Originally published in Bloomberg View
The Frozen Four, college ice hockey’s equivalent of basketball’s Final Four, begins Thursday night in Pittsburgh. This year’s surviving quartet features none of the traditional college hockey powerhouses: no University of Minnesota, no Boston University, no Boston College.
It does, however, feature college hockey’s version of Florida Gulf Coast University—Quinnipiac University. Like FGCU, Quinnipiac has recognized that nothing can raise a school’s profile like a successful sports team.
Even if you aren’t a college hockey fan, you probably know Quinnipiac for its polls on political races and issues. And if you are a puck-head, you undoubtedly got to know the team this year when it reeled off 21 consecutive victories and rose to No. 1 in the national rankings.
During the streak, the Bobcats looked more like the Charlestown Chiefs than a college-hockey team. Most of the players were sporting mustaches that they refused to shave until they lost. “Muzzy Power,” they called it.
The Bobcats have since shaved, but they still don’t look much like a college-hockey team—and not just because they skate so fast and hit so hard. The average age of the team is 24. One of their forwards, Kevin Bui of Edmonton, Alberta, will turn 26 this month. Eight of the Bobcats’ 13 Canadians came straight from the British Columbia Hockey League, which produces some of the world’s best professional players.
Recruiting in Canada, focusing on athletes who are older and more physically developed—these are not exactly novel strategies in college hockey. The Bobcats have just executed them a little more shamelessly than everybody else, which is generally how they do things at Quinnipiac.
“By adopting the mind-set of business executives,” wrote University President John Lahey in 2006, “we are blending business into higher education—with remarkable results.” Lahey created Quinnipiac’s polling institute in large part because it was a good way to get the university’s name mentioned in the news media on a regular basis. Since becoming president in 1987, he has radically expanded the school’s campus and its enrollment. What was once a suburban Connecticut commuter college is now aspiring to be a major university.
A major university, that is, run by cost-conscious business executives. Quinnipiac relies heavily on part-time teachers, and Lahey even busted the faculty union several years ago—not long before he tried to dissolve the women’s volleyball team and replace it with a less expensive alternative: competitive cheerleading. (The volleyball team was reinstated after a lawsuit.)
Where does hockey fit into all of this? In the mid-1990s, Lahey realized that Quinnipiac was missing out on the free publicity customarily lavished on successful Division I sports programs. He wanted one, too. The only question was which sport would provide the greatest return on investment.
Football was too expensive: too many scholarships, among other things. Quinnipiac would take a run at Division I basketball, but in college hoops the competition is fierce.
Hockey was a better bet. Quinnipiac already had a Division II team, albeit one that played its games in a public skating rink and was coached by a high school history teacher. The sport’s audience may be regional, but in those regions—mostly the Northeast and the frozen tundra of Minnesota and the Dakotas—it’s plenty big. And plenty rabid.
In 1997, the Bobcats moved up to Division I. A decade later, the school opened a $52 million arena—an instant draw for prospective hockey recruits of every age. (The arena includes separate facilities for the school’s still struggling basketball program.)
From a marketing perspective, though, Quinnipiac’s biggest coup was scoring an invitation to join hockey’s storied Eastern College Athletic Conference. The move put Quinnipiac (noteworthy alumnus: Murray Lender, inventor of what he called “the Jewish English muffin”) in the company of a handful of Ivy League schools.
More to the point, Quinnipiac wanted to create an instant rivalry with another ECAC school, its neighbor several miles down Whitney Avenue. Quinnipiac-Yale hasn’t yet achieved the fame of Harvard-Yale, Quinnipiac athletic director Jack McDonald says hopefully, “but it’s getting there quickly.”
Of course, Yale doesn’t quite see it that way. As one Yale alumnus and hockey fan told me, the only thing this traditional rivalry lacks is a feeling of rivalry and a sense of tradition. Considering the matter further, he conceded that it might qualify as a town-gown rivalry.
As it happens, Yale is in the Frozen Four this year, too. If both teams win their semifinal games—Yale plays the University of Massachusetts at Lowell on Thursday afternoon, before Quinnipiac lines up against St. Cloud State of Minnesota—they could meet in the championship game Saturday night. It would be a new twist on a timeless theme: the preppies versus the townies, only this time on ice skates.
Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. He's @jonathanmahleron Twitter.
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