THE YEAR was 1996.The "Got Milk?" campaign was at its zenith, and a fast-food Mexicanchain was about to introduce a wisecracking Chihuahua who would proclaim"Yo quiero Taco Bell." The advertising agency for the Detroit RedWings, Bozell Worldwide, was also cooking up something that would capture thehockey zeitgeist as neatly as the Red Wings would the next two StanleyCups.
This is an article from the Dec. 10, 2007 issue
"Hockeytown," which still graces the center-ice circle at Joe LouisArena, remains a brilliant slogan, a motto so evocative that the Canadiensemulated it this season with "The city is hockey," evidence thatMontreal has game if not syntax. Of course in Detroit in 2007 the Hockeytownmoniker seems as appropriate as, well, dipping a beef taco in a glass ofmilk.
Detroit'sHockeytown crown has slipped. There were so many empty seats in The Joe duringthe playoffs last spring that you could have twirled an octopus in some rows ofthe upper deck and not slimed a soul. This year's home opener (againstdefending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim) was almost 2,500 short of a sellout.The Wings still offer dazzling hockey, showcasing three of the NHL's best 20players—Norris Trophy defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and dynamic forwards HenrikZetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk—but ennui now grips the denizens of thedown-at-the-heels arena. Despite the team's Western Conference--leading 18-6-2record through Sunday attendance has continued to dip. This isn't a return tothe Dead Things Era, when Detroit went to the playoffs just twice from 1967through '83, but the Wings are clearly at the yawn of a new era. They have soldjust 14,500 season tickets for their 20,066-seat rink this season.
"Coming infrom the airport there was a billboard advertising Red Wings tickets," St.Louis Blues goalie coach Rick Wamsley says. "I don't think I've ever seenthat."
There are scads ofreasons for Hockeytown turning tepid, most notably a state economy that haslost more than 300,000 jobs since 2001. (Curiously, the economy seems better afew blocks away at Comerica Park, where the Tigers drew more than three millionfans for the first time in '07, and in the suburbs where the Pistons haveplayed to 100% of capacity in their 22,076-seat arena so far this year.)
"There arelots of things at work," Detroit general manager Ken Holland says."Steve Yzerman retired [in '06], and there were people who were SteveYzerman fans first and Red Wings fans second. We had a work stoppage [the'04--05 lockout]. Maybe in Canada where hockey is part of the fabric you canpick right up where you left off, but here the bubble fans found other thingsto do. And we're fighting our own success. When we won the Cup in 2002, therewere so many big names"—Yzerman, Lidstrom, Brett Hull, Sergei Fedorov,Brendan Shanahan, Luc Robitaille, Igor Larionov—"it's unlikely you'll eversee a team like that again in any [salary-capped] sport."
So while theWings' Hockeytown tradition is running on fumes, you have to hit the road tofind the new Hockeytown, starting with....
PhiladelphiaFlyers enforcer Riley Cote and New York Rangers ruffian Colton Orr are throwinghaymakers, a first-period fight so entrancing that the linesmen simply watchfor 40 seconds as the sell-out crowd of 19,571 in the Wachovia Center on Nov.15 roars its approbation. In Philadelphia this is mother's milk. The only thingbetter than hard-nosed hockey is broken-nosed hockey, the legacy of the BroadStreet Bullies, who married skill with intimidation to win the Stanley Cup in1974 and '75.
In modern NHLhistory, no Cups have ever Krazy-Glued a team to a town quite like those two.When then coach Fred Shero memorably said in the spring of 1974 that the Flyerswould walk together forever if they won that first Cup, he neglected to mentionthat the city would be in lockstep with them. Although vitriol is supposedlythe lifeblood of the Philadelphia sports fan, there is precious little directedat the Flyers, who have not won a Cup in 32 years and who last reached thefinal a decade ago. "Talk show hosts in this city criticize fans for notgetting down on the Flyers the way they do on the Phillies, Eagles andSixers," Flyers president Peter Luukko says. "I think that's becauseour fans feel they have ownership in the team."
Certainly they buyjust as they buy-in. The Flyers are third in the league in attendance but claimto be first in what NHL people call "per caps"—merchandise revenuedivided by tickets sold. (When Philadelphia signed prized free agent centerDaniel Bri√®re, his number 48 jersey shot to the top of NHL merchandise sales inAugust.) The seats near the glass in Philly have always been crammed with fansin orange and now black jerseys, leaving the impression that opponents aren'tplaying against 20 Flyers but 200. Says goalie Martin Biron, traded from theBuffalo Sabres to Philadelphia last spring, "This always has been the mostintimidating building in the league."
If the postlockoutrule changes have eroded any of the sport's soul in a city that loves itshockey chaotic—"The game's become so sanitized it's hard to get that primalscream for it anymore," says Al Morganti, who does a Flyers postgame showon TV—raw numbers don't reflect it. During a seven-day period in mid-Novemberthe Flyers and their minor league affiliate, the Phantoms, who play across theparking lot in the Spectrum (and are sixth in AHL attendance despite the NHLteam's presence), each had three home games. Combined attendance: 78,046."People don't come here to see the Ducks because they won the StanleyCup," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren says. "They come because theDucks are playing the Flyers. It's always been like that." Indeed. Despitemissing the playoffs five straight seasons in the early 1990s, the fecklessFlyers sold out 94 of 202 home games in that stretch. And although the Flyerswere the worst team in the NHL last season, they still played to 98.7% ofcapacity at the Wachovia Center.
Bob Clarke, theFlyers' senior vice president, stands up for his team's honor now almost asaggressively as he did as the star of the Broad Street Bullies. "WhenDetroit was bad [in the 1980s], the Red Wings couldn't put 3,000 in theirbuilding and they were giving away cars," he says. "Buffalo had to filefor bankruptcy. St. Paul looks like a huge success [now], but Minneapolis wasawful when the North Stars were there. [Clarke was the North Stars G.M. whenthe team reached the Cup final in 1991.] This is pro Hockeytown."
So the gauntlet isthrown down, just like Cote's overhand left.
Three doors leadinto HSBC Arena, each topped with a frieze. The ones above the left and rightdoors depict goalies making sprawling glove saves; stampeding buffalo adorn thecenter. Almost all of the 18,690 people who will see the Sabres thump Montreal4--1 on this night stream through those doors and mill about the lobby,creating a charged pregame atmosphere. In an era in which almost any game isavailable on TV or the Internet, the best reason to buy a ticket is the senseof community it offers, a chance to spend three hours with people who haveshared values and shared expectations. With the teeming lobby, the Sabres offera game and a hockey town-hall meeting.
"Last yearsome of our people thought we should call ourselves America's Team on Ice,"says Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn two hours before the opening face-offagainst the Canadiens on Nov. 16. "I mean, if we're not Hockeytown, who is?But we said, let's win one or two Cups first before we start with that. I can'timagine throwing something on the ice to call attention to ourselves. It justdoesn't seem like Buffalo. It seems more like Dallas."
Still, the Sabresindulged in some self-congratulation in October, when they publicized aScarborough Research survey that said Buffalo had the NHL's most loyal fans:28.9% of males and 21.6% of females responded that they were very or somewhatinterested in the team. (In Philadelphia 12.7% of men and 7.5% of women fitthat category.)
Four years afterowner Tom Golisano rescued the Sabres from bankruptcy—part of the fallout fromthe fraud conviction of former owner John Rigas, founder of AdelphiaCommunications—the revival has been stunning. "I had friends with seasontickets who couldn't give them away," says Bri√®re, an ex-Sabre. But now,helped in part by a cut in prices, the season ticket base is at 14,800, up from6,200 at its nadir. Even though fewer than 1,000 seats in HSBC Arena arepurchased by corporations, Buffalo sold every available ticket last season andwill likely do the same in 2007--08.
This ismom-and-pop hockey, supported by people who, in Quinn's estimation, spend moreof their disposable income on hockey than fans in any other city. Says Sabresequipment manager Rip Simonick, who was with the team when it entered theleague 37 years ago, "This is a small city, shrinking before oureyes"—according to the 2006 census, there were about 180,000 more people inBuffalo in 1970 than today's 276,059—"but people here appreciate thathockey is a hard, physical game. You work for every dollar here. If you give aneffort, the fans will always be there for you."
It is no accidentthat the NHL chose Buffalo to be the site of the league's first outdoor game inthe U.S. The Sabres will host the Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium, 10 milesfrom downtown, on New Year's Day. The 41,000 tickets made available to thepublic sold out in a half hour.
"There's atrauma here, with so many people's kids having moved out of town," Quinnsays. "Sports for a Buffalo person is an outlet to fight back against thattrauma. It's almost like a cause. For a lot of people Sabres tickets are whatthey do instead of taking vacations. I ask people, 'How can you afford it?'They say, 'Well, we go to 40 games instead of going to Florida, and we don'ttake a summer vacation.'"
"In someways," G.M. Darcy Regier says, "this is like small-townCanada."
Exactly. AndBuffalo is a little too much small-town Canada to qualify as Hockeytown U.S.A.Only 8% of the Sabres' season-ticket base is Canadian, but on any given night afifth of the Buffalo crowd has braved Peace Bridge customs' checks and comefrom eh-droppin' southern Ontario. Filling the building with imports is likesetting a wind-aided world record.
In the pregamedarkness of the sold-out arena, a child bathed in a spotlight's amber glowskates to center ice and plants a Minnesota Wild flag. This simple gestureguarantees the Wild a nightly goose-bump moment—one that's a nod to the essenceof hockey in the city that has become the game's epicenter. Unlike in, say,Philadelphia, hockey in St. Paul grows from the bottom up. When the childplants that Wild flag at the Xcel Energy Center, says Les Larson, director ofdevelopment for college hockey's Hobey Baker Award, "it's about hockey momsdriving to the rink, the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich a kid grabs beforegoing to play, about the pickup games guys played. It strikes a chord."
The Wild has soldevery ticket to every game since it entered the NHL as an expansion team in2000, but it has never tried to bigfoot hockey in a city that was home toAmerica's iconic coach, Herb Brooks; the No. 2 U.S.--born career NHL scorer,South St. Paul's Phil Housley; the only cartoonist to draw a Zamboni-drivingbird, Charles Schulz; and the leading state high school tournament in thenation. This is the unwritten hockey schedule in the Twin Cities: boys' hockeyTuesday night, girls' hockey Thursday night, the University of Minnesota Fridayand Saturday nights. Boys and girls also play on Saturday afternoon. It is nocoincidence that the Wild often plays on Wednesday and Sunday. This is afranchise respectful of the game, aware of its niche and almost obsequious inits treatment of fans. Minnesota high school hockey jerseys ring the outerconcourse of the arena. Pictures of season-ticket holders appear on gametickets. The Wild even employs a full-time hockey curator to protect andpromote the state's hockey heritage.
"This remindsme of Calgary when I first went there," says G.M. Doug Risebrough, whoplayed in the NHL for 13 years and was traded from Montreal to Calgary in 1982."They'd just gotten the franchise [in '80], and there was the same sort ofenthusiasm, a feeling of, let's grow up together."
The lingeringquestion: How can any Hockeytown aspirant have lost an NHL team, as the TwinCities, the 15th largest T.V. market in the U.S., did when owner Norm Greentook the North Stars to Dallas in 1993? Those North Stars did, as Clarkesuggested, have attendance problems—but those were precipitated in large partby an ownership that alienated the fan base. The team played its games inBloomington, and Green complained bitterly about not being able to play indowntown Minneapolis at the Target Center. Fans were also put off by a highprofile sexual harassment suit that Green ended up settling out of court.Attendance shriveled to just 7,838 per game in 1990--91 and Green called itquits two seasons later, moving to the virgin territory of the southwest.
Now Minnesotansare buying what the Wild is selling. Season tickets are capped at 16,500; thewaiting list is 7,500. There are 32 stations on the team's radio network,extending through the Dakotas, into Iowa and Wisconsin and even Thunder Bay,Ont. NHL hockey again appears entrenched, despite the many other optionsavailable.
"If you aren'thappy with the pro team," says Wild assistant coach Mike Ramsey, who isfrom Minneapolis and played for the University of Minnesota, "you say, 'I'mgoing to a high school game. I'm going to see the [Minnesota] Gophers. I'mgoing to St. Cloud [State, a Division I program an hour from the TwinCities].'"
What further setsa Buffalo-sized city apart from, say, Buffalo, is its growth potential. MarkJorgensen, executive director of Minnesota Hockey, which oversees the game atthe amateur level in the state, says girls' hockey, which accounted for 14.6%of youth players in 1998--99, is up to 21.5%.
"If you go toa rink now, there's a good chance there'll be girls on the ice," Risebroughsays. "Years from now I think you'll find lots of mothers with their sonsand daughters at our games because this is what they did."
Expect no less inSt. Paul, America's new Hockeytown.
Michael Farber offers his take on the NHL's hot topics every week in his On theFly column.
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