Knuckleheads rally up for hockey opener

FAN+FRENZY%E2%80%94The+Men%E2%80%99s+Hockey+team+opens+Berry+Events+Center+with+large%2C+rowdy+fanbase+known+as+the+Knuckleheads.+Photo+courtesy+of+NMU+Athletics

FAN FRENZY—The Men’s Hockey team opens Berry Events Center with large, rowdy fanbase known as the Knuckleheads. Photo courtesy of NMU Athletics

Jake Bekemeyer

The Berry Events Center has been a notoriously intimidating place for visiting teams to play. For two periods, the student section faces the visiting goalie. Screaming, chanting and otherwise going crazy creates an atmosphere that rattles opponents and boosts the home team.

In 1996, the Puckheads, a group of rabid travelling English formed. Despite being a small group within the student section, they brought enough energy for everyone.

The group’s activity died down in the 2000s, and sophomore speech, language and hearing sciences major Olivia Cvengros is excited to start it back up.  The Knuckleheads are similar to the Puckheads of days past, only now they’re a subsection of the entire student section which has been labeled The Wild. 

Cvengros wasn’t involved with the team last year, but when a player friend of hers reached out for help with this, she found herself getting more excited for the season to start.

“Getting to know the players really encouraged me [to get involved] because it showed how much they care about us as students,” Cvengros said. “There shouldn’t be a disconnect, we’re all one big student body.”         

The Wild is  united by free student t-shirts. Sub-groups are not only welcome, but encouraged. This year, the Knuckleheads will wear special hard-hats that they decorated and painted with the players.

“Anything within the larger group that gets people to the game is great,” NMU Hockey Head Coach Grant Potulny said.

Potulny and others in the athletic department were tasked with finding ways to improve fan experience. After some discussion, student engagement was identified as an area for improvement. That responsibility fell on the shoulders of the team and the coaching staff.

“We’ve had great support, we’ve had a great student section. What we’re really trying to do is reward them a little for the support they’ve given us,” Potulny said.

The importance of a large, loud crowd to a home team in any sport cannot be overstated. Teams practice hard all week building up to the game, and stepping out to a big crowd going wild can give a big boost, Potulny said. 

“We really want to build on what has made the Berry Event Center a very tough place for visiting teams to play,” Potulny said. 

The student section is especially important to players. Seeing their peers in the crowd supporting them makes them want to perform even better, Potulny said.

He noted the hockey team has been attending football and volleyball games as a group to show support for their fellow student athletes. They plan to continue to support their winter-sport peers when their seasons begin.

The players have also been developing relationships with the media covering the games as well. Potulny said this happened organically, but it has been an invaluable element to building a strong community.

“Those guys have been building those relationships all summer,” Potulny said. “It’s part of how we make it one big team.”

Sophomore nursing major Hana Wilcox spearheaded the revitalization of the Knuckleheads along with the hockey team and Cvengros. Although the Knuckleheads aren’t an official organization, there are still perks for participating, Wilcox said.

Fan busses to Michigan Tech is the biggest perk. The importance of having a big home crowd is clear, but having students travel to see an away game reassures the players as well. A new feature this year is the ability for students to choose their seats online before the game. Online seat selection will open for students the Sunday after a game and close after Tuesday.

With a 46-31-5 record since 2017, the hockey team has been one of the most successful athletic teams on campus. Wilcox thinks the team may do even better if the student section is full and going crazy.