The Collegian

Can’t live with or without the college hockey pep band

College hockey pep bands: Why we can’t live with or without them
At Hobey Baker Memorial Rink, one of college hockey's oldest venues, the Princeton pep band upholds its own time-honored status. However, it would be nice if they and their counterparts made a little more room for the present. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

In terms of the game-day experience, college hockey pep bands all but singlehandedly separate their level of the sport from the rest. They make that separation for the better and the worse in copious quantities.

They punctuate the personal aspect of intercollegiate athletics that student and alumni rooters dearly clutch. They flaunt a flair and spawn a spirit that no entity can duplicate in the professional or junior ranks. Everything is right with that, as long as it stays within good-natured boundaries, though that is not always the case.

The college hockey pep band’s ties to a school give it a lasting relevance that a pro hockey organ lacks. Unfortunately, that also means it has a longer-lasting license to compete with canned music for arena air time.

There is plenty of space for both means of music, but some student-percussionists have a way of overstepping this boundary as well. In some smaller arenas, the most egregious example comes when their tune-up runs interfere with the pregame playlist the PA system emanates during the athletes’ warmup session.

The natural exceptions are the facilities that go without any tunes through the PA system, which is a sheer travesty in this age. Since at least the early ’90s, pulsating hits have been a staple to build up and sustain energy at every high-profile level of hockey. And not unlike their professional, junior and even some scholastic peers, collegiate athletes whose programs use canned music tend to select their own queue for the warmup period.

Performers and spectators alike should have real-deal rock set off their adrenaline for that phase of the evening. And the DJ, where applicable, should get a genuine share of shifts throughout the ensuing contest.

It is just that integral an element of the modern hockey game experience.

With that said, the pep band has its place for stoking the flames of fanfare once they are ignited. It fills a role at the college level that pesky players have in the pros, namely that of someone you love to have on your side but hate when they wear your rival’s garb.

At most schools, one needs to have attended classes or attended every game for a year to grow to recognize the fight song. At a few others, one becomes involuntarily familiar with it through the band’s excessive play. Boston College and Michigan, in particular, would have you believe they are gunning for a Guinness World Record for the most renditions at a single game.

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The Michigan Tech pep band sports the school colors and emblems in an emphatic fashion. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

Unless you are an alum or a lifelong bandwagon rider, that part of the experience is far from thrilling. But overkill or not, who better than a group of musically inclined students to play the school’s signature upbeat tune at the right moments (goals, post-victory buzzers, etc.)?

For that reason alone, college hockey pep bands lend their game an indispensable dollop of uniqueness. So much so that it makes up for their often annoyingly slowed-down and watered-down cover versions of timeless arena rock hits. (There are exceptions to that rule in that the band occasionally improves upon the original. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get” comes to mind. Ditto the Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride.”)

Plenty of places find additional exclusive assets for their bands, thus carving a niche for them. This author, for one, witnessed a time-honored cowbell dance at Providence College.

As more campus venues — even the smaller ones — begin to emulate their pro counterparts via video boards and other modern amenities, the pep band’s place has another clear opening. There was a time when, in most arenas, the intermission was another critical time for the sound crew to fill an awkward silence. But now that screens are commonplace across the hockey landscape, fans are subjected to a slew of TV commercials in those interludes.

In due deference to the sponsors, one can still get a glimpse of those ads and their basic message while unrelated music plays over the spokesperson’s voice. Naturally, no DJ is going to make that happen at a pro game, but nothing is stopping the college band in that instance any more than the DJ working during warmups will.

Except, in this instance, it is a welcome distraction, or at least a less bothersome one.

At neutral-site contests, intermissions are also an opportune moment for contesting bands to spearhead an attempt to one-up the opposing faithful’s energy. Regardless of who carries the momentum into the dressing room, fan bases can mark the fresh sheet with a fresh batch of zest to feed off of.

Once again, no one in a college hockey context is better equipped to percolate that than a squad of students clad in their school’s colors and armed with instruments. Their sounds may not always match, let alone exceed, the product of a DJ and loudspeakers. But their visible presence is a vital booster.

If it takes their occasional overuse and the regular bastardization of beloved arena rock hits to sustain that presence, one ought to accept that tradeoff.

Al Daniel

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