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Opening Night Observations
By Mike Haggett
Published October 10, 2005

 

Where is Everybody?

The biggest headache of media people, columnists and avid hockey aficionados like myself is trying to figure out who went where, who retired and where others have completely fell off the face of the earth. I scan NHL.com & TSN.ca daily looking for information, and had to pick up The Hockey News 2005-06 Yearbook just to figure out where they all went. From reading the latest CBA and viewing contracts of those that signed this year, it appears that this is going to be an annual event. Sure, the superstars are easy to locate, except I had to go digging to find out where Paul Kariya ended up, as Nashville does not get a lot of press attention anywhere, unless of course, you are in Nashville.

Cheering for laundry is what fans are going to have to get used to, more than ever. With “cost certainty” (gee, thanks for that buzzword, Mr. Bettman) going to govern team payrolls, it is almost foolish for most mid-level players and lower to sign for anything longer than that.  If one has a breakout season, that three year, $1.5 million contract could be the biggest mistake a late bloomer could make. Looking up and down the line-ups on some clubs, as much as 50% of the team is on a one-year deal.

I cannot blame the players, if I was in the position that they were, I wouldn’t sign for more than a year, either, especially if I had potential for something bigger the next year. With that said, the hockey analysts and columnists will have short summers, and someone needs to tell The Hockey News that they need to go back to 50 issues a season.

What Happened, ESPN?

Another challenge this off-season was to figure out where hockey was going to be on the television this fall. ESPN, who has carried hockey for years in the States, decided for the hockey viewing public that Iona University versus Layola Marymount college basketball had a bigger following than the Red Wings versus the Avalanche or the Bruins against the Flyers. Some empty suit at the so-called “World Wide Leader In Sports” decided hockey interest by the American public was about as high as the Pro Bowlers Tour, and would draw just about as many. Thanks, ESPN. Thanks for being that partner of the league for years, and just when the league gets its act together, you send the league packing for a new TV deal with their little brother, the Outdoor Life Network.

Is this some sort of a joke? The sentence to Outdoor Life Network makes it sound like the league is playing on frozen ponds in the middle of rural Manitoba in January. The partner the league had for years just blew snow all over it like a power forward giving a white wash to a fallen opposition goaltender, complete with the spit on the ice insult afterward. Keep to airing the highly rated World Poker Tour, ESPN… I am getting a satellite dish and will gladly watch hockey seven nights a week.

Opening Night... The NHL is Back

In NHL arenas all around both countries, season ticket holders reunited with each other in the stands, rekindling relationships that in most cases had been put on hold as a result of the labor impasse. In some cases, those seeing each other for the first time in well over a year, was as emotional as the performance they were getting ready to witness. As those that know, the loyal hockey faithful that show up to the arena every night are more than just the paying public, in a lot of ways they are a family bound together by the passion of the game.

From looking at the attendance numbers, fans embraced the return of the NHL with open arms with 15 arenas averaging out to 98% capacity. It also set a single day attendance record of 275,447 patrons going through the turnstiles. What is most encouraging beyond the opening day numbers are season ticket sales. For renewals from 2003-04, 87.7% said “yes” to the 2005-06 campaign for their respective clubs, and increase of 3% over the renewal rate from 2002-03. Twenty-four clubs sold at least 1,000 new season ticket requests, with eleven of those having sold at least 2,000 new holders. Those numbers may push higher as some borderline fans may actually buy in under a pro-rated season pass, having seen the product. On a related note, TSN reported a single day record for viewer ship in its ten years, with a reported 2.1 million tuned in. The previous record for TSN was 1.3 million for a Philadelphia / Tampa Bay playoff game in 2004.

Beyond the business side of the game, the games themselves provided quite a night of entertainment. The Tampa Bay Lightning after long last finally raised the banner to celebrate their 2003-04 Stanley Cup title, amid an incredible laser show at the St. Petersburg Times Forum. If that wasn’t enough to get a fan charged, an epic battle between the Canadiens and Bruins took place in Boston. Before the game, Montreal greats Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer joined Boston greats Milt Schmidt, Derek Sanderson and John “Pie” McKenzie for the ceremonial puck drop. With a glimpse of what to expect in the future, Daniel Alfredsson’s shot low glove side on Toronto goaltender Eddie Belfour ushered in the first shootout win in the new era of the NHL as the Senators edged the Maple Leafs 3-2. Sidney Crosby gained his first assist in his first game in the NHL, only to see his Penguins get up ended in New Jersey 5-1.

Although this is only the start of the season, the numbers and the excitement looks very promising. Only time will tell how well received the new NHL will be in the smaller market teams in the southern United States. Here’s to hopes that the game succeeds and moves forward in a strong direction after having to endure an entire season in the dark. Ladies and gentleman… the NHL is back.

 What is your view? Contact Mike at psmaineiac@yahoo.com

 

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