Friday, August 12, 2011

Math Wiz: NHL Attendance, What it Means

Recently, The Hockey News writer/tv personality Adam "The Proteautype" Proteau weighed in on the importance of image for an NHL franchise. He brought up a great point about road attendance and how the Detroit Red Wings maintain an image of skill, speed, and a goon-less game that most fans seem to appreciate when the Wings come to town. The article had me thinking: what is more important to a team, selling out their arena at home or providing the road audience with a product worthy of paying money to see live? It's obvious the two things are connected since everyone is either the home team or the road team, international games notwithstanding. We'll get to that after the important question is answered.


It goes without saying that home attendance is vital to the survival of an NHL franchise. If you don't have the fans in your own city to sell out a building or to draw enough revenue to keep you out of the "red", then there may need to be more aggressive strategies pursued to fix the problem. With that said, twelve teams averaged 100% + attendance records at home during the 2010-2011 season, with four teams at 99% or better and three more with 94% or better. Your Terrific Twelve:

Chicago: 108.7%
Toronto: 102.9%
Philadelphia: 101.1%
Pittsburgh: 100.9%
San Jose: 100.4%
Vancouver: 100.3%
Boston, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, St. Louis, Washingon: 100%

No Detroit? Most would be surprised at this fact, but the truth is the economic turmoil of the past few years has hurt the team's home attendance. As the Puckfather Greg Wyshinski pointed out two years ago, if the best team can't sell out their conference championship games, it spells trouble for other teams. Fast forward to a couple years later, where the attendance at Joe Louis Arena is still 98.1%. We're not perfect anymore. Sound the alarms!

Getting back to the main point, none of the bottom ten teams are overly surprising given their age, location, or on ice (lack of) success. I'll spare the bottom teams the indignity of being identified, but you can find all the attendance numbers I used here on ESPN's website. Safe to say the bottom teams are either a product of relocation or are rumored in some part to be in serious trouble or are in need of relocation themselves.

Perhaps using percentages is unfair to teams that still draw huge crowds like Tampa Bay, where 17,268 is their average attendance, good for 18th place, but their percentage of 87.4% find them 21st. Not a huge leap backwards but by comparison, Edmonton sports a 100% attendance at 16,839, leaving them in 19th place in the league by the numbers. Confused yet?

To keep it simple, some teams have huge arenas they can't fill every night while other teams have smaller-by-comparison arenas that sell out every game. Edmonton is one of those "small market" teams that will never worry about not selling out their games, unless somehow the team is mismanaged into oblivion. Even then, I suspect that's happened before...

Adversely, the new Winnipeg team is destined to skyrocket from 28th place in attendance with a paltry 13,469 average attendance and a dismal 72.6% to at least 86% with their 13,000 season tickets sold. I think we can all bank on that building being packed to the roof every game this season, but without getting too presumptuous the Atlanta/Winnipeg situation is about to take a dramatic turn for the best with the relocation.

To conclude, If you can't keep you own barn full of happy fans willing to throw their money at your face in exchange for gear, hot dogs, beer, and other paraphernalia, then your team might need to introduce some more aggressive marketing. Or, like Atlanta, move somewhere else. Sorry Atlanta fans. You deserved better.


Now that I've convinced you all (and myself) that home attendance is important I'm going to argue that road attendance is equally, if not more, important. A team needs to be able to draw sellout crowds at home, but they need not rely solely on their own on-ice product to do so. The team that comes to town to play has a small but crucial role in bringing in fans. Typically, a team will still have tickets available for the fans travelling to watch their team play on the road. Perhaps there is a small contingent of Red Wings fans in Chicago or Toronto already; it may not be likely but a more reasonable suggestion would be that Red Wings fans make the three or four hour drive across the border. The central issue when it comes to road teams is this: how good is your team and is it worth a fans' money to watch you play?

For road attendance, the news is pretty good all around the league. There are no teams who sell out every road game, but the lowest capacity percentage are the Nashville Predators at 87.6%. The Detroit Red Wings are the NHL's most popular road team, bringing in 99.9% capacity rates on average in the league. Unfortunately, as great as the numbers are for the league for road attendance, it must be pointed out that the numbers are deceiving for a few reasons. First, unlike the home attendance numbers, the road numbers don't work with a consistent number of seats. Montreal's Bell Centre will always have a capacity of 21,273. Road calculations include an "average" capacity and an "average" attendance that varies based on the size of the arena. If Detroit plays a historic rival like Chicago in Chicago's massive United Center and helps to sell it out twice times, but plays Edmonton at Rexall Place twice and sells that out as well, then the numbers become skewed:

Game @ Chicago: 21,423
Game @ Chicago: 21, 423
Game @ Edmonton: 16,839
Game @ Edmonton: 16,839

Average attendance: 19,131

Detroit gets a boost from playing a rival with a huge arena, so much that the average attendance of the games is almost 3,000 more than the capacity of Edmonton's arena! This is sort of an extreme example because as of the 2010-11 season these two teams were the highest and lowest maximum capacity arenas, but the point should still be clear. Some teams can benefit from having division rivals with huge arenas and others will reap the rewards of an arena that will be packed regardless of who is in town.

It does, to an extent, come down to the entertainment value of the on ice product. There is a reason Detroit is the top road team in terms of attendance in the league. They are a fast, dynamic, and highly skilled team whose roster boasts a lot of future Hall of Famers, some of which have been doing their victory laps the past few seasons. Who wouldn't want to get a last look at a guy like Yzerman, Lidstrom, Modano, or others? I don't believe this is as important a factor as the quality of the team but my point is that if you can make your on ice product attractive, you will draw wherever you go.

The bottom five teams in road attendance reiterate the very points Adam Proteau made in his article from last week. Teams without an identity or a lack of explosive star power are stuck making the "hard sell" to get fans to buy tickets. Atlanta/Winnipeg, Minnesota, St. Louis, and Nashville all have mixed or unclear identities. Minnesota and Nashville have been consistently defense-first teams since their inception, which makes for a less exciting product but has helped both teams achieve some success on the ice. Atlanta/Winnipeg is slowly shaping an identity associated with young, skilled players but the big move north could change all of that. St. Louis is a surprise on this list but it's been a long time since the Hall and Oates era, and Al MacInnis isn't coming back to shoot the puck 100 miles an hour anytime soon. I shouldn't have to point out the obvious here but these teams all have one thing in common: they have never won a Stanley Cup and with the exception of Minnesota's agonizing cup run in 2003, none of them have significant playoff success to talk about since the lockout.

To conclude, the road numbers are a little deceiving to the naked eye. Unlike the home numbers, the road numbers are an average based on the average attendance divided by the average capacity. It's good to see that a huge chunk of the league can draw fans in any city. I can't help but look back at the home numbers and wonder if they aren't more reflective of a team's product since they are solid figures that don't lose analytically value because they represent an average based on where they play. Every team could stand to benefit from playing in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Montreal three times a year, where games will surely be sold out. Meanwhile, the Southeast division struggles mightily with attendance, arguably due to poor on-ice products.


There is another can of worms in the attendance question that I feel ill-prepared to ask and answer: what about pre-season and neutral location games? Do teams benefit from hosting an All-Star game? Information for the international games can be found here. Sadly there are no attendance numbers, but typically European rinks are smaller in terms of attendance capacity. As for neutral location pre-season games, They would not indicate much other than local interest in NHL exhibition games. I have my tickets already purchased for a preseason game between Montreal and Boston in Halifax. Should be a good time seeing the champs play their heated rivals.

In conclusion to the bigger questions this article aimed to address, it would appear that home attendance is more relevant statistic. I cannot be certain that the road numbers are entirely reflective of how well a team draws on the road, but it's interesting to see that on average, most teams play to a nearly full road barn. On-ice success and team identity contribute to bringing in fans in a road city, that much is sure. After all, it's simple logic; do you want to watch a recent Stanley Cup winning team, a historic franchise, a team stacked with skill, or teams who are almost always on the bubble of relocation and abysmal finishes? There is something to be said about watching the home team lay a beatdown on a weaker team, but you can only enjoy that so many times before you elect to stay home and watch Jersey Shore instead.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Wiz Biz: Retiring an NHL Number

How does a franchise decide what numbers to retire? What is the criteria? How much of an impact does it have on players currently playing?

These are all interesting questions that come up when hockey enthusiasts talk about the importance of a number. Some numbers are now immortalized by outstanding careers of certain players. For example, no one can ever wear #99 again. Not even you, Wilf Paiement. Below is a collection of fun facts related to retiring NHL numbers. Enjoy!

  • Currently, the Anaheim Ducks, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Florida Panthers, the Nashville Predators, the San Jose Sharks, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are the only teams without retired numbers. It seems inevitable that Anaheim will hang forward Teemu Selanne's #8 in the rafters and I suspect Tampa will consider retiring Dave Andreychuk's #25 now that he is VP in charge of fans. In due time, the remaining teams on this list will find their immortal player to raise to the rafters. Perhaps in due time Rick Nash in Columbus or Patrick Marleau in San Jose. Only time will tell.

  • As rare as it is to have your number retired, only six players have their number retired on more than one team as a direct result of their service. The Silver Six:
  • Bobby Hull: retired with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes
  • Gordie Howe: retired with the Detroit Red Wings and the Hartford Whales (now defunct)
  • Wayne Gretzky: retired with the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings (league wide)
  • Raymond Bourque: retired with the Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche
  • Mark Messier: retired with the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Rangers
  • Patrick Roy: Retired with the Montreal Canadiens and the Colorado Avalanche

  • The first number retired among NHL teams was Irvine Wallace "Ace" Bailey of the Toronto Maple Leafs. On December 12th, 1933, Ace was hit from behind by Eddie Shore and his career ended in an instant. An "all star" game was held on his behalf in 1934, where Shore and Bailey shook hands. The #6 remains in the rafters at the Air Canada Centre today.

  • Aside from Gretzky's #99, the #77 of Raymond Bourque is the next highest number, followed by #66 Mario Lemieux, and #35 of Tony Esposito and Mike Richter. The number most frequently retired number is #9, which has nine players on eleven teams including defunct teams:
  • Maurice Richard, Montreal Canadiens.
  • Gordie Howe, Detroit Red Wings and Hartford Whalers.
  • Johnny Bucyk, Boston Bruins.
  • Bobby Hull, Chicago Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets.
  • Lanny MacDonald, Calgary Flames.
  • Clark Gilles, New York Islanders.
  • Glenn Anderson, Edmonton Oilers.
  • Adam Graves, New York Rangers.
  • Andy Bathgate, New York Rangers.

Now that I have polluted your mind with an excess of facts about retired number, it's time to discuss the questions posed at the beginning of the article. If you take a glance at all of the names that are listed here and on the "List of NHL Retired Numbers" page, at least 90% of the names belong to players you know about. The scorers, the legendary goaltenders, the multi-time Stanley Cup Champions, and the legends of a time no one can remember. Some names that appear on that list are unrecognizable to even the most hardened hockey buffs. Who is Barry Ashbee? Bob Gassoff? Michel Brière? The latter two had their careers cut tragically short from accidents, while Ashbee was struck by in the eye and later died of leukemia.

The criteria for retiring a number is entirely dependent on context. Players who have been mediocre scorers or had only menial impact on the ice, all due respect to them, have had their numbers retired. Statistics do not matter as much as you would think they should. The retiring of a number is about more than the game itself. Men who have been deemed the "heart and soul" of a team, those who have died tragically or had their careers cut abruptly short, and those who served their team loyally have earned their place in the rafters of the home team arena.

The perfect example to demonstrate my point is New York Islanders forward Bob Nystrom. Dubbed "Mr. Islander" and beloved by Long Island fans, Nystrom's career statistics are not by any means mind boggling: in 900 regular season games, Nystrom scored 235 goals, 278 assists, 513 points and 1248 penalty minutes. In 157 playoff games, Nystrom had 83 points and 236 penalty minutes. His statistics are somewhat comparable to Tomas Holmstrom with the except of Nystrom's seemingly fearless attitude towards taking penalties. But he will always be remembered for the goal.

Skip to about 1:30 to get to the good stuff. Tonelli to Nystrom, back of the net. The beginning of a dynasty. Nystrom would remain a central piece of the Islander dynasty that would go on to dominate the NHL for four years before the Oilers finally toppled their empire in 1983-1984. Nystrom's play would peter off after the successful run of the Islanders until he retired in 1986. Nystrom was a power forward who was not afraid to get physical, but more important to his legacy are the four playoff overtime winners and his dedication to the Long Island community. After retiring he remained with the team in a number of positions, including Director of Special Projects, Director of Community Relations, Director of Amateur Hockey Development & Alumni Relations, and finally Director of Corporate Relations. His jersey was retired in 1995.

Nystrom wasn't the power scorer like Mike Bossy, but one could argue no one was or will be. He also wasn't the two way dynamo that was Bryan Trottier. He may not even have been as strong a power forward as Clark Gilles. Yet all four men have their numbers retired by the Islanders, rightfully so, and Nystrom will not be forgotten by Islanders faithful for being the man who put the puck in the net for their first championship. It's players like Nystrom who belong in the rafters alongside the Potvins and the Bossys. The easy choices are always the trophy winners, the all-time scorers, or the legendary defensemen. The best choices are the players who represent the heart of a team and the soul of the community.

The Wiz Biz: Predictions in August?

Sitting at my dining room table, I contemplate the next season and what teams will be successful and what teams will be golfing by April. I ask myself "why am I doing this in August?" and I remember I'm a hockey blogger. I should probably write these things more often. Today I am going to pick five teams who I think will go from outside the playoffs to legitimate threats to grab a 5 through 8 seed.

1. The Dallas Stars: The Stars were their own worst enemies last season, missing the playoffs by just two points and allowing the defending champions a change to repeat. Chicago didn't exactly have a great finish to the season either, or even a good beginning or middle, but Dallas somehow managed to blow their chance to get back into the playoffs. Cut to the offseason where Dallas lost forward Brad Richards to "greener" pastures in New York. Jamie Langenbrunner skipped town as well. Fortunately, Dallas made a couple of key moves in free agent signings, grabbing Michael Ryder, Radek Dvorak, Vernon Fiddler, and Sheldon Souray. While none of these signings are mind boggling, they help to fill out a lineup already desperate for some depth. Souray finally leaves Edmonton where he was vastly overpaid to ride the pine and Dallas picks up a competent defenseman if only for the power play. The key to Dallas' success, methinks, hinges on Loui Eriksson having another solid 70 point season and goaltender Kari Lehtonen putting up some outstanding performances between the pipes like he did last season. They just missed the playoffs last season; this year I think they finally get in after three seasons of being MIA in April.

2. The Calgary Flames: If I give credit to Dallas for just missing the playoffs by 2 points, I have to give credit to Calgary for missing by just one more point. They sort of blew their chances in March with a 2-5-2 skid that included two back-to-back 4-3 losses at home. Ouch. The question for Calgary's success is simple: is Jarome Iginla still here? Check. Is Miikka Kiprusoff still here? Check. Did the supporting cast get better for their two stars? Well, it didn't get worse. Resigning Brendan Morrison and Alex Tanguay were excellent moves, but I can't help but wonder about their backup goaltending situation. All due respect to the resigned Henrik Karlsson, I think Calgary needs to sign someone who can shoulder a bigger load to prevent Kipper from playing another 70 game season. Kiprusoff is a workhorse and has played 70 games for the last six seasons. That's a lot of time in the crease. Since the lockout and Calgary's fabled run in 2003-2004, Kipper and the Flames have played just 26 playoff games, winning a grand total of nine of them. I don't want to say it's fatigue, but by the numbers, Kipper plays worse. I think bringing in someone like Marty Turco, another aged veteran who can shoulder a decent load, Calgary could keep the pressure off of their star goalie in the back half of the season but not sacrifice credibility in the crease. Turco needs a job, Calgary needs a strong veteran backup to keep them from skidding late in the season. It's a match made in heaven and it should propel them at least into 8th.

3. The Carolina Hurricanes: The Cardiac 'Canes were exciting last year, as usual, and just missed the playoffs by two points. Carolina really suffered most in the first half of the season and had a ho-hum February. The difference between them getting in and staying at home was an 0-4-1 skid in March that included three one goal losses. to Atlanta in OT and a 3-2 chess match with Columbus. Still, there's plenty to be excited about for next season. Cam Ward, Jeff Skinner, and Eric Staal are still there, which means more speed and heart attack inducing play. They gleaned Brian Boucher, Tomas Kaberle, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart from various teams, but lost the underachieving Erik Cole. Overall I like their forwards and the dynamic nature of their lineup. Lots of youth and lots of speed. I don't think they will lose as many one goal games anymore, and they can rely on Boucher in nets a little more than their last backup.

4. The Toronto Maple Leafs: Despite my own personal grudge towards the Leafs, I can't deny that the team is improving. Were it not for a horrible start to the season (13-19-4 before 2011) they would have finished less than eight points out of a playoff position. Still, the Leafs problem last season was primarily that of a team lacking defensive prowess and goaltending. Luckily for them James Reimer came out of nowhere and put forth a 20-10-5 effort that included 3 shutouts and a .921 save percentage. Not bad for a rookie. The offseason was a busy one for the Leafs, acquiring John-Michael Liles from Colorado, dumping Brett Ledba for Cody Fransen and Mathew Lombardi, and signing porcelain scorer Tim Connolly. These were all good improvements for the team but the problem next season will be to keep the goals against down....way down. Only four regulars in the lineup who played more than 50 games were above a +/- if zero. Phil Kessel can't score 64 points and be a -20 on the year anymore. If this team is to make the push up the standings, which I believe they can, they need someone to play with Kessel and they need their defense to work hard.

5. The Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers are going to be the sexy pick everyone takes to make the playoffs this season. As grim as 2010-11 was for the team, there is more hope in the city of Edmonton than there has been in...oh, say 23 years ago to the day. While nobody on the team is anywhere close to Wayne Gretzky in any sense, the lineup is stacked with young, talented players who are about to explode out of the gate. Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi, Ryan Whitney, Linus Omark, and now Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are all going to be stars very soon. The Achilles heel of this team right now is the situation in nets. There was a point last year where it seemed as though former Stanley Cup Champion Nikolai Khabibulin was just there for the paycheck and nothing more. Devan Dubnyk will challenge the Bulin Wall for his job and hopefully will force Khabibulin to play at a level that isn't embarrassing. The return of Ryan Smyth will mean less pressure on the kids to be leaders, which should set up a season similar to Carolina's 2010-2011 season. Exciting but just a bit short.

That's all for now, folks. Enjoy the offseason.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Wiz Biz: Hockey Books

If you're a true puckhead, you probably have a few magazines, books, novels, or newspapers hanging around the house related to hockey. Be it the annual fantasy predictions, anecdotal histories, trivia books, yearbooks, or biographies, there is a respectable market for reading material related to the sport. Every now and then you may stumble upon on something that catches your eye at a book store or a yard sale. You can't help but wonder what the author has to say and you ring it up at the register. I've been guilty of seeking out these little treasures in used book stores or flea markets every now and then. Without a doubt, whether you're a casual fan or a hardcore blogger/analyst, there's reading material out there for you that describes some aspect of the hockey world.

If there's one thing that I've learned in my limited time as a hockey blogger, a historian, and a writer, it's that people love anecdotal history. For those unfamiliar with the term, an anecdote is a whimsical or amusing story about someone or something that is, to borrow the Hollywood byline, "based on a true story." Something short, to the point, and funny is bound to catch the eyes of the general public, and rightfully so. Any time people can hear a story about a celebrity or a professional athlete, the closer they feel to the sport and the more human their idols become. It's part of the reason why Twitter has been outstanding for reminding us that our heroes are just like us.

Getting back to hockey books, I find the best ones are often bits of anecdotal history. Obviously Ken Dryden's "The Game" remains an absolute must read for hockey fans. It is untouchable in its legacy and its incredibly intelligent language. For now, we'll put Dryden back on the shelf and talk about something more digestible to a more casual crowd.

Several months ago, I was meandering through a used book store looking for one of those thick hardcover books that give a year-by-year breakdown of the NHL. I used to borrow these large volumes from the elementary school library and at 10 had almost memorized every Cup winning team since the NHL's inception in 1917. In my quest to find one of these hockey bibles, even to find a whisper of the publishing company, I stumbled across an unusual paperback book titled "Brian McFarlane's Original Six: The Red Wings." Attracted by the beautiful winged wheel that graced the cover, I picked it up to inspect. My background as a Master of Arts in History was definitely tickled at the idea of a book about the history of my favorite sports team so I spent the generous price of six dollars to bring the book home. Little did I know that what I would find inside would reignite my passion for writing and my thirst for history.

McFarlane collected a series of one or two page anecdotes about the Red Wings, beginning with their creation in the 1930s, the glory of the first twenty years of the team, and even the dreadful 42 year drought where Hockeytown's finest were laughed at by the rest of the league and dubbed the "Dead Things" or the "Dread Wings" for their pitiful performance on ice. I suffered silently through the punishment of forty years of defeat to the Yzerman and Bowman years. Once again I was reminded of the safety center Steve Yzerman and coach Scotty Bowman brought to the team. Finally, Detroit was not only respectable but dangerous among the league's constantly increasing ranks. The glory of 1997 came in the final chapter.

Unfortunately, it was not without more pain. I was reminded, as I was recently by a YouTube clip of his rehabilitation, of the tragic story of Vladimir Konstantinov. As most Detroit Red Wings fans know, on June 13th 1997 Konstantinov, Slava Fetisov, and team masseuse Sergei Mnatsakanov were involved in a brutal traffic collision that left Vladimir seriously injured and Sergei in a coma. Konstantinov's career was over in an instant, with an entire fan nation grieving. McFarlane has a couple of heartwarming stories about Vlad in his book. Here is The brief follow up clip of Konstantinov:

To my delight I discovered the Red Wings were just one of six books included in this series by McFarlane. I have yet to find the other five in the used book store so my search may have to begin on Amazon's website. Still, if you have any interest at all in some of the rich history of the Original Six teams, McFarlane's work is excellent. I wish I could share more about the contents of the book itself but there are a plethora of stories that are best left undiscovered until you get to read them yourself. And don't worry, there's plenty of amazing stories about Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.