The calendar has flipped to June. Or rather, the calendar app on your iPhone silently switched from May to June to little or no fanfare.
When it comes to hockey, however, that is a significant change in time for avid fans. If your team is still playing on rinks rather than links this time of the year, they’ve been successful enough to make the Stanley Cup Final.
For the first time, this applies to the fan base in Nashville, the golden swarm that flocks to Bridgestone Arena. From smashing cars to country stars, Predators hockey has provided a unique take on how hockey is watched. As the playoffs grow deeper, Nashville has gotten spicier than the Colonel’s special 11-part blend.
That recipe hails from Kentucky, not Tennessee. However, the two states, as well as handful of others, all reside in the southern half of the United States. With that title comes hockey’s most furious off-ice debate, involving Colonel Bettman’s own special blend of sunbelt hockey teams: hockey markets.
Only seven years ago, a strong fan base in Tennessee seemed like a fantasy. The Predators of 2009-2010 only pulled in an average of 14,979 fans per game, ranking 26th out of 30 NHL teams. This, among ownership issues and a lackluster on-ice product that finished without a playoff berth the year before, led to many a hot take proclaiming a Predators migration north of the border was all but imminent.
Yet seven years, multiple playoff berths and an appearance in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final later, the Predators have astonished the hockey world with their rabid fan base that has brought fans from all across “football country” to fill up Bridgestone Arena with gold.
Hockey might not have a history in Nashville, but it certainly is growing one.
That is exactly why fans embroiled in “tradition” and “history” are hurting hockey.
When the Predators joined the NHL, the novelty to southern folk rooted in Peyton Manning and Titans football only lasted for a three-year honeymoon. Nashville averaged over 16,000 fans per game their first two seasons; they didn’t touch those numbers again until 2010-2011, and have now reached over 17,000 fans per game for the first time in franchise history this past season - before reaching the Cup Final.
Traditional hockey markets have kept hockey alive for decades, and with good cause; Toronto regularly sells out games despite up and down hockey since 1967, the Leafs last Stanley Cup championship. Montreal puts out one of the best playoff atmospheres in sports each year before seeing their team repeatedly drop in the first two rounds year after year. Despite winning their last Stanley Cup in 1993, the Canadians haven’t averaged less than 20,000 fans per game in over two decades.
So why is this hurting hockey?
Each of those teams, including the other Original Six teams of New York Rangers, Chicago, Boston, and Detroit, have a city rooted in hockey history. In Canada especially, where hockey is the most largely known and played sport in the country, the sport is a part of most everyday lives as routine as a spouse and kids.
While this is certainly admirable, and always provides for strong fan support, this level of fandom has almost spoiled many fan bases consistently parked in the top five of NHL attendance numbers. Although often reviled by hockey fans worldwide, Gary Bettman’s initiative as commissioner to bring hockey to all parts of the United States has paid off far better than worse.
The expectation from some in the hockey world that every night should be a sellout is absurd.
The expectation that hockey should automatically attract fans, despite a lack of knowledge in the sport in areas that have yet to house a professional team, is absurd.
The expectation that locals that already hold a rooting interest in other local teams should flock to the doors of a hockey arena to see a new team struggle to get off the ground the first few years is— you guessed it— absurd.
The Predators are a shining example of a team and fan base that preached patience. They've housed a team since 1998, with one general manager since that point in David Poile and have now reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time, 19 years after its inception. Slowly, shrewdly, and on a tight budget, Poile has built a strong team; slowly but surely.
The same can be said for Predators fans.
It's a virtue
Novelty of sports teams wears off, but for fans to return game after game a product must be made that fans can be proud of and cheer loud for. Montreal and Toronto are rooted in hockey history, with the Canadiens housing the most championship banners in the league and the Maple Leafs the host city to the Hockey Hall of Fame. With such a rich history where children growing up on skates before shoes, it is no surprise that they routinely house great fan bases.
However, on-ice play can build— or destroy— a franchise and its fan base.
The Arizona Coyotes have struggled in the desert financially, leaving hundreds of seats available each night the ice is used. However, it is hard to blame fair-weather fans for not sticking around when the ownership is constantly embroiled in turmoil, the team rarely makes it to the playoffs, and the front office constantly turns over.
The locals are hardly at fault for wanting to distance themselves from such a mess, and yet there are still success stories abounding in Arizona; most notably, the (very-early titled) savior of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Auston Matthews, who was raised in Arizona. Despite their on-ice struggles, the Coyotes played a part in bringing hockey into the life of a young Matthews.
Ebbs and Flows
Not all southern teams have seen such overall trouble throughout the organization. Outside of Nashville’s growth this season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have seen a rise in attendance over the years. This, coupled with a competent front office and strong ownership, led captain Steven Stamkos to re-sign with the team in free agency rather than head home to Toronto.
Prior to that, the Lightning saw attendance steadily decrease after winning the Stanley Cup in 2004, from over 20,000 in 2005-2006 to a dismal 15,497 in 2009-2010. That was the same year the Predators faced ownership discord, and much like Nashville, Tampa had problems of its own.
Both Lightning majority owners, Len Barrie and Oren Koules, had driven the front office and team into the ground before having to sell. New owner Jeff Vinik stepped in late in the 2010 season, and after a few years, the team is once again a bright spot in the sun belt. Vinik absorbed millions in debt that the previous regime had created and finally climbed into the break-even category last season.
Patience, just like it was in Nashville, was important. Now, the Lightning rank eighth league-wide in attendance per game at 19,092 (which is Amalie Arena’s official sell out capacity) and their team has been one of the strongest in the past three seasons.
The Coyotes see themselves in a risky situation in need of a strong owner and patience. Traditional hockey markets that haven't faced such problems in decades have proven impatient with wails for a team to move to Quebec reaching maximum levels. However, the growth of hockey culture league-wide, especially in the South, has been both imperative and impressive.
It’s not like Original Six teams are resistant to a few struggling years, too. Yes, Chicago, your sub-16,000 fans per game numbers to start off this current millennium are not pretty, but look where you are now. Amazing what patience can do.
The hockey world needs to be patient with new teams, new fans, and new markets. With the arrival of Las Vegas into the fold this upcoming season, people from all over the state may find themselves looking up what “offside” means. Instead of mocking them, hockey fans should take pride in the fact that people are trying to grow their sport.
The “Please Like My Sport” campaign has been an unnecessary one for hockey for years. On one hand, fans complain about a lack of coverage from national media outlets, while they push away new and interested fans with the other. Hockey has settled too deep into its niche of far-gone jargon, self-conscious fans too protective of their team and tidbits from the 1980s.
It’s time to welcome fans into the sport, rather than push them away with a double-dose of knowledge and history.
Who knows? Maybe another rabid fan base like Nashville’s will grow elsewhere in the United States or Canada.
Next stop: some Kentucky Fried Hockey?