I like numbers. Not as much as the typical baseball fan, but I like them nonetheless. So here's a nice list of them. My plan is to stare at them for a while, come up with a list of observations, and then make up some irrational impressions about what they mean.
Team Avg. Attend. %Cap
1.Montreal 21273 100
2.Ottawa 19631 106.1
3.Philadelphia 19489 99.9
4.Toronto 19426 103.3
5.Calgary 19289 112.4
6.Tampa Bay 18735 94.8
7.Buffalo 18642 99.7
8.Vancouver 18630 101.1
9.Minnesota 18568 102.8
10.Detroit 18346 91.4
11.NY Rangers 18200 100
12.Dallas 17691 95.5
13.St. Louis 17440 83.1
14.San Jose 17393 99.4
15.Anaheim 17185 105.3
16.Pittsburgh 17067 100.6
17.Edmonton 16839 98.5
18.Colorado 16567 92
19.Carolina 16256 86.8
20.Los Angeles 16212 92
21.New Jersey 15466 87.8
22.Atlanta 15449 83.3
23.Boston 14537 78.1
24.Florida 14425 74.9
25.Nashville 14374 84
26.Chicago 14244 69.5
27.Phoenix 13875 79.3
28.Columbus 13827 76.2
29.NY Islanders 13558 83.2
30.Washington 13452 72
Let's make one thing clear before we go any further: attendance figures are not always the best indicator of the size or overall interest of the fanbase, especially toward the top of the list. Teams play in different arenas, with different capacities. For example, the Rangers may be 11th in overall attendance, but I'm willing to bet that if Madison Square Garden could boast the capacity of the Joe Louis Arena or the United Center, it would still sell out and put them #2 behind Montreal.
So with that firmly in mind, I'll go on and try to draw a few conclusions.
1: No one (well, almost no one) is invincible. Two original six teams (Boston, Chicago) are in the bottom ten in overall attendance and bottom five in percent capacity. Another one (Detroit) can't seem to sell out despite sustained success. Some teams always seem to near the top of the attendance heap no matter what (Philadelphia, Rangers, Minny, Canadian teams), but they're not guaranteed sellouts forever -- in 2001, Montreal played to 94.5% (15th), Vancouver to 92.4 (16th), and Edmonton to 91.3 (17th). In 2002 Calgary played to 91.6 and Ottawa 91.5 (17th and 18th, respectively). Certainly, if it can happen in these cities, it can happen anywhere if the combination of economic and competitive circumstances become horrendous enough, though the cap and the relatively equal value of American and Canadian currency have made those scenarios more difficult for a team to achieve.
1a: Detroit. I've been a fan since the mid-90s, so the issue of sagging attendance at Red Wings games has been particularly bothersome for me. I don't think there's a simple answer. The economy is one part; but that doesn't explain why the Tigers still had record-setting attendance figures last season, and why the Pistons still sell out, despite playing in an arena with more expensive tickets, greater seating capacity and a location in Auburn Hills. Greater competition is a better answer -- Once the class of the city all by itself, the Red Wings (last finals appearance: 2002) are getting pushed by the Tigers (finals appearance: 2006) and Pistons (2005 finals, 2004 champions, five straight ECF appearances). Losing Yzerman hasn't been good either -- Yzerman was, and probably remains, the most respected and beloved sports figure in Detroit. I think there were many who were fans of the Wings mainly because Yzerman played there. Finally, I wonder if they've been victims of their own success. In 2002, they won the Stanley Cup by piecing together, arguably, the most star-studded, hall-of-fame-bound team ever constructed. Top 8 scorers that season? Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Nicklas Lidstrom, Luc Robitaille, Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov and Chris Chelios. A rookie Pavel Datsyuk was ninth. Lidstrom and Chelios went 1-2 in Norris voting. Dominik Hasek was in net. The Red Wings still have great players in the fold -- Lidstrom, Datsyuk, and Zetterberg being three of the best in the NHL right now -- but now they're getting secondary help from guys like Valterri Filppula, Dan Cleary and Mikael Samuelsson. Perhaps even success isn't good enough for a fanbase accustomed not only to success, but to star power.
Whatever the reason, one thing is true: with all the success that the Red Wings are having this year, with the exciting and captivating way they play the game, and with the kind of history and prestige that wearing the winged wheel entails, there is no excuse. The Joe Louis Arena should be filled to the brim, every game.
1b. The New York City area is still not really equipped to fully support three teams. While all three metro area teams (Rangers, Islanders, Devils) can boast Stanley Cups and passionate fans, the fact that the Islanders and Devils will seemingly always be a little underappreciated due to Rangers-mania is unfortunate.
2: The idea that hockey can't succeed in the American south is inaccurate. True, "traditional" franchises tend to float toward the top and newer, more southern teams tend to be lower on the attendance totem pole. How can one argue that hockey could never succeed in Miami, Florida (Panthers founded 1993), when their neighbors in Tampa (1992) boast the sixth-best overall attendance in the NHL and put more people in the St. Pete Times Forum than Detroit does in the Joe, despite a lesser overall capacity? Anaheim (1993) is filling the Pond, as is division rival San Jose (1991), and in a respectable 12th place in attendance, Dallas (1993) is showing that hockey can not just survive but thrive in Texas, to the chagrin of bitter North Stars fans everywhere. These accomplishments are put in even greater perspective when compared with the struggles of Boston and Chicago.
True, most of those Southern teams (all I mentioned, in fact, besides San Jose) have won a Stanley Cup in the relatively recent past (if you consider 1999 relatively recent, which I do). And you may argue that, as soon as the memories of the victory fade, and the teams fall back to sustained mediocrity, those teams will struggle attendance-wise. That may be true. But, as any passionate fans in those cities would also have you know, it won't be like starting over. Success has built fan bases in nontraditional markets, it has increased by a huge factor participation in youth hockey programs, it has brought parents and their children to the game. For a select few franchises in the American South, hockey has really gained a foothold and will only grow as the teams there begin to get older and their histories more rich. Dallas, Tampa and others have proven that hockey in the South can work.
But, those franchises and others had to start from scratch. The NHL was putting teams into cities and states which had few followers of the game and fewer actually playing the game and growing up with it. You don't build those places into hockey hotbeds overnight -- teams had to work hard to convert fans, to build youth programs, etc. And of course, winning a championship or two goes a long way. Many Southern and "nontraditional" teams are still supported to a great extent by fans who didn't turn to hockey until they were already adults, and it'll take time yet for those teams to get most of their support from fans who grew up with the game and were hooked as kids. Some of those teams, we've seen, have really started to turn the corner. Others, particulary younger ones (Nashville, Columbus, Atlanta) and ones that haven't been run very well (Columbus and Atlanta again; Florida) still have work to do.
In my own opinion, the problem is not that nontraditional markets can't work, but that the NHL decided to start too many of them at once. When half the teams in the league are either dealing with fanbases put off by losing, or still trying to build fanbases where, ten or fifteen years ago, none existed, there will be problems. And that, in turn, is going to make the league look like a weak sister and make it the brunt of ignorant jokes by talking heads at ESPN. And it doesn't help that tooo many hockey snobs in the traditional markets haven't shown the kind of patience that the newer teams need, and haven't always been more than welcoming to new fans who love the game but haven't yet assimilated its history and culture.
Nonetheless, I can also understand the frustration for many fans in Canada. Despite some pockets of snobbery, I do believe the majority of hockey fans, in both Canada and the United States, want hockey to succeed and be popular throughout the United States. But, when so many teams are still building their fanbases, and when rumored expansions are to locales like Kansas City and Las Vegas, it can be frustrating for a fan in Hamilton, where an NHL team would no doubt thrive, and thrive instantly.
I don't think anybody should have to lose their team. And I don't think that any of the cities where the NHL is being played are hopeless and should be abandoned. With success, good management, a commitment to converting and developing young fans and young players, and time, you could put a franchise in Mexico City and it could work.
But, the league needs to realize that overexpansion over too short a timetable into these new markets has resulted in both financial and public relations difficulties that will take a long time to be resolved.
In order to grow the game, the NHL needs to put franchises in new places. Expansion into new territory and building new fanbases is a fundamentally good idea. But if hockey is to expand again, I think that in order to ensure the health of the league as a whole, the NHL needs to make sure that there are enough teams playing in cities where the fanbase is already built in. That means a few more teams in Canada instead of Kansas City or Las Vegas. And while I would never, ever, ever advocate the relocation of a franchise, if it has to move, make sure it goes somewhere where it will be appreciated right away.
I still hope that, with time, the majority of "nontraditional" markets ease into a situation where they are more traditional and more supported. Given the evidence, I do believe that this is still achieveable.