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The defending NCAA champion Gopher women’s hockey team is undefeated, ranked No. 1, riding a record win streak ... and deserving of more attention.

 

By Kevin Kurtt
Let’s Play Hockey Editor

For the 2001 baseball season, the Minnesota Twins employed a marketing campaign that encouraged fans to come to the Metrodome to “Get to Know ‘Em.” The Twins roster that season was largely anonymous, so goal of the the TV and radio advertisements was to introduce the potential ticket buyer to young, promising players like Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Cory Koskie and Doug Mientkiewicz.

Fast forward 11 years and it’s the University of Minnesota that should be using the “Get to Know ‘Em” slogan ... not for its baseball squad, but for its women’s hockey team.

Like the Twins, the Gopher women are mostly anonymous to the general public – not because the players are new to the elite levels of hockey, but because, well ... I’m not sure.

The University of Minnesota added women’s hockey as a varsity sport for the 1997-98 season. Immediately, the Golden Gophers were a premier women’s college hockey program. The first national championship came in 2000, with back-to-back NCAA titles following in 2004 and 2005. Last season, Minnesota completed a 34-5-2 record en route to the program’s fourth national championship.

The superlatives are just getting started. Minnesota has won six WCHA titles and four WCHA Tournament crowns. The Gophers have made 10 appearances in the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the Frozen Four eight times.

Under its two head coaches – Laura Halldorson and Brad Frost – Minnesota has won nearly 80 percent of its games, compiling an all-time record of 445-98-39.

There’s a whole lot more. Golden Gopher players have made their mark on the conference, national and international stage since the inception of the program. There have been seven Olympians, competing at each Winter Games since 2002. There have been 18 Patty Kazmaier Award Finalists and one winner – Krissy Wendell in 2005. There have been 11 First Team All-Americans, four WCHA Players of the Year, six WCHA Defensive Players of the Year, four WCHA Rookies of the Year and two WCHA Student-Athletes of the Year.

This season, the Golden Gophers are the unanimous top-ranked team in the nation, owning a 16-0-0 record. Dating back to last season, Minnesota is riding an NCAA record 24-game winning streak and, last weekend in New Hampshire, tied the NCAA record for consecutive road wins (15).

Junior Amanda Kessel and freshman Hannah Brandt rank first and second in the nation in scoring with Brandt, the reigning Ms. Hockey, the runaway leader among freshmen. Senior Megan Bozek leads all blueliners in scoring as well. In the nets, senior Noora Räty ranks first in save percentage (.961) and shutouts (6), and third in goals-against average (0.77).

These players, and many more on the Gopher roster, are not just some of the best in college hockey; they are also some of the top players in the world ... period. Brandt, for example, is arguably the best player at her age playing hockey today.

And yet, the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team continues to live in virtual anonymity.

This season, Gopher games at 3,403-seat Ridder Arena have averaged a paltry 933 fans through eight games. In only one season during Frost’s five-year tenure has Minnesota averaged more than 1,400 per game (2008-09).

It’s not for a lack of success on the ice or trying from the marketing department that’s keeping fans from filling the stands. In the last five seasons, Minnesota has averaged 29 wins and has offered countless ticket discounts in an effort to draw more fans (i.e., $1 tickets for this Saturday’s game).

Meanwhile, next door at Mariucci Arena, the Golden Gopher men’s hockey team routinely draws at or near capacity in the 10,000-seat facility.

So what gives?

As the self-described State of Hockey, Minnesota leads the nation in girls’ and women’s USA Hockey-registered players with nearly 13,000 in 2011-12. That number doesn’t include the players on over 200 high school teams that serve as the main feeder programs to the Gophers and other Division I and III college hockey programs.

So with about 16,000 girls and women playing hockey in Minnesota today, a ready-made fanbase seems to exist for the top team in the state.

Sure, women’s sports in general tend to take a backseat to their men’s counterparts, but there are several examples women’s teams thriving even with a comparable men’s team. For example, last season at the University of Tennessee, women’s basketball games averaged 14,414 fans, while the men’s basketball team drew 16,543 fans. Likewise, soccer at Portland and BYU, basketball at Connecticut and Louisville, gymnastics at Utah and Alabama, volleyball at Hawaii and Nebraska, and softball at Arizona routinely draw crowds in the thousands.

The bottom line is, if Minnesota truly is the State of Hockey, the Gopher women’s hockey team should be enjoying crowds in the thousands, not in the hundreds.

This is the weekend for hockey fans to flock to Ridder Arena to support a team worth supporting. On Saturday and Sunday, the the Golden Gophers take on rival Wisconsin in the first rematch of last season’s NCAA Championship game, a contest won 4-2 by Minnesota.

In addition to seeing two elite college hockey teams battle in a key WCHA match-up, fans will see former Olympians, All-Americans and Ms. Hockey Award winners. They’ll see a Minnesota team looking to stay undefeated and extend its consecutive wins record. They’ll see some of the best that women’s hockey has to offer today.

The Minnesota Twins 2001 ad campaign introduced a host of talented players to a fanbase starving for a winner. Well, Minnesota, you already have a winner in the Gopher women’s hockey team. Get to know ‘em.