When Cornell and Boston University met in 2007 in the first stand-alone college hockey game at Madison Square Garden in 31 years, organizers hoped for a moderate success in what amounted to a nothing-to-lose experiment.
Six years later, the teams are expected to sell out the Garden next Saturday for the fourth time in a row in their every-other-year series of Thanksgiving weekend games. Cornell also sold out the arena against Michigan last November.
"It doesn't surprise us any more," said Joel Fisher, MSG's executive vice president for sports properties. "From that first event, we weren't sure how the fans would react, and obviously they reacted in a tremendous way."
While Cornell and BU alternate as the home team in the "Red Hot Hockey" series, Cornell fans have tended to be in the majority.
"They have proven to us they're rabid fans; they really enjoy their hockey and their hockey team," Fisher said. "I don't think all of us realized how many Cornell alumni are here in the city and in the metropolitan area."
Mike Eruzione, a BU alum and captain of the gold-medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympic team, has been at the previous three meetings and plans to be there again next week. He works at BU as director of special outreach. He said he was pleasantly surprised in 2007 when the initial game sold out. While Boston is a long-time college hockey hotbed, including its famous Beanpot Tournament, New York mostly has ignored the sport.
"I think it's great," Eruzione said. "I think it's a tribute to both schools and their fan and alumni bases. Really, it's a tribute to college hockey fans."
Even though many members of the 1980 team came from the college ranks, Eruzione said the level of college play now is much higher than it was then, as is the respect college players get when they graduate to the NHL.
"In my day, people didn't even give the college player a chance to play," he said. "Clearly, that has changed . . . The '80 team opened the eyes of a lot of people."
The Garden will expand its college hockey franchise beyond Cornell for the first time in nearly four decades when Harvard and Yale meet there Jan. 11.
"We believed years ago there was a void in college hockey in this area," Fisher said.
Still, the games at the Garden are unusual modern sports event creatures. Even though the Nov. 30 game will be sold out, it is not scheduled to be shown on live television, and it is unlikely to be covered by any New York-area newspaper.
Eruzione was introduced at Tuesday's Rangers-Bruins game at the Garden and got a spirited ovation in appreciation for his long-ago heroics in Lake Placid.
Speaking of which, who does he think will win in Sochi?
"That's a great question; we're clearly one of the favorites," he said. "A great thing about U.S. hockey is how far we've come. Now we go into a tournament as one of the favorites.
"I have to think Canada is a slight favorite as the defending champs. The Russians have incredible pressure on them to win in their own backyard. We have a shot just like everybody else. If the U.S. won a gold medal in Russia, that would be pretty cool."