The Buzz is Back
It was back at the all-star break when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told questioners at a press conference that the playoffs would be the first indication of whether the league was going to take a big hit as the North American economy swooned.
The idea was that while season tickets sold last summer hadn't been affected by economic conditions, the spring would provide an indicator of the appetite out there for NHL hockey in the new financial environment.
Well, so far, it's good news.
Now, you can't entirely trust NHL attendance numbers, which are often fishy. But the league says 40 of 44 playoff games in the first round were sold out, and that was a very full house in Vancouver Thursday night.
The New York market is gone with the Rangers and Devils eliminated. But three old markets seem new again with remarkably robust audiences in Chicago, Boston and Washington providing a counter-weight to the doom and gloom coming out of places like Phoenix these days.
It's not just that fans are buying tickets for the Hawks, Bruins and Caps. It's that they are establishing new levels of enthusiasm in all three markets. Going to games in Washington as the Capitals took on the Rangers last week was a real eye-opener both in way the fans turned out uniformly decked out in red and screamed for the home team, but also the way in which the Caps promoted participation through their in-game show.
See, many Canadian fans look down their noses at U.S. cities, suggesting they don't know anything about the game. But visits to Washington, New York and Philadelphia showed evidence of fan committment and enthusiasm beyond what you'll often see in Canadian cities.
For someone used to seeing games in Toronto, it's like a totally different universe. A non-demanding fan base that turns out no matter what often creates a very neutral atmosphere at the ACC, certainly nothing like the raucous, partisan throngs that you'll see in U.S. cities. The in-game entertainment package provided in places like the Verizon Centre (D.C.), the Wachovia Centre (Philly) and, of course, Madison Square Garden in New York builds a level of participation that puts the lame, Carlton-the-Bear activities as the ACC to shame.
So while there are clearly places in the U.S. where NHL interest is lagging, there are also places where it is revitalized and the fan experience is as good or better as anything in Canada.
For the Leafs, with Saturday (May 2nd) marking the 42nd anniversary of the last Stanley Cup, one of the priorities for president/GM Brian Burke has to be putting some oomph back into both the on-ice product and the passion for the team. The Leafs have missed the playoffs for four straight years, the longest drought the team has ever experience, yet the response of the city when the Leafs packed it in for the season was really a collective shrug.
It's not that people like losing. They just meekly accept it and don't demand anything else. What we're seeing in cities like Boston, Chicago and Washington are fan bases that wouldn't accept lousy teams, but now that their home teams are good and entertaining, those fan bases are responding in a major way.
Would the same happen in Toronto? Sadly, we may not know for a while yet. But you sure couldn't get fans at the ACC to all wear red, or orange, or white. Tough to pull a t-shirt over a suit.