For almost 10 straight years, you didn't even have to look at the bottom of the summary for home games involving the Detroit Red Wings, because it always read: Attendance: 20,066. And those numbers weren't the bogusly inflated ones you see in many American rinks these days. Every seat in Joe Louis Arena had a bum in it.
That the Red Wings Â– a universal pick to be a serious Stanley Cup contender Â– had almost 2,500 empty seats for their first game of the season against the defending Stanley Cup champion should scare the living bejeepers out of anyone who is concerned about dwindling fan interest in the NHL.
This wasn't a Wednesday night game against Columbus in the middle of January; this was opening night against the best team in the NHL Â– one that knocked off the Wings in a great six-game series in the Western Conference final last spring.
One Detroit newspaper lamented the dearth of North American players on the Red Wings' roster, but this is a market that has come out in droves in the past to see the likes of Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Fetisov and Dominik Hasek.
Yes, the auto sector and the Detroit economy are in a death spiral, but the Mike Illitch-owned Detroit Tigers set attendance records at Comerica Park last summer. The hapless Detroit Lions always draw well and the Pistons should have strong numbers this season, too.
Could it be that the Red Wings have fallen victim to the Atlanta Braves syndrome? Perhaps winning, at least in the regular season, has become commonplace for the Wings and it doesn't help that they beat up on the likes of the Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues so often.
If the Chicago Blackhawks could ever become as good as the Nashville Predators and give the Red Wings a true Original Six rival, that would help spice things up.
Another reason is the same salary cap that is supposed to be helping the small market teams has hurt the Wings. In the past, the Red Wings were all about stars and glamour with the likes of Fedorov, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille. Now it's more of a team approach to greatness and the Red Wings are now trying to get their fans excited about the likes of Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula.
Combine that with a 30-year-old building that's getting very tired, a terrible schedule in which too many weak teams come to visit, lingering resentment from the lockout and a ticket price structure that hasn't appropriately responded to the downturn in the economy and you have a recipe for empty seats.
And a very, very conerning situation indeed.
Without a strong presence in Hockeytown, the NHL risks being pushed down the food chain even further.