I support hockey everywhere. I love the sport too much to criticize people for not wanting to see it in some places. Yes, that means I wanted it to work in Atlanta when they were on death's door. I don't seem to understand why there is a sense among a select group, unfortunately mainly Canadian, that always feels the need to laugh and point out when sunbelt teams have bad attendance. Usually it doesn't bother me, since as a Panthers fan I should be well numb to it by now. But tonight, as the Cats played another listless game and some Canadian fans began the now traditional circle up on the carcass of empty seats, I just began to wonder why. Shouldn't we all want hockey to succeed everywhere?
It will inevitably come up in discussion that the NHL shouldn't be in places where the barn is barely half-full like has happened in Phoenix, Florida and Dallas this season when cities like Quebec City have been waiting their turn for nearly 20 years now. And I agree... at least on the latter half of that sentence. Quebec City will soon have another team, and the league will be better (and richer) because of it. Markham may have one too. But it will always be in the best interest for the NHL for markets like Phoenix and Florida to succeed, since at some point you can't expand in Canada any further. The US is still vastly untapped in terms of hockey, and those sunbelt markets still standing are the places where the NHL is probably the most keen to see success.
But, as I am now inevitably reading, these teams are losing money hand-over-fist and are floor teams dragging the league's bottom line down. Yes, the Panthers are a budget team, and have been for quite some time. They are because they've not only had cheap ownership, but horrible teams and therefore no reason to spend above their means to maintain that. And despite everything one may read, SSE, the Panthers parent company, still makes money every year, and without them they certainly wouldn't. Vinnie Viola has said he is willing to spend to make the Panthers a winner, and unfortunately for Cats fans he came in too late this season for that vision to be implemented. The fact that he was willing to eat half of Kris Versteeg's salary in trading him to Chicago is hopefully a sign of things to come. But defending the Panthers futility does me nothing except quell my own anger.
I've read about the oft publicized attendance concerns in Ottawa this season, and numerous pieces about ownership's lack of cash. What I've read is concerns about few marquee opponents visiting Kanata such as Montreal and Toronto, and fewer ticket handouts than in past seasons like two-for-one deals. It does hit home since the Panthers (and presumably the Coyotes, Islanders, Stars and Jackets) are all in similar boats. However, I don't see fans of those teams criticizing the empty seats in Canadian Tire Centre like some Sens fans might do in reverse. And there have been empty seats in Calgary and Edmonton at points this year too. Why? These teams (sans the Stars and Coyotes) are all poor. And no matter the market, no one wants to consistently sit and watch a loser. But this is not a condemnation of those markets.
Combine that with the inevitable stories appearing on some hockey blogs about this, and you get a perfect storm of frustration for people like me, a fan of one of these teams. I don't think it does any hockey fan any good to criticize attendance in any city because hockey fans have to stick together on this subject. Maybe it's the Canadian sense of entitlement when it comes to hockey that rubs me the wrong way, or the lack of mentioning the garbage attendance in Pittsburgh, Chicago and Boston before their recent renaissances, but hockey as a whole is 4th on the continent of North America when it comes to sports. All hockey fans have a duty to build it together, and tearing down cities struggling in the sunbelt does no one any favors despite the glittering allure of Quebec City or Markham.
Canada will always love hockey over everything else, but at some point the game can't grow in Canada anymore. It is those oft laughed at markets in the United States that hold the key to hockey's future, and mocking their current struggles alienates those fans who are doing their best to promote the game where it's not ingrained in the local fabric. There are dedicated groups of fans in Phoenix, Florida and any market of that ilk right now that are fuming at their teams failures, just like in Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto. Why can't we support and prop up their voices, instead of the ones who are going to be heard regardless?
I don't really want to ever have to write about this subject ever again, because it really does make me sad as a hockey fan over everything else that other hockey fans are cannibalizing each other over silly things like attendance. We're all trying to grow this game everywhere and keep it growing, and that means that us as a collective need to not only sympathize but help out those fans whose voices are often garbled.
We're all in this together, and that means you in Canada too. Growing the game doesn't mean killing the places where hockey has all the room in the world to grow, but hasn't ever been given the proper chance and vision.
So the next time you see an empty bowl in Phoenix or Florida: Stop and think. Then ask why before trolling for hits.