Now that it looks like the Phoenix Coyotes will be staying in Phoenix, the relocation hawks are eyeing the Atlanta Thrashers and other low-attendance teams for possible Canadian moves to fulfill Jim Balsillie's dream. They'll cite the lack of hockey fans, poor attendance and TV ratings, and other factors as the impetus to cut-and-paste the team to the Great White North.
The NHL has economic reasons for wanting to make it work in large American metro markets. If they thrive, it expands the brand's reach and has a greater pull for corporate sponsors. Of course, in order to make it work, people have to attend games. And what brings in the fans?
It's winning. It always has been, and that's why low attendance for the Thrashers or, say, the Florida Panthers provides a skewed judgment of the market. The teams have been terrible, so of course people will stay away.
However, history has shown that fans will support a winner -- and even better if they have a superstar face to rally around. After the jump, a look at some markets that have turned it around.First off, we'll go with the lightning-in-a-bottle market of the Washington Capitals. With all due respect to Peter Bondra and Dale Hunter, none of those guys ever captivated the DC market quite like Alex Ovechkin did. However, even while Ovechkin's legend -- and profile -- was growing, fans didn't come out to support the team until they started winning.
2005-06: 13,095 -- 28th overall, Alex Ovechkin's rookie year
2006-07: 13,929 -- 27th overall, Caps finish 14th in the Eastern Conference
2007-08: 15,472 -- 24th overall, Caps win the Southeast Division and return to the playoffs
2008-09: 18,097 -- 13th overall (97% capacity), Caps finish with 108 points and second seed
2009-10: 18,277 -- 11th overall (100% capacity), Caps win the President's Trophy
The Caps are extremely lucky to have Ovechkin, as he's been the catalyst for creating a generation of hockey fans. The DC market should be strong past Ovechkin's days simply because he's built roots in so many young hockey fans. Not every market is so lucky, but winning still does a heck of a lot for butts in the seats.
Let's look at the Tampa Bay Lightning. Before Barry Melrose, before the dude who made the Saw movies, you had a pre-Stanley Cup team that only had one playoff appearance in 1996 thanks to Darren Puppa's stellar goaltending. And then you had Vincent Lecavalier surrounded by nothing. It took winning to get fans in the building, even with the emergence of Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Martin St. Louis.
Tampa Bay Lightning
2000-01: 14,906 -- 25th overall, the Lightning continue "rebuilding" and finish 14th overall
2001-02: 15,722 -- 20th overall, the Bolts don't fare much better but attendance slightly improves
2002-03: 16,545 -- 16th overall, Tampa wins the Southeast Division and their young stars start to come into their own
2003-04: 17,820 -- 12th overall, the Lightning put together a strong second half and go on to win the Stanley Cup
And let's look at things in a traditional hockey market. We all know just how bad the Chicago Blackhawks attendance had been prior to Rocky Wirtz. The United Center was essentially a mausoleum for close to ten years, Tony Amonte and Alexei Zhamnov be damned. This is a slightly different story, as the team's rapid rise was an equal formula of management change (to bring back the old fans), Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews (to bring in the new fans), and winning (to bring in the casual fans).
2005-06: 13,318 -- 29th overall, the Hawks start the post-lockout era with yet another rebuild and finish 14th
2006-07: 12,727 -- 29th overall, the dynamic duo of Martin Havlat and Radim Vrbata doesn't excite the Hawks faithful.
2007-08: 16,814 -- 19th overall, the Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews era begins
2008-09: 22,246 -- 1st overall (111% capacity), Rocky Wirtz and co. do a fantastic job of reaching out to old fans
2009-10: 21,356 -- 1st overall (108% capacity), the Hawks continue their momentum from their Conference Final run and win the Stanley Cup
It's all about winning, and it takes a few years. If the Thrashers finish strong and make the playoffs, the payoff probably won't be until next season. And it'll take sustained success in order for it to grow properly. Same goes with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Phoenix Coyotes, and other teams with attendance woes. In some cases, ownership comes into play, as instability drives some fans away.
Some pundits and fans want relocation, and they want it now. But judging markets before they've had a chance to thrive is short-sighted. If they win for several years and the fans don't come, then it's time to start that conversation.