It Takes a Village To Make a Hockey Team Work

After I tweeted the attendance for the Devils game last night, I got an onslaught of tweets basically laughing at the Devils, almost in a ‘kick us while we’re down’ kind of fashion.  Of course, I was offended.  No hockey fan should stoop that low…thus the reason for this post.  I need to explain why I think that in the next 1900 words.

But before I do that, I did some research into what the real facts are behind attendance numbers…in other words, the reality of the NHL situation overall.

There are only 4 teams in the entire league that can boast 100%+ sellouts at home and on the road.  They are the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

While most teams do better on the road, only one team really stood out as a struggling franchise.  It was the Dallas Stars.  Their overall attendance (both on the road and at home) was 78.4%.  At home, they were the second worst team in the league with only 70.8% attendance.  The only other team that had a tough time selling tickets at home that were worse off than Dallas was…you guessed it, the Phoenix Coyotes with 67.7%. 

Who comes in right after Dallas in better than the worst?  The New York Islanders with only 78.3%.

As for the Devils, they’re 24th in the league in attendance with 85.8%.  But before you start laughing…only 16 teams in the league can boast regular sellouts.  That means that 14 teams can’t sellout their games on a regular basis.

Also of interest, the teams that get hit the hardest with low attendance numbers that aren’t from the Southwest, usually come from another dynamic.  For cities boasting more than one NHL franchise, one team rakes it in, while the other team(s) boast some of the lowest attendance percentages in the entire league.  That would include the Anaheim Ducks, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders.  The New York Rangers and the LA Kings are at 99.9% capacity (rounding up it would be 100%).  The Anaheim Ducks are 24th in the league in attendance, followed by the Devils (25th) and the Islanders (28th).

Do you see the patterns here?  Hockey attendance suffers for teams in the southwest states and in cities boasting more than one club.  One team gets all the fans, while the other team(s) have to fight for the scraps.

There is also another issue I want to point out which is why I started this post.  It’s about community.  Many hockey writers leave their fan card at the entrance door the second they take the job to be a hockey writer.  Being a fan of hockey is more important than being a fan of a team.  Why?  Because you’ll see the importance of hockey and everything that goes into it from a different light. 

When hockey clubs are forced to leave their market and fan base, people always say, “Oh, how sad!”  “What a shame.”  “It’s a bad day for hockey.” 

But those things could be prevented. 

You’ll often find that there are ownership issues with struggling clubs…or even issues with the cities they’re in.  Fan bases that do well, like Chicago, Boston and Buffalo, have a lot to do with how much their community backs up their hockey club.  When there are issues abounding locally with the city governments…the club, itself, suffers.  News reports on these issues hit the papers and next thing you know, the fans start to taper off. 

Newark and Uniondale are prime examples of cities not working well with their hockey clubs.  Uniondale’s issues are much greater than Newark’s.  Newark just has issues with the money factor, because the city itself is broke. 

The odd thing is that these cities need those hockey clubs in order to grow.  Glendale needs the success of the Coyotes in order to build up their community.  Newark needs the Devils in order to clean up the city and give it a second chance at becoming a greater city.  They need these teams in order for their cities to grow.

But teams can’t grow if the community is not behind them. 

Before I started writing about hockey, I went to a lot of Devils games.  I didn’t go because I was a Devils fan.  I went because they were cheaper than Madison Square Garden.  I could sit down by the ice and watch the Penguins or the Rangers when they played in the Devils’ arena.  I could watch Ryan Miller or the Chicago Blackhawks.  It was cheaper for me to see the other teams in the NHL at Continental or Prudential.  Madison Square Garden was $200+ for each pop. 

I wasn’t there to see the Devils play.  I was there to see two hockey teams play.  I rarely cheer unless Jaromir Jagr scores a goal.  All other times, I was studying the game as if it were a science. 

I got to watch superstars from all over the NHL make their way into Devils’ territory and I paid little money to watch them.  Sometimes I headed up to the $10 seats, just because I wanted to see a hockey game, and not study it. 

$10 seats at MSG?  I don’t think so.  But they did give me free tickets to lacrosse games thanks to the thousands of dollars I put into their hands every season both on and off game time (aka Rangers’ charities).

I never saw the Devils win a Cup.  I never saw the Rangers win a Cup.  That was all before my time in hockey.  What I did see were legends.  I saw incredible moments that still make my mouth drop in awe.  It was about the love of the game.

These days, I travel all over the world to watch hockey.  Watching young guys that couldn’t make it into the NHL and ended up playing overseas are my favorite.  They actually have fun doing what they’re doing.  Even the guys in the AHL are fun to watch.  I remember watching the way that Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan used to dominate the ice in the AHL.  They weren’t playing in hopes that someone would notice them…they were playing just for the fun and love of the game.

There are fans that I’ve met at these games that come from all over.  They can’t afford the NHL ticket prices or they can’t make it all the way to the nearest NHL city to watch a game, so they go to the local teams and the minor league games.  These fans are passionate about their local teams…and the game of hockey.  After all, this is where hockey is born.  These places are the grassroots of hockey.

Hockey is very much a part of the community in these places.  Where you see a hockey team, that’s a team that’s become embedded within that community.  It’s not just a city that’s invested in a hockey team, it’s a hockey team that has become a part of a greater community as a whole.  When one leg of that community fails, everyone fails.

This isn’t just about hockey.  It’s about investing in the community where you live.  It’s about helping hockey teams grow that will help turn a bleak city into a prosperous one.  It’s about giving the kids around you an opportunity to dream big.  It’s about making the dream of an entire village come to fruition.  Just as much as a hockey team needs to win to make the Stanley Cup playoffs, so too does their win effect the community around them.  Winning = a booming and prosperous community.  Local businesses prosper.  The city prospers.  The fans prosper.

Some of my greatest moments in hockey have always involved the markets off the beaten path.  When the Rangers and Panthers headed to Puerto Rico, so did I.  The defining moment wasn’t the game itself…it was watching the birth of the new, young hockey fans sitting in front of me.  Watching these kids see their first hockey game for the first time in their life was an experience you never forget.  You see it in their eyes…  You see the exact moment when they’ve fallen in love with hockey.

In Puerto Rico, everyone cheered for both teams.  They didn’t pick a team to be a fan of for the night.  They were there just for the game of hockey.  This was the community of San Juan going to a hockey game because they had never seen a game before in their entire life.

It wasn’t about how the arena wasn’t sold out or how many empty seats were all around.  It was about growing hockey in the minds, hearts and souls of a new demographic.  Those are the moments you remember.

Fans, we’re in this for the hockey.  We are fans because we love hockey.  Fan loyalties can sway one way or another.  Some club you hate may acquire a player you love (take for instance my love affair with the Philadelphia Flyers this season…I vomited when I heard Jagr signed there).  Next thing you know, you know more about that team you hate than you do your own home team. 

You may visit an arena where you meet a whole new fan base that’s so great, you can’t help but become fond of that team.  The San Jose Sharks, Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes will always hold a soft spot in my heart because of the experiences I’ve had with their fans at their home arena. 

This is about the love of the game.  It’s about growing hockey.  It’s about investing in this sport every which way that you can.  When one club fails, we, as hockey fans could have helped.  We could have supported the team when they were down.  We could have bought tickets and took the kids. 

Even in the NY area markets, people complain so much about spending money for MSG prices, but still…it sells out.  You could have gone to Prudential Center or Nassau Coliseum and snatched up a much cheaper ticket.  The Rangers visit both arenas three times a piece…that’s six games you could head to that is still a fraction of the price for one ticket at MSG.  At these prices, you could probably afford to bring the whole family.

Personally, I’m a little excited for next hockey season.  While I’m still in America at the start of the season (barring a lockout), I’ll be able to sit downstairs and be a fan again…just a few more times before European hockey gets me.  For me, I don’t care who’s in front of me, but I know I’ll be investing in my community teams.  Why?  Because I believe in investing in the people that make my community thrive.  It takes a village…do your part.

Instead of complaining about how a club is failing, help them succeed.  Each time a club fails, the entire hockey community is effected.  There’s no better way to explain it beyond the memory of what happened in the KHL with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv.  It wasn’t the KHL that lost a hockey club.  It was the entire hockey community that lost a hockey club.  We were all effected by the loss. 

Moving forward, instead of bitching all of the time about how a team can’t sell its arena out…ask yourself why you didn’t do your part, as part of the greater hockey community, to help them sell out their arena.  Ask what you could do differently going forward to help the entire hockey community grow.  We can’t all go to three different hockey games in one night here in NYC, but you can still support the other teams. 

That’s why when I’m covering one game, you may see me tweet about another game.  Why?  Because I’m always watching more than one game at any given time.  And I always have one eye on that Flyers game, a team I hate, just to see if Jagr scored. 

{Attendance statistics SOURCE: ESPN}

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