Living along the Canadian border like we do, hockey is an important part of local culture. Countless men, women and children lace up their skates every day across this region, while many more count themselves as rabid fans of the fastest sport in the world. That transcendent love for the game makes it even more popular in Western New York than America’s most-loved sport, football.
It’s only fitting that watching and listening to the NHL dominates our evenings, something that also offers a great diversion from the long, cold nights, keeping us from going crazy in the winter tedium. Unfortunately, the escape from life’s stresses afforded by professional hockey doesn’t look to be so certain this year as the NHL’s owners and players are locked in a labor impasse. There’s a very good chance that that a significant portion (maybe even all?) of the season might be lost.
No one knows for sure what’s going to happen and fans are already depressed about the possibility of a winter with no hockey.
Don’t be depressed. And, don’t allow the arctic season to be lacking in the sport.
There are plenty of opportunities to take in a high-quality game. Look no further than our local colleges. Hockey fans have a number of them to choose from on the Niagara Frontier. Within a 40-minute drive of Lockport we have Division I programs in Niagara University and Canisius and Division III colleges in Buffalo State and Brockport. There are even more just a little further away within the Buffalo-Rochester area, including Fredonia, Geneseo, RIT, and Nazareth. All of them put competitive, exciting teams on the ice.
The DI teams play against some of the most-storied and highest-ranked universities in the country. You can watch gifted prospects and future NHL players play all out in their quest to win a championship and cement their legacies on the ice and catch the eyes of scouts. They play with a hunger not seen in the pro ranks. There’s always a good chance that these teams could play their way onto the national stage – just as RIT did a few years ago – and the magical Frozen Four.
You will see an even greater passion played out on the DIII rinks. DIII hockey is one of my loves (especially at Brockport where you can catch me at most home games) since it doesn’t have the trappings of DI (athletic scholarships) or the NHL (people being paid millions). They play for the love of the game. That’s it. That love is evident on the ice. The game is much faster and more active than the NHL. There is a lot of contact. The players sacrifice themselves to win. Above all, it’s played extremely well: DIII kids aren’t pushovers. As a matter of fact, they might not even be kids. The times have changed and no longer do you see a lot of “true freshmen” (guys aged 17 or 18) on the ice. Most of them stuck around the juniors for a while and further honed their game. You’re watching men in their twenties playing at a highly-skilled level that many others could never come close to achieving.
The venues in which you can watch these affairs are homey, close to the action, and above all, cheap (something an NHL game could never be). For $5 you can watch a DIII game. DI tickets can be purchased for $12 or less, depending on any number of special deals. The foods in these places are actually affordable, too, on a shoestring budget.
So, don’t fret if there isn’t an NHL hockey season. You will still get a chance to watch some great hockey in the region. Even if the NHL doesn’t go on hiatus for any length of time, make it a point to attend one of the local college games. You might even develop a new love affair with the sport.
The seasons begin soon (in just 3 weeks at the DIII level), so check out the athletic department pages of the various schools’ websites for details.
Enjoy the games!
Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column originally ran in the 01 October 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers