By Jason Menard
The NHL not only managed to slip its head out of its self-imposed noose, but the league appears to have found a winning lottery ticket on the way down the ladder.
All the public hand-wringing and doomsday scenarios cooked up by the pundits have been put on ice, as the National Hockey League has rebounded nicely from its lockout to boast improved attendance numbers, a better product, and a future that’s so bright Gary Bettman’s gotta wear shades.
The league released its attendance figures, clocking in a 91.7 per cent capacity over the year, league-wide. Now, some may snicker at that number considering that some of those 20,854,169 reported attendees arrived dressed as empty seats. But regardless of how many fans walked through the turnstiles, a 2.4 per cent increase in tickets sold is nothing to sneeze at – especially in light of the potential damage the lockout could have caused.
Luckily for the NHL, common sense combined with serendipity to provide an exciting, dynamic year that gave the fans a reason to come back.
It’s not surprising that Montreal was able to set a team record for season attendance. They were able to sell out all 41 home games in the cavernous 21,273 Bell Centre. In fact, it’s no surprise that Canadian hockey fans were ready to come back in droves – the surprise was that there was no drop-off in U.S. fan support.
Realizing the precipice upon which they were perched, the league finally listened to its legion of constructive critics and implemented a host of rule and stylistic changes designed to speed up the game, let the skill players display their talents unimpeded by lumbering goons, and add goals to the game. Most importantly, they ensured that each game would end with a winner and a loser.
Part of the joy of being a hockey fan comes from experiencing the highs and lows of the season. However, it’s hard to ride that emotional rollercoaster when it’s stuck in neutral – and that’s what happened in the past as so many teams were playing not to lose and we more than content with a tie and the point it provided. The addition of the shootout, gimmicky as some may think it is, gets the butts out of the seats, brings back the breathless anticipation that hockey is known for, and gives fans back the opportunity to experience the depth of disappointment that accompanies a loss. However, that feeling also allows them enjoy the adrenaline rush that a win brings with even more passion.
That’s what common sense brought: the knowledge that hockey was a game with untapped potential that was being impeded through clutch-and-grab tactics. Desperation is the mother of invention and to reaffirm their place in the professional sporting mosaic, the NHL had to make changes.
The serendipity came with the fact that so many teams from non-traditional markets were in contention for playoffs right down to the wire. How much was fan interest buoyed in Atlanta thanks to the fact that the Ilya Kovalchuk-led Thrashers were in it right down to the final weekend? Did the Carolina Hurricanes’ success have anything to do with their 27 per cent increase in fan support? What about Nashville’s unexpected performance? Do you think that may have helped the team improve attendance by 10 per cent? Did Joe Thornton’s arrival and subsequent sparking of the San Jose Sharks playoff drive matter to the fans? A six per cent increase says yes.
Like the increase in fan support in Montreal, NHL markets are notorious for supporting their teams win or tie. The fact that so many non-traditional market teams were playing games that mattered only gave a bigger stage to display the changes that were made on the ice.
All the talk about fan revolt dissipated when we realized that it wasn’t just the NHL that was back – it was the NHL game of our youth that was resurrected. Just as Wayne Gretzky made his return to rinks behind the Phoenix Coyotes bench, the style of game that he enjoyed in his heyday was back in fashion.
While it’s hard to say that losing a season of one’s favourite sport is ever a worthwhile venture, the bitter pill fans were forced to swallow has gone down much easier with the sweet changes made to the current game. Now fans have to hope that the league has finally cured what ails it and commits to ensuring its long-term health.
Whether it was foresight, serendipity, plain dumb luck, or a combination of all three, the NHL has stumbled across a winning formula – and it’s the fans who are the biggest beneficiaries.
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