leaning over the railing above the players’ tunnel to offer his appreciation for a win that everyone associated with the program needed.