Muggin’ - On Attendance and Relocation

Should the NHL be preparing for “Les Ouragans du Québec”?

Look, before we get this going, I’m going to state one thing up front: I hate any and all talk of relocation. As a Cleveland Browns fan, having to endure seeing my team move—and then win two Super Bowls as the expansion replacement franchise has done nothing but take a giant dump on my living room sofa—has been a two-decade debacle that I will never really get over.

So, remember as you read this: I’m not advocating for anyone to relocate.

What I am going to say, though, is that if there is a team to relocate to Québec, it’s not going to be Columbus.

We all know the bullet points:

  • Jackets’ arena issues
  • low attendance
  • crappy results
  • “non-hockey” market/

But (/cue ESPN 30-for-30 voice), what if I told you that there was a team that had won a Stanley Cup in its history that was in worse shape?

“Why we will end up relocating to Quebec. Puck drops in 6 min.”
—text message from my brother that accompanied this photo

This was from Sunday’s Carolina Hurricanes game against Florida. Just to be sure: most of the red you see here are people dressed as empty red seats.

Arena Issues

Carolina doesn’t have the lease issues that Columbus has/had. They share a facility with NC State university basketball, and the building—while not centrally located—is accessible by freeway and has a vibrant tailgating scene by virtue of being located on a fairgrounds site also right next to the NCSU football stadium. I can speak from experience: Carolina is a fun place to attend a game, especially when the temperatures are warm enough to tailgate (which, for me, has been literally every time I’ve been to a game there).

That said, despite being only one year older that Nationwide Arena, PNC Arena is a barn. It is not on par with buildings such as NWA, and my only conclusion is that it was originally conceived to be a basketball building first. And, given its age and multi-use, the Hurricanes probably aren’t looking to move anytime soon. It was a publicly funded arena—for the most part—and I can’t imagine them going to that well. As we’ve seen in Columbus, having two single-purpose sports arenas in the same metro area... it’s not good times.

So, if the Hurricanes are looking to make that sweet, sweet arena money... it ain’t happening in Raleigh. Not anytime soon, anyway.

Low Attendance

While we have often lamented at the attendance in Columbus when the team is bad, Carolina is in worse shape. Not only have they not seen playoff hockey since 2009, they are bringing up the rear in league-wide attendance both this season and last. They have had decent attendance numbers when the team was competitive (sound familiar?), but as the last few years have showed, they are struggling. Consider that, in the five seasons following their most recent playoff berth, they averaged a shade under 16,000 fans per game (15,933) and finishing between 17th and 23rd league wide.

For a market like Carolina, that’s pretty damn fine.

However, in the past three seasons (including this one), they are down to 12,251 per game, finishing 29th, 30th, and currently sitting 30th in the NHL. This season, through nine games, they’re averaging just over 10,000 fans per game. And that’s just paid attendance.

“Announced attendance was about 8,100, but I would guess there were about half that many butts in the seats.”
—my brother again, after the game in the picture above

Crappy Results

Look, we know all about this one, too, this young season notwithstanding. But, in many ways, our teams mirror each other on the ice, too. Under former GM Jim Rutherford—who somehow failed upward into a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh—the Hurricane floundered over the end of his tenure. They got next to nothing from the draft while continually giving contracts they shouldn’t to players they shouldn’t.

GM Ron Francis, since taking over, has basically had to do what we’ve been pining for: wait out/ship out those awful contracts while waiting for the backfill from the draft to mature. The Canes currently have over $15 million in cap space, and that’s even with buyouts to James Wisniewski and Alexander Semin sitting there. The former lasts for this year and next, while Semin’s has four more years after this.

The Hurricanes over-achieved last season, and now look primed to be a decent team in a couple years’ time. Once they can identify a long-term answer in goal, their young defense has the potential to be strong for at least the next five to seven years; all of their regulars minus UFA-to-be Ron Hainsey are 26 and younger, and include monsters like Justin Faulk and Noah Hannifin. This doesn’t even count Haydn Fleury, either, sitting in the AHL or Jake Bean who was just drafted this summer.

They smartly used that cap space to eat the last year of Bryan Bickell’s awful contract, allowing them to steal Teuvo Teravainen from Chicago. They have “the third Finn” in Sebastian Aho making his North American debut. Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner--when healthy—can still contribute. Elias Lindholm is still under RFA control playing on a two year bridge. Julien Gauthier is sitting in the Q putting up numbers, as well.

They have some young goaltenders in the system, but need more depth there and up front. That said, this is a team that is actually in better shape in terms of their cap than Columbus, and has built up arguably the most important unit on the ice in their defense.

All of that is producing the (expected) mixed results. They played over their heads last season, and are scuffling a bit this season. That said, they have cap space, their full complement of draft picks (including an extra 2nd and 3rd in 2017), and a GM who seems to know what he wants and has been good at grabbing it in the draft.

“Francis is doing it right, just hope we don't lose the team in the process.”
—more from, you guessed it, my brother

“Non-Hockey” Market

We all get tired of this one, but I think it’s fair to say that Carolina is in the same spot we are. AND THEY HAVE A CUP!!

Moved in the late 90s from Hartford, they played for a Cup against Detroit (lost) in 2002 and then won a cup in 2006 against Edmonton. It was the perfect storm of getting fans engaged: at the end of the proverbial “five year honeymoon” period, they almost won a championship and then remained relevant until winning a title four years later.

Obviously, thus, fan support has been strong when the team is good, but it’s hard not to see how they struggle above the madness of ACC basketball, Carolina Panthers football, NASCAR, and the fact that many in the Raleigh-Durham area are transplants (meaning they may come in with another team’s allegiance).

My brother and his wife moved there in the fall of 2005. He was a strong, strong Avalanche fan before that, due to having gone to grad school in Colorado from 1996-2002 (anyone remember if that team was any good?). First year in Carolina? Stanley Cup.

(Have I mentioned that I hate this fact about him?)

That said, right now, there isn’t that pull to the new, casual fan when there are so many other things out there vying for their sports dollar, or they may already be affiliated with another team. We certainly know this vis a vis Ohio State here in our fair city.

The biggest difference? Ownership.

While we’ve long wondered about John P. McConnell’s feelings about the Blue Jackets, we never had to wonder about his late father’s feelings about the team and the city. To say that John P. would be lining up to destroy that part of his father’s legacy? I can’t get there.

But, Peter Karmanos... woof. He dicked over Hartford in the 90s by moving the team after essentially saying they’d stay if the fans ponied up for season tickets. They did (the magic number was 11,000 in the final season in Hartford, and Whaler fans delivered), but Karmanos moved the team anyway. As a Browns fan, again, I know how Hartford fans probably felt watching their team play for a title just five years later in a new city with new colors.

We know that, here in Columbus, the ticket sales will bounce up in 2017 if the team continues playing at this pace. Anyone that was at the final game against Nashville in 2013, or any of the final stretch games in 2014 knows this is true. That we have a young team that looks to be something sustainable should help the Jackets’ bottom line.

The Hurricanes might not be so lucky, though.

Even though they appear to be on the right track on the ice and in the organization, with attendance numbers where they are, in a “non-traditional” hockey market, and with an owner who’s shown no compunction about moving the team when it suits his bottom line, Hurricanes fans should probably be worried. Games like the one pictured above aren’t going to help, either.

All that much worse, they’d probably have to endure seeing their team be good shortly after moving.

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