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College and minor league hockey is the future — and present — of the game

Let’s face it, we all love watching sports on TV, but nothing compares to getting an up-close look at the action in person, especially for hockey. Sure, the play by play is helpful, but you still miss out on so much: the energy in the stands, the sounds of slapshots and checks, and even the smell of the ice. You can’t get that anywhere else, but NHL games are often expensive or too far to travel to. That’s the problem.

Minor league and college hockey is the solution.

For years, the NHL has been trying to grow the game, and in some ways, they’re succeeding. However, there are thousands of people out there who could really love hockey, they just haven’t had the chance. This was proven to me recently when I caught a game at the brand-new Acrisure Arena, the home of the Coachella Valley Firebirds. The Firebirds are the newest member of the American Hockey League (AHL), and are the minor league affiliate of the Seattle Kraken.

Coachella Valley is located near Palm Springs, California — an area not historically known for being a hockey hotbed. However, you wouldn’t know it by sitting at that game, surrounded by people wearing jerseys (and one woman with elaborate face paint). That game was only the second home game in franchise history, but the energy in the arena suggested that the team was defending the Calder Cup, the AHL equivalent to the Stanley Cup.

People want hockey and the AHL might just be the best place to get it. Games are cheap, accessible and often in areas where there aren’t many other teams to support. At Acrisure arena, seats only a couple of rows behind the goal only cost about $20. Buying practically rink-side seats at an NHL arena? That’s easily going to run you a few hundred dollars.

Additionally, you get the chance to see the future of the game unfold right in front of you. Tomorrow’s all-stars are today’s draft picks, and you can get an early jump on watching their careers by catching minor league games. That’s not to mention the players who have made it to the NHL, but are with a minor league team for rehab or further development. I sat four rows behind Joey Daccord and Ivan Prosvetov in goal. When else will I get the chance to say that?

If you want to go a step further, college hockey is a great option as well. Whether a university has an NCAA team or just a club team, the games are high-energy and action-packed, oftentimes in a more intimate arena setting than you’ll get anywhere else. For people who love getting invested in prospects, there’s no better place to start than right at the beginning of a player’s journey, and if you’re a college student it’s a great way to build school spirit and connect with classmates.

I’m not saying give up on the NHL. Quite the opposite. I love watching a game on TV, and I love it even more when I can actually catch a game in person. But there’s no reason for the fun to stop there. Supporting college and minor league hockey means that you get to enjoy even more of the sport, give smaller programs some love, and who knows? Maybe one day you’ll be able to say “Hey! I knew that guy before he got big.”

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