What hap­pened in Kanata?

With Sen­a­tors cov­er­ing seats with tarps, it’s fair to wonder

The Daily Press (Timmins) - - SPORTS - SCOTT STIN­SON

If the Carolina Hur­ri­canes were throw­ing tarps over 1,500 seats in the up­per bowl, if the Phoenix Coy­otes were try­ing to goose ca­pac­ity fig­ures by low­er­ing ca­pac­ity, if the Florida Pan­thers were tweak­ing ticket de­mand by re­duc­ing the sup­ply, it is fair to say that we in the Cana­dian sports me­dia would be rais­ing a good stink about it.

I can say that be­cause I would be one of the stink-rais­ers. We’d be hav­ing an­other good chuckle about the over­ex­pan­sion of the Na­tional Hockey League in the south­ern U.S., and we’d be giv­ing Gary Bettman a metaphor­i­cal boop on the snoot about the folly of keep­ing teams in failed mar­kets and ask­ing, again, why the league is adding a 31st fran­chise when it clearly has prob­lems with some of the ex­ist­ing 30.

But, it is the Ot­tawa Sen­a­tors that are re­mov­ing 1,500 seats from the ticket pool, and so we don’t know quite what to think. Haven’t we been say­ing for years that the NHL’S Cana­dian mar­kets are unas­sail­able? Don’t we take as a given that the NHL should be in Que­bec and it should put an­other team in the Toronto area and maybe some­where in Saskatchewan while it’s at it?

The whole idea is that hockey is our game and only we care deeply enough about it to sup­port teams through lean years, out­side U.S. cities that are ei­ther big or cold, or both.

But then, Ot­tawa. The sim­ple fact is that a Cana­dian NHL team is hav­ing trou­ble sell­ing tick­ets. What hap­pened?

There is no lack of con­tribut­ing fac­tors, to be sure, as was ex­plained at length when the team first suf­fered the ob­vi­ous em­bar­rass­ment last spring of be­ing un­able to sell out play­off games. Sec­ond-round play­off games, even.

The Cana­dian Tire Cen­tre is out in the wilds of Kanata, which makes at­tend­ing a game some­thing of an un­der­tak­ing. The city’s big­gest em­ployer is the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, which re­moves the pos­si­bil­ity of pack­ing the stands with suits who are en­ter­tain­ing their clients. And on a re­lated note, the prob­lems with the gov­ern­ment’s pay­roll ser­vice were at their peak last spring, with tens of thou­sands of em­ploy­ees miss­ing pay­cheques, tak­ing at least some of the area’s nor­mally dis­pos­able in­come out of cir­cu­la­tion.

But other than the pay­roll snafu, the other stuff is not new. Kanata has not re­cently moved far­ther from down­town Ot­tawa, and the team has av­er­aged more than 19,000 fans — above ca­pac­ity — at var­i­ous points in its his­tory, in­clud­ing the 2012-13 sea­son. And if the blame is as­signed to gov­ern­ment work­ers who can’t woo clients with fancy hockey tick­ets, that doesn’t ex­plain why the at­ten­dance prob­lems have mostly been lim­ited to the cheap seats.

Sen­a­tors pres­i­dent Tom Anselmi told an au­di­ence at city hall on Tues­day that sales in the pricey seats have been fine, which re­flects the ev­i­dence from the play­offs last sea­son, when there were thou­sands of empty chairs in the up­per reaches.

Anselmi also said the Sens need to sell 2,000 sea­son-ticket pack­ages over the next two years, which is not a mod­est num­ber. He put it bluntly on Tues­day: “We just need more of us to come to more games more of­ten.” It is hard not to no­tice the Ari­zona vibe of those com­ments.

Can the dip in in­ter­est be at­trib­uted to play­off-fail­ure malaise? The Sen­a­tors have made the post­sea­son in 16 of the past 20 sea­sons, a record that many teams (hello, Toronto and Ed­mon­ton) would envy, although they went as far as the con­fer­ence fi­nals only three times. That does tend to wear on a fan base.

Is it style of play? Ot­tawa was on the bor­ing side last sea­son, 22nd in the league in goals scored, but they were 26th in scor­ing in 2012-13 and were sixth in the NHL in at­ten­dance, ver­sus 21st last sea­son.

Per­haps all the talk of the need for a down­town arena, which has been a con­stant theme from own­er­ship in re­cent years, has caused the pub­lic to agree: “You’re right, Mr. Mel­nyk, we don’t care to make the trek out to the sticks any longer.” (Although, if you are in­clined to be­lieve that sports teams are usu­ally be­ing dis­hon­est with the pub­lic — a fair as­sump­tion, re­ally — then re­mov­ing seats in Kanata is one way to keep the drum­beat for the new arena go­ing. “Look how much we are strug­gling out here!”)

Or maybe, and this would be some­thing that should give the NHL pause, it’s the ar­rival of the new neigh­bours that has caused the Sen­a­tors to pale by com­par­i­son. The CFL’S Red­blacks — sorry, RED­BLACKS — have played to con­sis­tent sell­outs since their ar­rival in 2014, and CFL ex­ec­u­tives pos­i­tively swoon about the game-day ex­pe­ri­ence at Lans­downe Park and how it has turned foot­ball games into day-long par­ties. Win­ning the Grey Cup couldn’t have hurt.

It could be just that sim­ple: The peo­ple who nor­mally spent their en­ter­tain­ment dol­lars on nose­bleeds for the Sens are park­ing that money with the hot CFL con­cern. It’s a the­ory, which is all we have, for the Cana­dian NHL team that has de­cided it has more seats than it can sell.

Com­ing soon, per­haps: The Ot­tawa SEN­A­TORS.


Ot­tawa Se­na­tor’ for­wards Zack Smith and Bobby Ryan re­act as the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins cel­e­brate a 3-2 win in Game 4 of the East­ern Con­fer­ence Fi­nal dur­ing the 2017 NHL Stan­ley Cup Play­offs, at Cana­dian Tire Cen­tre.

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