The NHL owners canceled their meeting scheduled for today, and Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. said he considers this season done and now is questioning whether the league will return next season.
"My gut feeling is that this season is gone," Karmanos said in an interview published in the Toronto Sun last week. "I know personally that I'd be willing to risk another season. I'm enough of a hockey fan to realize that once we got it straightened out, the fans would come back."
But what until then? The itch for high-speed action, big hits, skilled athletes and the exciting atmosphere of a hockey rink has been festering over the 121 days of the NHL lockout. The first option is college hockey.
NCAA Division I hockey attendance figures are very similar to the ones from a year ago, with a few exceptions which happen to be in NHL cities. The top schools such as Minnesota, Michigan and others were already at or near capacity in their arenas, so there was no room for improvement.
But the University of Denver and Boston University, both in NHL towns, saw the biggest jumps among the Division I schools. Denver's average attendance is up 1,300 to 6,078 per game, and Boston, which just opened a new arena, jumped 900 per home contest to 3,805.
College hockey is something that went nearly unnoticed in the Bay Area until this year. There are no NCAA Division I teams in the area, but Cal, Stanford and San Jose State all have club teams, and all three are playing at home this weekend.
San Jose State has been the biggest benefactor from the lack of an NHL season, with its home attendance nearly quadrupling. The Spartans are drawing nearly 1,000 fans per game to Logitech Ice after averaging 200-300 a year ago, according to general manager Kenneth Pierce.
San Jose State is an NCAA Division I school, but its hockey program is a club team. It falls under the window of the student life center and not the athletic department, yet it is having great success on and off the ice. The Spartans are ranked No.4 in the nation in American Collegiate Hockey Association West Region poll with a 16-2-1 record.
"We are thrilled with the attendance, (and) players right now have to pay everything out of pocket," Pierce said. "They are forking $2,000 per semester on top of school, and that is a big burden to students. This helps."
In an attendance comparison with San Jose State's other sports, the hockey team is holding its own. The Spartans men's basketball team (a Division I team) drew an average crowd of 1,167 in 2003-04 and averaged 1,115 in its first four home games this season.
San Jose State's hockey club has beaten Cal twice this season and crushed Stanford 15-1, and the Spartans are also dominating in attendance.
"It is because of the Sharks and the Logitech Ice rink," Pierce said. "People come by and see a game going on and get interested."
There also could be a convenience factor, with many of Cal's hockey games starting at 10:45 p.m. at Berkeley Iceland.
San Jose State hosts BYU (No.5 in the ACHA poll) tonight at 7:45 at Logitech and again on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students and children. The Spartans are making a push for a trip to the nationals in Detroit at the end of the season.
Cal hosts USC tonight and Saturday, both at 10:45 p.m. at Berkeley Iceland. The Bears will try to avenge their 3-2 and 6-3 losses to San Jose State when they host the Spartans on Thursday at 8:30 p.m.
Cal will close out the regular season with the Big Freeze against Stanford on Feb. 4 and 5, followed by the Pac-8 tournament at Berkeley Iceland on Feb. 18-19.
Stanford, which plays its games at Belmont Iceland, faces rival UCLA tonight and Saturday in 8 p.m. games.
A second option for puck fanatics is minor-league hockey. But fans haven't jumped from the NHL to minor-league games. Attendance in the American Hockey League (Triple-A hockey) is up a mere 50 fans per game from last season despite having a number of NHL players spread throughout the league.
Though Cleveland, the Sharks' AHL affiliate, may be out of range for Bay Area fans, some folks have made the trek to Fresno to watch San Jose's East Coast Hockey League affiliate. The Falcons' next home game is Tuesday against Pensacola, and the next weekend home game is against Las Vegas on Jan. 23.