What's up with attendance in Canadian NHL markets these days?

Six of the seven Canadian NHL clubs have failed to sell out home games this week, and buildings around the league that are normally filled haven't reached capacity this season.
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It’s difficult to say whether Connor McDavid’s performance Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers was the best of his young NHL career, largely because there are so, so many from which to choose. But we do know that he tied his career-high with a five-point game in the Edmonton Oilers’ 6-3 win, including one goal where McDavid used his vintage speed, skill and guile.

It may have been McDavid’s best performance as an NHLer and, with a 49-save performance, it was undoubtedly the best effort goalie Mikko Koskinen has turned in for his career. They were also put on display in front of more than 1,000 empty seats at Rogers Place, the shiny new arena the taxpayers provided for the Oilers a couple of years ago. That’s a bit of a head scratcher, considering the Oilers were back from a weeklong road trip in which they went 3-1-0 to boost their overall record to 5-1-0. In fact, it marked the first time in 550 straight games that the Oilers failed to sell out a home game, including 131 regular-season and playoff games at Rogers Place.

And while it’s hardly dire circumstances for Canada’s NHL teams, the Oilers weren’t alone. The night before the Oilers game, the Winnipeg Jets attracted 14,764, which is almost 600 under capacity, marking the first time in 333 home regular-season and playoff games that they have failed to sell out Bell MTS Place. An early blast of winter that left thousands without power and under a state of emergency could have been a factor, but it’s also true that the Jets don’t seem to be the power they once were and the fact is, those tickets could have been sold long before people ever knew there was going to be a storm. The storm could have been blamed for people not showing up to the rink, but not for the inability to sell tickets.

The Calgary Flames had almost 1,500 empty seats for their game against the Flyers the same night and the Montreal Canadiens were almost 1,000 below capacity for their 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Vancouver Canucks played the Detroit Red Wings that night and were almost 700 short of capacity.

The moribund Ottawa Senators, meanwhile, have had well-documented attendance problems in recent years. They had just 11,500 for a game against the Minnesota Wild on Monday and earlier in the month had a (gulp) south-of-10,000 crowd for a game against the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. The Senators, in fact, are averaging just 11,715 per game this season, which is almost 3,000 fewer than they averaged in 2018-19 when they were 27th in the league in attendance.

And the Canadian teams are not alone. The Buffalo Sabres, who did not have a regulation loss going into last night’s game in Anaheim, are averaging 16,671, which is more than 1,200 lower than last season. The New York Islanders, who won a playoff round last season, are averaging only 11,320, which is more than 1,000 down from 2018-19. The rebuilding New York Rangers, who until the last couple of seasons were an automatic sellout, were short of capacity in all but four home games last season.

In most cases, we’re talking about only hundreds, perhaps low thousands, of seats here. But it is telling. At least in Canada, for years after the full-season lockout in 2004-05, every single seat in every single Canadian arena had been paid for and occupied. That is no longer the case. When I tweeted the attendance figures out for the four non-sellouts in Canadian markets Tuesday, I received an avalanche of responses, many of which basically pointed out that many traditional fans have been priced out of the market when it comes to buying tickets in Canadian cities. But that has been the case for quite some time now.

Is it possible that fans have finally reached a tipping point here and teams will have to respond by lowering prices? Probably not, because revenues are probably still up in a lot of places if the team raises its costs for tickets. The Jets, for example, raised ticket prices by 6.5 percent this season. One thing to remember is that the salaries players are being paid almost never is reflected in ticket prices. If that were the case, they’d be the same in every market. Ticket prices are a reflection of supply and demand and teams have to find the sweet spot where they can maximize revenues without turning off their fan bases.

Even though Brian Cooper, the chairman of MKTG and one of Canada’s most prominent leaders in sports marketing, was perplexed with the Oilers non-sellout, he said there really is nothing to worry about when it comes to selling hockey in Canada.

“I think it’s all performance based,” Cooper said. “While the economy may be strong, I think people are being more judicious as to where they spending their dollar. Two, there are a lot of other forms of entertainment coming out. Three, the technology of watching a game at home these days is the best it has ever been. You can watch it, have a social conversation with your friends and look at stats at the same time you’re watching it on TV. I don’t think there’s a serious issue here.”

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