Fans missing at hockey Showcase

Michael Rand

The word “Hockeytown,” spelled out in all capital letters, is proudly superimposed over the Detroit Red Wings logo in the center circle at Joe Louis Arena.
Despite that bold proclamation and the fact that each of the four tournament games featured a Michigan school, the turnout was sparse at this weekend’s fourth annual College Hockey Showcase.
Saturday’s session drew 12,138 fans, bringing the two-day total to just more than 23,000. Those may sound like decent figures, but there were thousands of unoccupied red seats at the spacious NHL arena in Detroit.
The scene was even worse during last year’s Showcase at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
Lagging attendance was one thing on the minds of representatives from the four tournament teams — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State — when they met Saturday to discuss the future of the Showcase.
The schools didn’t decide on any specifics, but they did agree to recommend that the College Hockey Showcase continue. All four coaches said they like the opportunity to get four Big Ten powerhouses together in one arena. Minnesota and Wisconsin, from the WCHA, wouldn’t normally have a chance to play Michigan and Michigan State, which play in the CCHA.
“I think it’s excellent,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said. “It’s great for the schools and it’s great for the Big Ten.”
Michigan coach Red Berenson said, “There’s a strong agreement in the spirit of the tournament.”
The coaches said they hope to combat attendance problems by trying some new ideas. Possible format changes discussed throughout the weekend include having a tournament champion and holding the event at one of the four schools instead of at a neutral site.
Deja vu
Last season in the NCAA West Regional, Michigan scored a fluke goal, Minnesota tied the game late, and then Michigan won it later, 4-3.
Friday night at the College Hockey Showcase, Michigan’s Matt Herr banked the puck off of Minnesota defenseman Bill Kohn’s stick into the net with 5:59 left in the third period to give the Wolverines a one-goal lead.
Minnesota’s Erik Rasmussen tied the game with seven seconds left in regulation. Then, Michigan’s Brendan Morrison scored the game-winner 51 seconds into overtime, giving the Wolverines another 4-3 win.
Gophers goalie Steve DeBus, who was in net for both heartbreaking losses, was frustrated after the game.
“This game should have ended in a tie. In overtime, you just have to bear down,” he said. “The momentum was going our way because we had battled back. It just lets all the air out of the balloon.”
The difference between the losses is that the Gophers season ended last year with the setback, while this year they had a chance to redeem themselves the next night. Minnesota beat Michigan State on Saturday, running its all-time record in the Showcase to 6-2.
National Junior Team set
USA Hockey announced the roster for the 1997 United States National Junior Team on Saturday, and three Gophers are on the squad.
Sophomores Erik Rasmussen and Wyatt Smith and freshman Ben Clymer will compete in the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship, held Dec. 26 through Jan. 4 in Switzerland. Minnesota and Boston College are the only college teams with three players on the junior team roster.
Rasmussen and Smith played on last year’s U.S. team, which went 3-3. Current Gophers Casey Hankinson and Reggie Berg also played on last year’s team.

Slap shots
ù Just as they did last year, the Gophers landed four players on the all-tournament team at the College Hockey Showcase. DeBus, Rasmussen, Mike Crowley and Brian LaFleur were honored, along with Michigan’s Bill Muckalt and Brendan Morrison, who was also named tournament MVP.
ù The Gophers do not play this weekend, and will not hold any formal practices this week. Minnesota plays next on Dec. 14-15 in a home-and-home series against St. Cloud State.