The biggest question asked of me, by my non-hockey loving friends is, “Why are there so many empty seats at Joe Louis Arena?”.
It’s true, after enjoying an astounding 452 straight sellouts (dating back to December 10, 1996), the streak came to an end in Game One of the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs.
What was even more disturbing is the sprinkling of empty seats during this year's successful Stanley Cup run.
Several people smarter than I have taken a stab at this conundrum with varying answers.
Some will point out the weak economy in the Michigan area, specifically Detroit.
Others suggest that fans have grown frustrated with early playoff exits after enjoying regular season success—something the Wings have been guilty of over the course of two decades.
I’ve even heard people suggest that blame should be laid on the old and outdated Joe Louis arena, the building the Wings have called home since 1979.
However, I don’t believe any of the above to be true, as the Tigers, Lions, Pistons, Wolverines, and Spartans haven’t seen such a drastic decline in attendance. The Tigers, for instance, enjoyed a surge in ticket sales following their surprising 2006 run to the World Series.
And considering that the Wings went all the way to the Conference Finals in 2007, the excuse of suffering through another early playoff exit isn’t a sound one.
Finally, the Joe had no problems filling seats in 2006.
In my mind, the issue lies in something more basic; more human. Since the retirement of Steve Yzerman, the local, blue-collar fan hasn’t had a North American offensive star to hang his-or-her hat on.
I know this may sound ludicrous to Red Wings fans of the die-hard variety, but for Joe Lunchpail, it’s far easier to relate to someone of the same background. They need someone that looks like them, sounds like them and carries a name familiar to them.
A good example is Brandon Inge. For those that are unfamiliar with No. 15 of the Detroit Tigers, he’s a career .240 hitter who strikes-out nearly three times as often as he walks. He’s small, doesn’t routinely hit for power, and is a fixture at the bottom of the hitting order.
So it would seem odd to most as to why he’s one of the most popular players on the team.
During the off-season the Tigers dealt for superstar hitting machine Miguel Cabrera and 26 year-old two-time all-star and 2003 Rookie of the Year pitcher Dontrelle Willis.
The two were added to an already stellar lineup that is now the second-highest payroll in Major League Baseball. Several analysts and scribes predicted Detroit would smash records with the abundance of offensive firepower their starting nine possessed.
And yet, during spring training, it was little Brandon Inge who received a majority of the attention.
Why? Because he’s one of the very few North American hitters on the team.
It’s no different with the Detroit Red Wings and their fans. While Nick Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, and Pavel Datsyuk are three of the league's premier talents, and an absolute treat to watch, it’s hard for the average fan to relate to their heritage.
If Zetterberg’s last name were Smith or Datsyuk was born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, or even Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, their popularity would be even greater. And the Joe would have far less elbow room on a nightly basis.
Some might argue against this, stating how Wings fans embraced former European stars such as Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov, and Vladimir Konstantinov. Even Petr Klima was well-received in the Motor City.
But what is the one constant between Klima and Zetterberg? Steve Yzerman. Fans could embrace a foreign star as long as they had a "local" boy to follow.
True, Steve Yzerman is Canadian. But since the Red Wings inception, Detroit fans have grown accustomed to watching players from the North carry the team in the standings and on the statsheet.
And are Canadians that much different from Michiganders? They speak the same language (well, just aboot the same language), have the same names and are neighbors in almost every sense.
So has Detroit’s brass gone out of their way to avoid Canadian or American talent? Absolutely not. Because of the Wings recurring success, they routinely pick at the bottom of the draft order. Outside of the top-20 selections, it’s incredibly rare to find a North American stud waiting to be selected.
On top of this, the Wings, for years, would deal their top pick in favor of loading up for a lengthy Stanley Cup run.
It’s why the Wings have been forced to rely so heavily on European scout Hakan Andersson over the past several years. With little talent left of the local variety, assistant general manager Jim Nill and his team of scouts have used their late-round picks to select unknown or unproven talent from across the pond.
So far, I’d say the results cannot be argued.
Nevertheless, while team owner Mike Illitch has promised to reduce ticket prices, the real fix needed might be years away—perhaps even decades.
Unless the Wings can uncover a rough diamond or two from the Canadian Hockey League or the NCAA, don’t be surprised if the Wings continue to play to less than capacity crowds.
If you want to fill "the Joe", the Wings need to draft more, you guessed it, “Joes”.