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Best hockey cities survey doesn’t take hockey into account

Date: 6/11/2015

Sports Opinion

In the entertaining, but oft-forgotten movie “Mystery, Alaska,” one of the most profound statements is a simple one.

In remembering a town father who recently passed, Russell Crowe, who plays the lead, states, “‘This is a hockey town,’ he’d say. And he never said it like it was something we should have to apologize for.”

In the movie, the town’s strongly embraced self-identification as a hockey town gains national attention thanks to a report in Sports Illustrated.

In Springfield, the city has attempted to maintain its own identity as a hockey town, but unlike the movie, a recent report casts the city’s love of the sport in a very negative light.

However, the recent rankings by entitled “2015’s Best & Worst Cities for Hockey Fans” looks to illuminate communities’ passion for the sport with a pen light.

Springfield ranked last out of 74 of the cities and towns surveyed in a study it claimed took into account “18 key metrics,” including fan engagement, ticket prices, accessibility and a city’s team’s performance level.

As presented, the method seems somewhat legitimate, however, upon closer review, and WalletHub’s own admission when pressed by Reminder Publications, the results are nothing but a mirage.

The biggest and most unforgivable flaw is the fact the study comparing cities’ enthusiasm and support for a sport doesn’t include or take into account that Springfield has a professional hockey team.

Wait, what?

WalletHub’s rankings were based solely on information regarding NHL and NCAA Division I programs. It’s an oversight that even spokesperson Jill Gonzalez couldn’t’ deny was a fatal flaw in the process. “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback about that and next year we’ll dig deeper,” she said.

The reasoning for using such a narrow scope? There were “a lot less data limitations” and data was “easier to find for NHL and Division I teams.”

So, essentially, it was deemed a better idea to publish misleading information than correct information the analysts might have had to look harder for.

So if not for the fact that Springfield has the Falcons and has had a professional hockey team since 1926 and is home to the AHL league offices, then against what criterion was the city judged?

The NCAA Division I hockey program in the city proper.

That means American International College (AIC) and its fans alone were utilized to represent Springfield hockey. And only from 2013 to 2015 at that.

Nothing against AIC, but the program has only been in Division 1 since 1998 and has seen little success at that level.

It hasn’t been all bad – Springfield native Austin Orszulak set a record for goals in a season last year and he and Alexander MacMillan are now tied for first in points in a season. Both were included in the fan voting for the Hobey Baker Award. In 2012, Ben Meisner broke the Atlantic Hockey Association’s all-time saves record. But the team has never finished in the top half of its conference’s standings or past the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Playing at the Olympia in West Springfield, the team averages somewhere around 200 fans per game.

The tight focus also doesn’t account for junior hockey like the Springfield ‘Pics or other college hockey programs like Division III Western New England University. It also doesn’t count another Division I program in close proximity in UMass because the Minutemen are not within the city limits.

To think AIC and its fans come anywhere close to adequately representing Springfield’s status as a “hockey town” is nothing short of absurd.

So is the idea that numbers alone can determine what makes a hockey town.

Springfield has struggled to maintain its hockey identity, with the professional team at the epicenter of the debates. Springfield has lost a team, only to have another one emerge thanks to a great deal of hard work. It has seen its next team struggle through some very lean years – though those have been followed by some strong seasons of late. It has gone through more than its share of affliation changes, and just experienced another. Attendance remains a constant talking point.

But despite whatever hurdles have been in the way, hockey has remained in Springfield, even in a time of economic struggle for the Pioneer Valley that has extended far longer than it has in the rest of the state.

That says something – a lot more than a critically flawed set of data points, that’s for certain.

It speaks to a passion that does exist, not only from those who have kept it going, but from the community. If there wasn’t a belief that it could work here, it wouldn’t be here.

Is Springfield still a hockey town?

I think so.

Do you?