Jerry York knows university hockey. The Boston College head coach and 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee lives it, he breathes it; something that many American hockey fans have in common with him. Not so many Canadian hockey fans, who give close to zero attention to their local school sports.
There are many factors in why there are no big crowds or buzz that surround the Canadian game. There’s a lot of money pumped into the American college game, and the good hockey schools are often very good academic institutions as well. The draw of American education and the chance to play against older players, put together with the chance to be drafted into the NHL make NCAA more of a draw for young players. It is also a common path for drafted talents to take, where they can develop and mature before they are ready for the NHL.
U Sports rarely gets the already drafted talents, and that is part of the reason why it does not get as much attention. However, the public’s opinion of U Sports is not shared by high ranking figures from the NCAA.
Jerry York is is very fond of the Canadian collegiate game and gave his thoughts about it in a discussion with 49.
“It’s a good on-ice product, they’re all former junior guys but there isn’t enough money going into the programs,” said York. it is true that many NCAA receives more funding than U Sports schools, but it is self-serving.
Most of the money which goes back into the NCAA programs, such as York’s Boston College Eagles comes from ticket sales. When comparing the average prices in each organization, they are similar, usually around $10. But that is not the end of the story; Boston College average nearly 6000 fans per game in a stadium of 7000. Compare that to Ryerson University, another downtown school in an NHL original city, and they get around 300 fans in their 4000 person arena. Just that small stat shows the gulf in financial leeway that U Sports schools have compared to NCAA programs. Whether there is a way around this problem is a whole other question. Is it to build bigger arenas for fewer fans? Lower ticket prices to drive up attendance, or simply pump more money into advertising for school teams? Whatever the answer may be, it’s not been found yet and that is why NCAA schools continue to outperform U Sports schools In the public conversation.
While the Canadian public may not keep a close eye on their local university teams, that’s not to say they don’t garner the attention of York. “I have followed the success of he Alberta Golden Bears,” said the hall of fame inductee, continuing on by saying “They have a good program and get a good following out there on the west coast.” The Golden Bears have been constant contenders for the Canadian national championship, displaying the strength of their program every year and with their 16 national championships. Not only is their team good, but they have developed some professional players as well. Luke Philp, who is playing with the AHL’s Stockton Heat and is contracted by the NHL’s Calgary Flames is a former Golden Bear, one of the latest players to turn high-level pro out of their program. It is players like Philp who are changing the reputation of U Sports and getting the attention of recognizable hockey personalities such as Jerry York. With his mention of the Alberta team and the fact the fellow inductee Hayley Wickenhesier played with the University of Calgary Dinos, it shows that the Canadian university game is improving and is becoming more notable among the greater hockey community.
The attention which York gives to the Golden Bears is substantial, but it is nothing compared to the relationship he shares with the University of New Brunswick’s Varsity Reds and their long-tenured head coach Gardiner Macdougal.
“We always play them in the preseason, it’s great to have the Canadian connection and they are a very good hockey team, they could be in NCAA,” York said. It has become a tradition, the preseason matchup between the two schools, with the venue changing annually. Sometimes the games are blowouts depending on the roster each year, but more often than not they are tight contests.
It’s not just the on-ice relationship that York has with the UNB, but he is also very good friends with the aforementioned Gardiner Macdougal. The two commonly see each other at hockey events around North America whether they are being honoured or speaking at select conferences. “He’s a great coach and he’s built a fantastic program over there,” York said, speaking fondly of his Canadian counterpart. The UNB Reds also get one of the largest attendances in all of Canada, something that both coaches are very proud of. York mentioned later in the interview that U Sports is popular in pockets, especially in the smaller towns as is the case in New Brunswick, but that the game can struggle in large cities such as Toronto.
Hockey’s hall of fame class of 2019 features a lot of university hockey experience, something that was even mentioned by the chair of the Hall of Fame board Lanny MacDonald at Friday’s ring ceremony, with both York and Wickenhesier among the inductees. It is something that one could not even dream of fifty years ago, but times have changed and university hockey is becoming popular all around North America, it just has a little bit farther to go in Canada than it does in the United States.