In the middle of their best season in five years, the Columbia club ice hockey team had only ever drawn a handful of people to the rink for their games. But this time, as they suffered a disappointing loss to St. Thomas Aquinas College (STAC), the team skated to the sounds of cheers, trumpets, and the banging of a “wet floor” sign from dozens of fans and Columbia Marching Band members in the arena.
The Lions took STAC, their rival and only competitor for the Metropolitan Collegiate Hockey Conference championship, at home in their inaugural “Winter Classic.” The team named the event after the NHL tradition in an effort to draw more fans to the arena and raise awareness of the team.
Typically, the Lions’ games occur at Mount Vernon’s Ice Hutch, which is fifteen miles away from campus. As a result, even their most exhilarating wins—such as the 5-2 domination over STAC last month—draw around 10 Columbia fans to the rink. When senior alternate captain and vice president Kyle Lopes mentioned his role on the team at the start of the year, he would often be asked the question: “‘We have a hockey team here?’”
But on Feb. 12, unlike any game this season, the Lions entered the rink to an audience of almost 100 fans, as well as a contingent of the Columbia University Marching Band, who had all come out to see the Lions play at the open-air Riverbank Arena.
The 15-minute commute to the new location meant that for many audience members, this “Winter Classic”—as the team dubbed it—was the first opportunity to see their friends or family members play. For some, it was their first introduction to the game of hockey—perhaps one reason why the crowd remained loud up until the end of a 8-5 loss that seemed inevitable after the second-period six-goal defensive meltdown.
Despite the defeat, the event was one of biggest games that junior captain and vice president Andy Dunn has ever organized, or played in, during his Columbia career. The stands were filled by the most fans that Lopes had ever played in front of while sporting a Columbia jersey.
“Our players, who have mostly played in isolation throughout the year … have the opportunity to show their friends that they play on this cool team, and it’s actually something,” Dunn said. “The best part is having a lasting impact on our players who have played all year and done so well all year. They finally get to show some people what they’re doing.”
Through videos, Facebook event planning, and social media promotion, word finally spread that Columbia has its own ice hockey team. The Classic was a relatively inexpensive event to host, with DIY decorations honoring seniors on the Zamboni and a butcher-paper Columbia Hockey crest hanging from the stands. But head coach Bruce Baker claimed that the rewards of exposure are invaluable.
“It was fantastic and I feel like the fellas deserve that, because they work so hard,” Baker said. “Maybe not tonight, but [often] they play super structured, super well, and nobody gets to see it except ourselves.”
But the excitement may have been too much to handle for a team unfamiliar with an intensely watching audience, according to Lopez. During warmups, Lopes said that the players talked about finishing checks and throwing big hits to engage the crowd.
“Our team probably wasn’t as focused as we normally are,” Lopes said. “For some of the guys that maybe haven’t played at that higher level or haven’t played in front of fans, I think that there’s probably that desire to impress people or do a little bit too much or something a little different than what they normally do.”
For crowd-engagement, this strategy was successful: Fans cheered for big hits, fancy moves, and of course their friends each time they touched the puck, some holding up signs dedicated to specific players. But Baker wished for “a little less dazzling playmaking” from an under-the-weather team on the choppy Riverbank ice.
However, even when the Lions were down by a couple goals, Baker didn’t shorten the bench, a common hockey practice where coaches play their best players more, and hold others off the ice in an attempt to score.
The reason: For most players, this was their first chance to be seen by their friends.
“It was more important to have everybody play than guarantee a win,” Baker said of the exhibition game.
Team members said that they hope to make this game an annual experience by incorporating the Winter Classic into Columbia sports culture and continuing to expand the team’s fanbase.
Despite the loss, the team was in a position of strength in at least one metric: After years of being out-manned at games, the Light Blue fielded a full 20-man roster to STAC’s 12 players. For the first time in Baker’s tenure, the team has so many players that not everyone will be able to skate in playoffs.
“The biggest thing for our organization is making sure that it’s not a one and done type thing,” Lopes said. “People here want there to be something close by, exciting, physical, entertaining for them to come and view, but also something that is competitive. … We have to make sure that while we may never reap the benefits of that as players, we definitely want to reap the benefits as alumni and as fans down the road.”