When the United States beat Canada in the world junior hockey championship last Thursday night in Montreal, it closed a tournament with a mixed scorecard.
On the positive side, as is always the case, there was plenty special about this latest world juniors.
The high calibre of play throughout, especially that shown by Canada and the United States in the title game, speaks well of the state of junior hockey around the world. These players are so fast and creative, it’s often difficult to remember they are still teenagers.
Also notable was the increased move toward parity in the international game. No longer is it a tournament dominated by Canada and Russia. In fact, Canada and Russia have combined to win only two of the last eight tournaments. Meanwhile, less-heralded Finland has won twice over that same period and the Americans have won three times.
And, in perhaps the largest attraction for many Canadian hockey fans, the world juniors continue to offer the best stage upon which emerging super-talents destined for NHL careers can have their international introduction.
Halifax Mooseheads star forward Nico Hischier was a great example of that this year. His four goals and seven points over five games, accomplished while Switzerland was generally battling superior opponents, only strengthened the already strong case that his supporters make about his pro future.
Yet despite all the positives this tournament had going for it, one of the most memorable grades will be the mediocre mark for attendance.
This world junior event brought overall disappointing attendance figures, not only for games when Canada wasn’t involved but even for too many other games of significance that normally would have excited hockey fans.
I consider this too important a point to be overlooked. Such mediocrity in terms of interest is not typical of Canadian hosting experiences in international hockey events and certainly not an accurate snapshot of support by Canadian hockey fans toward Canadian junior hockey.
A few reasons have been offered for this. I believe it’s the high ticket prices. A CBC story said semifinal ticket prices were “$40 to more than $200, plus fees.” That seems an incredibly high price for junior hockey.
There was speculation late in the tournament that Hockey Canada would still meet its goal of $21 million in ticket sales. But the image of all the empty seats, especially in the huge Bell Centre, sure wasn’t impressive.
Plenty of study and examination has already been promised to uncover the reasons why so many fans in two of Canada’s largest populated areas didn’t turn out as expected for Canadian-hosted world junior tournaments in 2015 and 2017.
But, really, is any such study needed?
I recall when Halifax and Sydney set a world junior attendance record and tournament profit record in 2003 — with $3.68 million in profits and 242,173 in attendance. Then-Trade Centre CEO Fred MacGillivray predicted, due to the high potential profit shown in Halifax, the tournaments hosted in Canada would soon become the exclusive property of larger cities with larger arenas and a shot at increasing the income.
MacGillivray believed the markets chased the money.
And he was right.
Yet it appears the desire for more profit from the largest markets through high ticket prices has started to hurt the tournament’s local appeal.
The Hockey Canada crowd should have realized that after the 2015 tournament. Though prices were somewhat reduced for 2017, to improve on the disappointing gates from 2015, they clearly weren’t reduced enough.
Playing in the large markets of Toronto and Montreal in 2015 and 2017 and in Vancouver and Victoria in 2019 — none of which contain the same high-level enthused fan allegiance so typical of smaller markets where major junior is one of, if not the biggest, game in town — continues the trend of generally going where the profit potential is expected to be largest.
Hockey Canada officials will no doubt have another giant brainstorming session soon about what needs to be done to attract the most fans and gain the most profit when the tournament returns to Vancouver and Victoria in 2019.
Maybe the answer to this dilemma rests not in reams of financial data and forecasting charts, but with basic common sense.
Perhaps Hockey Canada should stop acting like a pro sports machine. Don’t risk more damage to your stellar reputation by resembling an organization interested in squeezing every cent possible out of the junior hockey market, even if the profit is going back to amateur hockey.
And stop taking too much for granted.
Use your expertise to put on a great tournament with reasonable — and I emphasize the word reasonable — ticket prices for loyal hockey fans in various Canadian markets who want to share in the Canadian tradition of watching the rest of the world’s hockey nations challenge us in our best game.
Let common sense be your guide, Hockey Canada, and I suspect you’ll again be properly rewarded in the largest markets, just as you once were in the smaller Canadian centres.