I sat in the press box of the Whittemore Center and thought to myself this used to be one of the premier matchups in college hockey. The crowds flocked, the atmospheres at the Alfond and the Whitt were electric and the quality of play on the ice was top notch (even as recent as 2011). Fast forward to 2015, and it seemed to be something else. UNH picked up a solid 5-2 win against its border rival on Saturday night, but the game provided little in the way of excitement. The crowd was in a way dull and the third period was a snooze-fest to be honest, with UNH up three goals.
The students at UNH were out in full force and lined up outside the building as I walked in. The student section was filled as fast as the doors opened, the remainder of the crowd was missing until puck drop, a rarity even five years ago when the Whitt would have been filled 45 minutes before puck drop for the Maine game. The 6,003 that flocked to the Whittemore Center saw the cap of a good weekend for the Wildcats, who picked up three points in the Hockey East standings. That number wasn’t even a sellout in the 6501 seat, olympic size rink. The empty seats, especially in the end-zone opposite the student section were noticeable but there were empties everywhere. The big rival didn’t even draw the biggest crowd of the season, as UNH had just over 6200 fans for a contest against BC earlier in the year. All told the Maine game, is an indicator of the lack of crowd showing up at UNH in recent years, just as much as the dwindling of a rivalry.
The Alfond on Friday was lively and saw its first sellout since January of 2014, a game also against UNH. That is a period of two seasons, that Maine went without a sellout. It just missed out on a sell out against UNH last year by about 100. Last season, UNH and Maine played a non-conference game in an empty Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. The box score said just over 5,000 but there may have been 3,500 in a 12,000 seat arena. To be fair, it was competing with UNH’s football team that was deep in the FCS playoffs.
These games used to sellout months in advance but now it is a another game on the schedule because of the struggles of both programs in recent seasons. The teams now play two non-conference games a season along with the two conference games, in Portland, Maine and Manchester, NH. In a sense, the rivalry has been watered down by games that don’t even matter in the Hockey East standings.
The Black Bears had been hot entering the Saturday nights game against UNH, but struggled with turnovers to take its first loss in six games. After the loss, Maine fell to 4-9-4, while UNH left the night 5-6-4. Both schools have been struggling for a number of seasons. UNH has seen less struggles, but has only made the NCAA tournament once in four seasons, after making it in 14 of the 15 seasons before it. Maine on the other-hand has made the NCAA tournament once in the past eight seasons, a far cry from their glory years of the 90’s.
We can all remember the double-overtime thriller UNH and Maine played in the 1999 national championship game, right? Ya, those big games are gone between the schools and thus the rivalry itself will diminish. What I saw and heard was a far cry from the quality I got used to growing up in the glory years of the Border War… But I assume there will be more. Now that I have taken it down a bit, I should state it is still one of the funner games that I see all season. Rivalries are always fun, UNH-Maine may not be one of the two or three best right now, but it still a battle and grind.