Saturday, December 30, 2006

Explain to us again, why the NHL can’t return to Canada?

A few weeks ago I put forward my frequently espoused theory that the NHL could do a lot worse than to put a few more franchises back into Canada. For my efforts I received a few letters and comments suggesting that Canadians whine too much about getting back into the game so to speak.

So it was with interest that part of my Christmas and New Years reading pile included a thoughtful piece on the same topic by Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. Campbell did the number crunching that I never bothered with, (my approach was purely emotional I’m afraid) and with his numbers the option of returning above the 49th makes even more sense.

He took a snapshot of one day in November which saw a number of American teams play in front of what can only be called embarrassing numbers. Crowds dropping below 11,000 per game, maybe even less when you don’t count the papered houses.

Campbell has provided a scratch sheet of sorts, similar to the attendance tracking I did as kid as I watched the NHL and WHA stumble their way through season after season of declining and embarrassing attendance returns. He paints a picture of a league very much in denial and soon to be very much in trouble.

In what apparently is a common practice in many of the NHL’s trouble spots, the concept of buy one, get one free is much more than a marketing slogan it’s actually how they finance the team. Something that just has to be a little troubling if you’re still only getting 10,000 a game.

When you look at the waiting lists for tickets in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto (only Ottawa seems content to be a walk up city) you quickly realize that the NHL is a tale of two leagues, one a passionate relationship between fans and team, the other an indifferent glance by a less than interested bystander.

The excuses are many why the NHL can’t succeed in the likes of Winnipeg, Hamilton or Quebec City, but one has to wonder how things could be any worse than the current problems of the southern outposts and the formerly showcase cities of Chicago, Long Island and St. Louis.

15,000 in Winnipeg or Le Ville du Quebec surely must trump 1,500 on a November night in St. Louis, no matter what accounting guidelines you might be using.

Read the Campbell article below, it’s an eye opener and should provide a fair amount of ammunition for those that believe the NHL needs Canada a hell of a lot more than Canada needs the NHL!

Half-empty arenas in the U. S. are growing, so why not move more teams to Canada?
Ken Campbell—In the Slot
The Hockey News
December 19, 2006
Page 14

Gary Bettman and his feel-good administration would undoubtedly dismiss it as nothing more than a “snapshot”. When it comes to his league’s growing – or is that shrinking- attendance problems. Bettman hates it when people throw snapshots in his face.

The night of November 30, was an ominous indicator for a league that is consistently being saved by its chartered members from Canada.

That night, the NHL had a slate of 10 games on the schedule. Those 10 games drew a total of 130,126 fans for an average of just 13,013 per game. All told, NHL arenas that night played to an average of 72 per cent of capacity. Think about it. Ten games and on average they played before houses that were less than three-quarters full.

It gets worse. Much worse. Subtract the games played in Canada that night and you end up with a total of 77,473 fans for an average of just 11,068 per game. In the United States of American that night, buildings averaged just 61.4 per cent of capacity.

That included a traditional market in Boston where just 11,150 came out to watch a surging Bruins team play and equally surging Tampa Bay Lightning squad. That included the home of the Stanley Cup champs, where an “announced” crowd of just 13,103, the smallest of the season, came out to see the Carolina Hurricanes host Montreal. It included a game in Long Island, where a minor league baseball-type promotion exists in which each adult who pays for a ticket gets to take a chilled into the game for free and an “announced” crowd of just 10,280 showed up.

We put the word announced in quotation marks because in some markets with attendance troubles, attendance is measured by the number of tickets that go out of the building, not necessarily by the number of people who come in. So, if the team gives out 2,000 free tickets, those people are counted among the crowd whether they attend or not. That way they can dupe corporate sponsors into thinking people actually go to their games.

But the news was worst in St. Louis, where icy weather resulted in an announced crowd of 5,410 – observers said there were no more than 1,500 actually in attendance 0- to watch the Blues lose to the Nashville Predators. The next night, 25 games in the Canadian Hockey League and 11 in the American league attracted more people.

It marked the eighth time this season the Blues have played in front of fewer than 10,000 people. Last season it happened just three times league wide.


There’s always an excuse in St. Louis this season. First, it was because the Cardinals were in the playoffs. The night of Nov 30, it was icy outside. The team stinks. But if the fan base was actually passionate about the Blues, they would put up with a losing team for a couple of years, more than 1,500 people would battle icy weather and the real hockey fans would have taped the baseball games and watched them when they got home.

All of it has to make new owner Dave Checketts wonder whether it’s worth keeping his team in St. Louis. Meanwhile, new Pittsburgh Penguins owner Jim Balsillie will definitely move the Penguins if Pennsylvania’s gaming commission doesn’t choose a casino proposal that would include a new arena for his team.

How about this? Balsillie and others move their teams to places where people actually like hockey. The Winnipeg Jets left 10 years ago in the hopes hockey would catch on in the desert and, as cold as it can get there at night, people are still basically ignoring the Coyotes and their famous coach.

The Lightning has caught on in Tampa Bay, but south Florida is a hockey wasteland. Carolina? Give me a break. Sellouts in seven of 13 games for the Hurricanes the year after winning the Cup?

The American Dream is dead when it comes to the NHL. But there are two strong markets in southern Ontario and Winnipeg – and possibly a third in Quebec City if they build a new rink – that would embrace the NHL and make things better for both the owners and the players in the process.

The appetite for hockey is insatiable in southern Ontario and that’s why Balsillie could move his team to the Kitchener-Waterloo area if things collapse with the Penguins. There are enough corporate dollars to go around and the area has a far larger fan base than any of Las Vegas, Portland, Oklahoma or Houston do.

And with cost certainty now a part of life in the NHL, there’s no reason why a properly-run Winnipeg franchise couldn’t become the Green Bay Packers of the NHL .

Players and owners would both benefit. With two or three more healthy franchises replacing the moribund, that’s fewer teams with whom to share revenues. And with the players’ take tied directly into revenues; they would have more money to themselves as well.

With the exception of Ottawa, every seat in every Canadian rink has been legitimately sold the past two seasons. People in Canada are spending money on hockey. It’s time the NHL gave them more. THN

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