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Don Mahler: Time to Put Shrine Game in 21st Century

A fan gives encouragement during the annual Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl game at Memorial Field in Hanover, N.H., on August 2, 2014. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

A fan gives encouragement during the annual Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl game at Memorial Field in Hanover, N.H., on August 2, 2014. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

When it comes to the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl football game, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’m here to tell you, things gotta change.

After yet another New Hampshire blowout victory, the event finds itself in need of new ways to keep the game competitive, as well as profitable for the charity it so ably serves.

So the first thing we need to look at is picking the teams.

It has become apparent that the Shrine officials are not keen to the idea of changing the 62-year-old selection process. OK. Tradition lives here. So instead of breaking up the process, maybe look at making the process more selective.

Why not make the New Hampshire players choose: You either play in June’s CHaD All-Star game, or in August’s Shrine Game. Not both; only one. You decide!

So what happens? Maybe some of the top kids decide to play CHaD. Granted, the CHaD game doesn’t draw flies. Even played in southern New Hampshire with an all-New Hampshire roster, the crowds are thin, at best. But some of those kids targeting college programs may want to get in some free time before the heavy two-a-days later on. And college coaches would surely rather see their recruits off the field than taking chance on injury.

Fine. No hard feelings. You get to play in front of family and friends early in the summer and then get to relax.

While some studs may be eliminated from the New Hampshire roster, other deserving kids from smaller schools may get a shot they would not necessarily have had before. And, maybe with this alteration the Granite State squad is just a bit less imposing now than in years past. So maybe ... just maybe... Vermont can become more competitive and snap a 14-game losing streak. And what’s wrong with that?

I understand the Vermont coaches don’t want to change the process of choosing players because they want to be the ones to break New Hampshire’s streak — and they want to do it on an equal playing field.

OK. I understand the pride factor. But maybe this way achieves both objectives — the integrity of the selection process is maintained, while the opportunity to make the game more competitive is attained.

Win, win.

Another thing that may be time for a change is a time change. Let’s start the parade later in the afternoon, say 4 or 5 p.m. That will give the town time to breathe between the general Saturday summer shopping traffic and the excess of Shrine visitors later in the day. It will also give more out-of-town people the opportunity to show up for the later start.

Plus, you can then hold a true night game — like when it’s dark, fellas — starting around 7 p.m. You’ve got a good thing going here, guys. Don’t be afraid to try something new. I realize that change is an alien concept when it comes to the Shrine Game, but you guys in the red fez got to realize the game needs a little kick in the pants. The old school attitude is just plain getting old.

Crowds are smaller, donations have dropped and now there’s a competing game looking to draw off some of the publicity. You can’t turn your back on the competition. You gotta fight back with innovation and imagination.

Next year may be a pivotal one. Forces out of the Shriners’ control will be in play — the game will be forced from Dartmouth’s Memorial Field because the college will be renovating the aging and crumbling West stands. That means the game will be looking — for only one year — to find an alternative home.

I really thought there was some wiggle room to be found in Dartmouth’s construction schedule. I thought with a crowd of maybe 4,000 spectators, the stadium could house the entire fan base on the opposite side of the field — in the East stands — and keep everyone out of the construction site.

But despite Dartmouth’s desire to continue to host the game, next year is not an option. The renovations will begin on Nov. 17 and are expected to be completed in time for preseason practice in August. In talking with Dartmouth Deputy Director of Athletics Bob Ceplikas, it became apparent that the window of work opportunity for the project is so tight that any interruption might impair the completion and impact the Big Green season.

According to Ceplikas, the college will welcome the Shrine Game back with open arms for the 2016 game, with the same financial incentives that have been in place during the past three-year contract.

But that is still a year away. So where does that leave the Shrine Game? On the road, again, looking for suitable accommodations. Which means another college site.

But you’ve got to be careful. Sending the game to Castleton State will for sure lose the New Hampshire following, and shunting the game off to Plymouth State will do the same to Vermont fans — who, by the way, are the most loyal followers despite the losing streak.

To me, that leaves either St. Anselm or Norwich — each maybe an hour extra driving. But what else can you do? Just hold costs to a minimum and promote the game to the maximum. That’s the key. Regardless of where the game is played, play up the honor, tradition and value of the Shrine Game.

Continue using players and alums as fundraisers. Start making use of social media — 21st century stuff, fellas. Get donation pages started in the names of players or sponsors. Anything is possible if you think outside the lines.

Send Shriners and former players around the twin states to promote the game. Bring jerseys and footballs, tickets and videos. Don’t wait till next year, do it as soon as the next site is determined. Be aggressive. Hit shopping malls, high school football games, radio and TV stations. Make news. Then, when the rosters for 2015 are named, add those guys to the mix.

Celebrate the game. Own the game. Bring the game to the people, don’t wait for the people to come to the game.

Of the 30 Shrine games played each year, the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl Game ranks third in money raised, more than $4.5 million. The game does great things for kids in need.

Now it’s the game that needs the help.

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.