A weekend night in the middle of winter means one thing for sports fans all across the upper Midwest -- from Durham to Grand Forks to Colorado Springs to Houghton.

It's game night.

The fans are often as superstitious as the players. They throw on their favorite shirt or lucky jersey. They go to the same restaurant or bar before the game. They make the trip to the arena, find their seat and get ready for another spectacle that's unlike any other in the hockey world.

The uniqueness is what draws in so many fans. It's also why so many players will keep a closer association to their college -- not their professional or junior team -- once they are retired.

Why is college hockey so unique? Let us count the ways...

The intensity of games

The NCAA allows teams to schedule 34 regular-season games (up to 36 if you get an exception for playing in Alaska, the Ice Breaker or Hall of Fame Game).

You won't find another league that plays such a limited regular-season schedule.

But this makes the action so much better.

For starters, the stakes are so much higher when there are fewer games. One loss in an 82-game schedule means far less than a loss in a 34-game set.

The lack of games also means the players are more fresh and are able to sustain a higher level of play consistently.

I've talked to several players who have privately admitted one of the big challenges in making the transition to pro hockey is learning how hard to play every game.

"It's going to sound bad, but you have to know when to turn it on," one player said. "You can't go all-out every shift every night. It's just not possible."

That's part of the reason why everyone notices such a difference in pace and intensity level once the NHL playoffs start.

With only two games a week in college, fatigue isn't a problem. And the intensity and level of play between the second half of the regular season and the NCAA tournament usually isn't much different.

Unique traditions

The atmosphere in college hockey is completely different than any junior or pro game you'll ever attend.

On top of the bands, the chants, the 'In Heaven There Is No Beer' song and the 'sieving' of the goalies, nearly every team in the country has some sort of a unique tradition that occurs during a game.

There's the Cornell fans randomly yelling, "red!" during the national anthem.

There's the New Hampshire fans throwing a fish on the ice after their team's first goal of the game. There's the Dartmouth fans flooding the rink with tennis balls after their team's first goal of the season against Princeton.

 

 

There's the bell that rings throughout Lake Superior State's campus after a Laker win.

There's the Blue Skirt Waltz after during the second intermission at Michigan Tech with students swaying back and forth to a song played by the best band in college hockey. Former UND coach Rube Bjorkman thought it was so mesmerizing that he refused to bring his players out onto the bench until the Waltz was over.

There's the Wisconsin fans dancing to the song, "Tequila," the North Dakota fans lighting up The Ralph with their cell phones as Coldplay's Sky Full of Stars plays in the intermission and Omaha fans going nuts after they watch a second-intermission pump-up video that ends with Tom Green telling the fans to "unleash the fury."

Every place is a little different, but no matter where you go, you'll see something so unique and fun, that you'll already start anticipating when you can see it again.

Future stars

College is a chance to see future NHL stars before they make it big.

This one isn't unique to college -- junior hockey has plenty too -- but it adds to the entertainment value of games.

In the last two seasons, NHL captains have come from North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Boston College, Miami and Minnesota State-Mankato. Even the non-powerhouse teams kick out Hall of Famers like Rob Blake from Bowling Green, Adam Oates from RPI and Tony Esposito from Michigan Tech.

There's a certain charm to watching Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie play a game on the same line in a tiny rink in Bemidji, Minn., with seats on just one side of the arena. That happened 10 years ago in the old John S. Glas Fieldhouse before either Toews or Oshie enjoyed worldwide Stanley Cup or Olympic fame (Oshie set up Toews for a goal in that game).

There's a charm to watching Zach Parise and Matt Greene play together in front of 1,900 people in Princeton, N.J. That happened 10 years before the Walsh Hall roommates became NHL captains/alternate captains and played against each other for the Stanley Cup (Parise had five points in that November 2002 game).

Personable coaches

Generally, the coaches and players don't have huge egos and are far more approachable and personable. That's not to say egos don't exist in the game -- some certainly do -- but it's at a much different level.

Most teams have Blue Line or Booster luncheons to raise money on game weekends -- and more often than not, visiting coaches will speak.

Can you imagine Nick Saban speaking to an LSU booster group or Jim Harbaugh speaking to Badger fans? Not in a million years.

However, Denver's George Gwozdecky never missed a chance to talk to North Dakota fans just hours before the puck dropped on a big, rivalry series.

Road trips

And finally, there are the road trips.

Once fans make their first, they often become addicted. There's so much more to them than just the games.

In the NCHC, there's something for everyone.

If you want to see a classic college town, grab some local bites and watch hockey where it's king, you have Grand Forks, St. Cloud and Oxford.

If you want to take the family on a road trip and plan a bunch of activities around the games, you have Omaha, Colorado Springs and Denver.

If you want to go back in time to watch college hockey played in an old barn with vulgar, unchecked students, you have Western Michigan.

If you want to explore the outdoors, you have Duluth.

And seeing all of the unique traditions each opponent has to offer is enough to entertain in itself.

Each summer, numerous baseball fans travel around the country to see different ballparks. You don't see this as much with NFL, NHL and NBA fans, because their venues are all so similar.

MLB parks, however, are all so different and unique.

That's college hockey.

You can go from the brand new Baxter Arena in Omaha to the 106-year-old Matthews Arena on the campus of Northeastern. Matthews is the oldest multi-purpose athletic building still in use in the world.

You can go from the opulence of the $104-million Ralph Engelstad Arena to the historical venues of Princeton's Baker Rink and Michigan's Yost Ice Arena, which both opened in 1923, the same year Time Magazine began publishing.

You can go from the 17,000-seat Value City Arena at Ohio State to the 1,200-seat Island Sports Center at Robert Morris.

You can see the traditional arena setup of the Kohl Center or the bizarrely shaped Ingalls Arena on the campus of Yale.

You can go to raucous buildings like Lynah Rink at Cornell or places where you can sit on the glass like Lawson Arena in Anchorage.

Each place has a unique experience -- at the rink and away from it -- making college hockey the unique sport it is today.

The winter is approaching and the new season is about to begin.

From Burlington to Bemidji to Big Rapids to Bangor, enjoy.

This article was written by Brad Elliott Schlossman from Grand Forks Herald and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.