NORTH ANDOVER — Merrimack College kicked off its women’s hockey program last night in style, drawing what’s believed to be a record crowd for Hockey East. The Warriors nearly sent the 1,781 fans home in a frenzy before St. Cloud State added a pair of 5-on-3 goals late in the third to take a 6-4 win at Lawler Rink.
It could be the highest-attended game in Hockey East history. Last season Vermont averaged 479 fans per game and that led the league; the championship game in Hyannis drew a little more than 1,000 fans. Going back through some box scores from previous seasons, the highest-attendance for a regular-season game (outside of the Beanpot) appears to be the 1,367 fans Vermont drew for a game against Union in 2013.
“It was very cool,” said Merrimack head coach Erin Hamlen. “Other than being in a Frozen Four or being in an NCAA Tournament game, I’m not sure I’ve ever been part of a game with a crowd like that in a game I’ve coached. It’s pretty amazing. I’m so thankful to the school and the administrators and everybody who got the crowd to come out to the game. Obviously it was a great event and it was special to be a part of it.”
The energy fed through to the Merrimack bench. Down 2-0 in the second period, the Warriors scored four straight goals — all on the power play — to take a 4-2 lead with 11:15 remaining in the game. Penalties proved costly late, however, as St. Cloud found the net on three power-play goals, including two 5-on-3 tallies, to retake the lead.
“The crowd was amazing,” said captain Jackie Pieper. “We hope they keep coming back and we tried to give them something to look forward to. Hopefully the girls out there, the girls in the Islanders (youth hockey) jerseys will look up to us and want to be like us one day. We want to be good role models for them.”
Merrimack and St. Cloud wrap up the inaugural weekend Saturday (2 p.m.).