Neil's Notebook: Fans Flocking to Watch Spartans
 
 
 
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Jan. 18, 2013

By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer

EAST LANSING - Michigan State defenseman Travis Walsh admitted he had no idea he and his teammates were playing in front of a capacity crowd.

Midway through the third period of the Spartans' 4-1 victory over Notre Dame, Walsh heard the public address announcer give the attendance as 6,716 and a sellout.

"I looked around and I'm like `Well, there's quite a bit of people here tonight,''' Walsh said. "I kind of zone out the crowd and try to focus on the game. But definitely when you hear the students cheering, it gives us an extra jump.''

The Spartans (6-13-3 overall, 5-10-1 CCHA) haven't produced as many victories as they hoped at this point in the season, but fan support at Munn Arena, which has a seating capacity of 6,470, has been outstanding.

MSU has drawn six straight crowds of more than 6,000 fans. That hasn't happened since the 2003-2004 season when the Spartans sold out every game, averaging 6,738.

Three of this season's 6,000-plus crowds have been sellouts. All three sellouts were also Spartan victories.

Walsh, a freshman and the grandson of former MSU coach Ron Mason, spent a lot of time around the hockey program as young boy. He was there when Munn Arena was sold out every night and the Spartans were piling up victories.

"I can remember how electric the fans were when I was really young,'' he said. "This year, it's been unbelievable. It reminds me of those years.''

The run of 6,000-plus gatherings started against Michigan on Nov. 10, when 7,225 fans jammed Munn Arena to watch the Spartans dominate the Wolverines, 7-2.

On Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, MSU drew crowds of 6,417 and 6,115 against Ohio State. Unfortunately, the Spartans got swept by the Buckeyes, 1-0 and 3-1.

MSU's 3-1 win over Ferris State on Dec. 15 was witnessed by a standing-room-only crowd of 6,484. And crowds of 6,120 and 6,716 showed up last weekend to watch the Spartans split a series against Notre Dame.

 

 

The Spartans first three home games - two against Niagara in late October and one with Bowling Green in early November - attracted only 4,063, 4,602 and 4,641 fans, respectively.

Thus, MSU's average home attendance stands at 5,820, first in the CCHA and seventh in the nation. Eight home games remain, starting with Friday's home-and-home series opener against Ferris State.

"We're really excited about the support and hope it keeps coming,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "There's a lot of work going on to get people to attend. The athletic department, marketing departing and the ticket office are doing a terrific job.

"From the feedback I get, people know we're going through a change in the program and they appreciate that the team is playing hard and that it played hard last season.''

In 2011-12, Anastos' first year, MSU averaged 5,364 fans per game. Five games drew more than 6,000 and four were sellouts.

Since 2004, MSU has averaged more than 6,000 fans just once - 6,364 in 2006-07. Seven times, the Spartans averaged in the 5,000s and one season - in 2009-10 - average attendance slipped to 4,966.

When Anastos was named the Spartans' new coach in March, 2011, he said one of his goals was to bring back the noisy, lively and sellout atmosphere from the past. To do that, he said his team would have to work hard, play with energy, play with an entertaining style and consistently win to give fans a reason to return.

In his first season as coach, the Spartans put on a good show, compiled a 19-16-4 record and surprised the college hockey world by earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Anastos worked to bring more students into the building and the band and made both groups feel like an important part of the program. This year, the student section changed its name from Slap Shots to "The A-Team.''

"There are certain things we've tried to do in the building to create more energy,'' Anastos said. "I think the band and the students are doing a great job. We appreciate what they're doing for us. And the fans have been great. They've been into the games and all of it helps our team.

"We've added an in-game host and trying to engage the fans so there's more entertainment during the many breaks.''

For sure, the marketing department has attracted large and small groups of fans with various ticket giveaways or discounts in hope that they'll like what they see and come back for more games.

The program seems to be attracting fans because they like the direction of the program, the family atmosphere in the building and the up-tempo style played by the team, even if goals have been tough to get this season.

Graham Pierce, 29, and his wife, Laura, 32, started going to MSU hockey games when they were in graduate school. After last season, the Okemos residents decided to get more involved and they bought season tickets.

"I always found hockey to be the most exciting live sport. The speed and intensity are just whole different things,'' Graham said. "As far as tickets go, it's by far the most reasonable option at Michigan State.

"Basketball tickets are impossible to get, and with football, there's not that many games. Hockey presents a much better value. It's very approachable for someone who never had tickets before to get into the sport without having this massive (financial) investment.

"I got the seats I wanted on the center (red) line up towards the back so I have a good angle. The university has done a great job with getting the students involved and creating a connection with the students and the band.''

Graham Pierce, who works at MSU, is from New York and is a graduate of the Binghamton University, while Laura is from Massachusetts and earned her undergraduate degree from Boston University.

Graham said he's impressed with the energy and creativity that Anastos brings as coach and the leader of the program.

And he's looking forward to seeing MSU compete in the Big Ten in hockey starting next year, and playing Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan two times each season at home.

"The tipping point in getting tickets before this season was the Big Ten coming up,'' he said. "I think it's going to be great. People relate to the Big Ten.

`'So, if there's going to be a lot more interest, I wanted to have season tickets and not be last in line.''

No problem. The Pierces are all set.

Kristy Audretsch, a 2000 graduate of MSU, had season tickets as a student for four years and a few years after graduating. She gave up her season tickets a few years ago when her family couldn't make every game, but she still goes as often as possible.

"I have two young kids (Madison, 8, Jack, 7) and we go a lot because it's fairly inexpensive and it's at a great location that is easy to get to,'' Audretsch said. "I really like the atmosphere and noise level of the crowd at Munn. You can see everything.

"It's really a family-friendly atmosphere. I feel very safe there as a family. And the kids love it. When I get just two tickets, my kids fight over who gets to go with me. And now Jack asked me if he can start playing hockey.''

Audretsch, an elementary school teacher in Laingsburg, believes more fans are showing up because of the direction of the program and the fun atmosphere.

"I think a lot has to do with the new coach. Coach Anastos brings a certain excitement to the program,'' she said. "He's been around college hockey for a long time and people like him.

`'With the coaches we have and the recruits coming in over the next few years, I think we'll be a powerhouse again.''

Of course, that's the goal of Anastos and his coaching staff. And while he's trying to build a championship team on the ice, Anastos is constantly thinking of ways to make the fans' experience as good as possible.

"People come here for a two-hour block and they need to be entertained,'' he said. "We're trying to make sure we figure out ways to connect with them.

"Every night we play, from a program perspective, we're trying to capture the attention of our area fan base and give them something to be excited about.''

Shelley and Ron Cichy have been coming to Spartan hockey games since 1985 A few years later, they purchased season tickets and have been regulars at Munn Arena ever since.

"The best thing about this season is the enthusiasm of what we used to call the `Slap Shots' and who now are called `The A-Team,'" Shelley Cichy said. "Those kids and the band bring so much energy to the arena. I wish the student section could be even bigger.''

For Lisa Rober, taking her two sons, Sam ,9, and Jake, 8, to their first MSU game last season turned them into hockey players.

"They were inspired by Torey Krug and loved the fact that two brothers - Dean and Jake Chelios - played on the same team,'' Rober said. "Immediately after the game, they said they wanted to play hockey, even though they had never skated.

"They took skating lessons and now one year later they're off to a great start in their hockey careers playing on the Squirt house team at Suburban (Ice).

"And now they are even bigger fans of MSU hockey, and love to come cheer the team on at any chance they get.''

Young fans, middle-age fans or older fans, it doesn't matter to the Spartans. Tom Anastos just wants as many people as he can get to follow the program -- at Munn Arena, on the road and on television and radio.

"There's nothing better that we can do than just win,'' Anastos said. "That has the greatest impact. When people come, they want to see the team they're cheering for win.

"The second best thing we can do is put out a great effort so when people walk away they're feeling good about that effort and that they were entertained.''