The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports

April 16, 2013

Frederick: Time to start selling the Mavericks, not the opponent

— Did you see the publicity the Minnesota State men’s hockey team received during the Frozen Four championship game Saturday night?

It should be worth at least a handful of new season-ticket orders this week.

Between periods of the Yale-Quinnipiac game (which, by the way, Yale won in a 4-0 upset over the nation’s No. 1 team), ESPN analyst Dave Starman picked Mavericks center and junior-to-be Matt Leitner as one of the favorites to win the Hobey Baker Award next year.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Not only will Leitner be Minnesota State’s top returning scorer after leading the team with 47 points (17 goals, 30 assists) this past season, but he’ll be fourth among the nation’s top returning scorers, barring any more early departures in the group ahead of him.

In two seasons, Leitner has 76 points, including 28 goals, in 79 games, which already puts him in a tie for 24th on the Mavericks’ Division I-era scoring list. By comparison, All-American Grant Stevenson scored 79 points in two seasons — including 63 as a sophomore — before signing an NHL deal. Leitner has a chance to tear up the new WCHA next season.

On Friday, the American Hockey Coaches Association released its All-Americans for this season. While no Mavericks were picked for one of the four teams (first- and second-team West, first-and second-team East), you could see how close one might have been.

Denver goaltender Juho Olkinuora was named second-team West. He was also a second-team All-WCHA pick this season, losing out on the conference’s first-team spot to MSU rookie Stephon Williams.

After talking to various WCHA media, I’m certain that the vote between Williams and Olkinuora was a close one, so I won’t quibble with how the All-American decision went down.

But, like this weekend’s Leitner prediction, it shows just what kind of talent the Mavericks will have on its roster next season.

Minnesota State needs to cash in on that potential.

A year ago, when Mike Hastings was hired as coach, Minnesota State officials fretted about the dwindling attendance.

It rose this season by 417 fans per game. Not bad but still lower than two years earlier. It helped that Minnesota and North Dakota each played a pair of games at the Verizon Wireless Center, as there were three sellouts, including two crowds of around 5,100. But the average was hurt by surprisingly small crowds for three playoff games against Nebraska Omaha.

For too long, MSU and the civic center have relied on the sale of beer, booze and big-name opponents to sell hockey tickets.

While the drinks are still flowing, the Minnesotas and North Dakotas aren’t coming back to Mankato in awhile.

But the team to watch shouldn’t be the opponent. Whether MSU is playing St. Cloud State or Lake Superior State, Minnesota Duluth or Alabama Huntsville, Wisconsin or Ferris State, the home team should be the main attraction.

And with Leitner and Williams, it will be.

Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com, and follow him on Twitter @puckato.

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