Fat Northern Cats
So here's the thing.
For as long as most of us can remember, and certainly back to the days when Harold Ballard ran Maple Leaf Gardens, the Leafs have been assailed as a team that lacked motivation to win because, year after year, the tickets were all sold and business was booming regardless of the win-loss record of the hockey club.
Only if the fans stopped showing up, the thinking went, would the Leafs have to find ways to put a better product on the ice.
Well, is it possible that industrial malaise has spread across the country in the new century?
Think about it. Five of seven Canadian teams (71 per cent) will miss the post-season - the Leafs, Habs and Oilers weren't even close - while only nine of 23 U.S. based teams (40 per cent) will. Of the 14 American teams that will qualify, half or more are in significant to desperate financial trouble. Teams like St. Louis, Phoenix, Florida, Dallas and Nashville know the difference between breaking even and recording a loss, or the difference between a moderate loss and a huge one, lies in getting a few playoff dates. These teams are under the gun to perform.
Now look north of the border.
Every team is profitable, something that seemed like a distant dream in the late 1990s when teams were asking for government handouts and the Ottawa Senators were teetering on the edge of bankrutpcy before finally falling over the precipice.
Five of the league's top eight franchises in average attendance are Canadian clubs. All seven Canadian teams are reporting 100 per cent capacity this season, evidence that Canadian hockey fans, apparently, are far more willing to pay to watch bad hockey than Americans.
Yes, business is booming in all seven Canadian cities. Nobody is hurting. Even Winnipeg, the smallest market in the NHL which lost its team during those tough times in the nineties, is guaranteed sellouts for years to come.
Every Canadian team is making money and all the tickets are sold, regardless of record. In Edmonton, where the Oilers have been at or near the very bottom of the league for some time, the customers keep buying the tickets and a new arena is in the works. Tom Renney's club has been essentially out of playoff contention since mid-December, but last Friday's home game was sold out.
So if you could once, and still do, accuse the Leafs of lacking motivation to be successful on the ice because they're filling the building win or lose, could the same now be said of the rest of the Canadian teams, or at least those who won't make post-season play?
What's the difference? Not one of these seven Canadian clubs is facing any kind of fan revolt if the team on the ice doesn't do well. Yes, the Leafs make more money than anyone, but they also pay heavily into profit sharing, as do the Montreal Canadiens, one of the league's biggest revenue teams because of their huge rink.
Many believed a hockey apocalypse was in the cards when the NHL not only locked out the players for the 2004-05, but wiped out the Stanley Cup playoffs, as well. Not only did the lockout not injure business in the Great White North, however, business has never been better, and an eighth Canadian team in Quebec City is a distinct possibility.
Fans in Edmonton and Winnipeg will argue their teams are trying hard to be competitive. Well, so are the Flames, Habs and Leafs. Just not very successfully. Only Vancouver is pulling out all the stops to win a Stanley Cup, and if the Canucks weren't such a good team, it still seems unlikely they'd be looking at thousands of empty seats.
Would these teams have to try harder to win more games if they knew the fans wouldn't come out otherwise? Would the Oilers be able to be as bad as they have been if they knew that would means crowds of 10,000 or less?
Its an interesting question. If commercial success regardless of team record has held the Leafs back for decades, the same accusation might be levelled at every other Canadian team these days, and it has been almost two decades since a Canadian club has lifted the Cup.
In Canada, its a matter of hanging out a shingle. Profits will follow, no matter how poor the product.