I don’t know another person who finds the Jim Balsillie vs. Gary Bettman more annoying then I do so all I’m going to say about the fight for the Phoenix franchise is this.
As a Canadian, a Torontonian, and as a hockey fan, I would love to see another team in southern Ontario.
I’m a die-hard Maple Leafs fan, but like many others, I’m not a die-hard Leafs fan who can pay $200 for a good seat at a game.
So yes, I would love to see a team in Hamilton; and yes, I would drive from Toronto to Hamilton to watch a game.
But the annoying battle for the Coyotes has got me thinking a little bit, not so much as how much a slice of pizza and a drink would cost at the new arena in Hamilton compared to the Air Canada Center, but moreover, what does it take to put fans in a stadium?
I did some research. I took five teams (Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston, and Carolina) and looked at their attendance in a season where they did poorly in the standings and a season where they did well in the standings or were coming off a strong season.
In 2003-04 the Blackhawks were atrocious, finishing 29th in the league with only 20 wins. Their attendance fell victim to their lack of success on the ice, as the team only averaged 13,253 fans per home game.
All the sudden, with some rebuilding and good drafting, the Blackhawks sit in the Western Conference Finals and finished sixth in the league this season. Their attendance remarkably skyrocketed in 2008-09 to an average of 22,243 per game—an average increase of close to 9,000 fans per game.
Back in 2003-04 the Penguins were also a disaster. Finishing in dead last in the league, the Pens also averaged only 11,877 fans per game and were on the verge of going bankrupt.
But inking Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in back to back drafts and adding a pretty deep supporting cast the Pens are now on their way to the Stanley Cup finals for the second straight year.
Their attendance has shot up as well. In 2008-09, the Pens averaged 17,076 fans per game, a difference of over 5,000 fans per game.
The Hurricanes were a franchise that many felt would always struggle to fill their seats. In 2003-04 they finished 11th in the Eastern Conference standings and only averaged 12,330 fans per game. But after winning the Stanley Cup, the fans began to fill in.
In 2006-07 the Hurricanes averaged 17,386 fans per game, an increase of over 5,000 fans per game. You can bet that as the team continues to improve on the ice, the fans will continue to pour in.
The same kind of idea exists now in Washington and Boston as well. As their teams win games, teams that once struggled to fill their seats aren’t struggling anymore. Didn’t you see Washington’s version of “the sea of red?” Pretty incredible.
My point is that in cities where the hockey team isn’t the first priority, a successful team is needed in order to fill the seats.
The funny part is, I don’t think the Phoenix Coyotes are far away from success. I think they need to start by re-signing the cheap young talent they picked up in Nigel Dawes, Scottie Upshall, and Petr Prucha, and then they need a couple of free agents.
If they don't sign those guys, they have over $11 million in cap space with the opportunity to grab a big name center like Mike Cammalleri and a big man on the back end like Mike Komisarek.
If they can then draft another solid defenseman like Spokane Chiefs, Jared Cowen or a forward like Brandon Wheat Kings, Brayden Schenn in the first and draft well the rest of the way the Coyotes could be on their way to building a solid core of young talent.
The Coyotes have never been able to be consistently successful on the ice. Sure they’ve made the playoffs here and there, but consistency is what I believe to be the main reason for the franchise's major debt and problems. If teams in all parts of California can put people in seats, then so can a team in Arizona.
As the famous line from the famous movie Field of Dreams goes, “Build it and they will come.”
Build a competitive team in Phoenix and the fans will come. But you need an owner who’s willing to spend money on players rather than lawyers.