McMaster does not have hockey programs at the University Sports level, and it should stay that way.
The men’s program ended in 1989 and people still talk about the McMaster Marlins. Numerous people have asked me about the lack of a men or women’s hockey program during my years as a Sports Editor. An alumnus emailed me this week asking if the athletic department had any plans to bring hockey back.
In January 2015, Athletic Director Glen Grunwald gave the Hamilton Spectator a pretty simple answer to the question: “You never say never right, but right now it’s not in our plans to do that.”
This is absolutely the right response. As it stands, McMaster boasts a strong athletic department. The results speak for themselves. Mac consistently sends teams to national championship tournaments and events. Seeing a provincial or national championship banner in the halls of the David Braley Athletic Centre is almost expected at this point. The standard for athletics at Mac is as high as any school in the country.
The idea that McMaster needs hockey programs stems from Canada’s extreme love for the sport. People romanticize the idea of a maroon and grey hockey team because the game is so deeply ingrained in the sporting culture of the country. If “hockey is Canada”, why wouldn’t it work at Mac?
For one, university hockey by-and-large does not have a market in Ontario. Games are streamed online and the crowds are insignificant. Teams in urban markets draw in the low to mid-hundreds of people. These are universities with undergraduate populations over 15,000, plus the local communities to which the teams belong. People don’t pay attention to Ontario University Athletics hockey, and there is no reason to suggest it would be different after the novelty of a hockey program wore off.
Hockey fans are indifferent to OUA hockey is because it’s redundant. The Ontario Hockey League has teams throughout the province and in most university towns; 11 of the 17 Canadian teams also have a university hockey team (men’s or women’s) in their city. These teams feature National Hockey League prospects while OUA hockey offers little in terms of narrative for fans.
Hamilton has the Bulldogs playing in the OHL and their attendance is middle of the pack. If you have a strategy for getting McMaster students out to their games, I’m sure the franchise would love to hear from you because they have been a struggle to engage the Mac community.
And there is a cascading cost to getting a hockey program: the diminishing of other programs. Mac is already going through tough times financially, with their $600,000 “shortfall” this year set to force them to make some tough decisions. If we add in a hockey team, you’re taking money away from some of the top-ranked programs in the country. Is an average hockey team worth making the rest of the programs suffer? Not a chance.
Where would the teams would play or practice? McMaster does not have an arena on campus and they are unlikely to build one given the current issues with the DBAC. FirstOntario Centre in downtown Hamilton is too big of a venue and rinks in Ancaster are too far for a student population that rarely leaves the campus’ surrounding neighbourhoods.
I understand the sentiment: sports bring people together, and hockey programs could do that because it’s Canada’s sport. But the product has been a bust for nearly every urban university and Hamilton seems no different.
Students should try following the top-level programs we already have – like the women’s basketball team that is poised to make a run at a national championship – instead of looking to build a new team that no one will care about in five years.