NHL: Hey, Canada’s a hockey hotbed

It’s taken the better part of 20 years, but the National Hockey League has apparently woken up to the fact that, yes, hockey is more popular in Canada than the United States.

Witness the return of the Jets to Winnipeg. The Jets, who had been the Atlanta Thrasher until they relocated to Manitoba for this season, sold out 100 percent of their seats during the club’s 41 homes games.

Not bad, considering that five years ago the idea of Winnipeg, which lost its original franchise in 1996 when its team relocated to Phoenix, getting back into the NHL was scoffed at by just about everyone but the local hooch hound in Portage la Prairie.

In addition, five of the league’s seven Canadian franchises ranked among the top eight in the 30-team league in average attendance during this past season, according to information provided by ESPN.

The Montreal Canadiens came in at No. 2 with an average of 21,273 fans per home game; Toronto Maple Leafs, fifth at 19,506; Ottawa Senators, sixth at 19,356; Calgary Flames, seventh at 19289; and Vancouver Canucks, eighth at 18,884.

All five had attendance of 100 percent or better at their home games.

The Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg, which play in smaller arenas, finished 19th and 25th overall in terms of average attendance, but both also played before 100 percent capacity at home games.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Coyotes, New York Islanders and Dallas Stars, all operating in sizeable US markets, ranked at the bottom in attendance and none had a home capacity of more than 81 percent during the 2011-12 season.

All of which should serve as a nice, though long overdue, wakeup call to the NHL, which beginning in the early 1990s embarked on a US expansion plan that while ambitious, left many hockey fans scratching their heads.

What had been a relatively stable 21-league franchise suddenly expanded, moving into San Jose, Anaheim, Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa, South Florida, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Columbus, Ohio.

In addition, franchises in hockey-friendly cities were moved: the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado, the Hartford Whalers to Raleigh, N.C., the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, and Winnipeg to Phoenix.

Fifteen years ago, the move south by Canadian franchises was at least partially driven by the weak Canadian dollar, then going for about 70 percent of its American counterpart. It later dropped even lower.

But with Canada’s economy now in better shape than America’s, a few teams may be considering a move in the other direction, according to The Economist.

There had been hope in Quebec that the financially beleaguered Coyotes would be persuaded to relocate to Quebec City.

Quebecor, the province’s largest media company, has said it will support the construction of a $400 million arena, according to the magazine.

Quebecers have long been angling to land another NHL club since the departure of the Nordiques to become the Colorado Avalanche in 1995.

The league, though, apparently still doesn’t want to face the reality that while hockey is Canada’s sport, Americans, especially those in warmer climes, will always have a plethora of entertainment options to choose from, making the game and its expensive seats a tough sell.

“… Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, wants to keep the team in Phoenix and may finally have found a buyer pledging to do so for another ten years,” according to The Economist. “Although the NHL has denied those rumors, its resistance to a move north of the border would not come as a surprise.

“Ultimately, the NHL may still believe that Phoenix is potentially a more profitable market than smaller Canadian cities,” it added. “Mr. Bettman was also the main force behind the strategy to relocate to America in the first place. He may think a retreat is tantamount to an embarrassing admission of a mistake.”

(Above: Goalie Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets in action earlier this year. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Jets.) 

2 thoughts on “NHL: Hey, Canada’s a hockey hotbed

  1. It’s too bad that hockey isn’t more popular in the U.S. — the run that the LA Kings are having is simply incredible.

    • Agree on both counts. It would be nice to see the Kings finally with the Cup. It’s been 45 years since they joined the league and the ’93 loss still stings. I still remember the shift in momentum that occurred after Marty McSorley was called for having an illegal stick.

      Thanks for the comment.

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