With NHL owners and players at a standoff and the lockout looming, the collateral damage of no NHL season may prove beneficial to junior hockey leagues and teams like the Trail Smoke Eaters and Beaver Valley Nitehawks.
As in most hockey markets, during the 2004-05 lockout when the NHL went on hiatus for a full season, attendance for Smokies and Hawks games increased on average, something local executives are hoping will happen if another lockout persists.
“If the NHL gets locked out it will have a great effect on local hockey,” said Nitehawks president Dennis Bedin. “Our biggest competitor for hockey is not other teams, it’s the television set.”
The recent exchange of proposals in New York Wednesday resolved nothing between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA director Donald Fehr, and with no agreement forthcoming, the 11:59 p.m Saturday deadline is closing in.
As Smoke Eaters players loaded the bus for a trip to Prince George for a Friday night tilt, the question of who to blame for the potential lockout was all but unanimous.
Trail forward Scotty Davidson and captain Garrett McMullen had no doubt who the villain is.
“Bettman for sure and the owners (are to blame,)” said McMullen.
Hockey players are entitled to their share of the money, because if it wasn’t for the players, there would be no league, he added.
However, Trail forward Jake Lucchini was a little less certain.
“I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I feel like the owners need to figure it out. But if there’s not NHL games going on or anything, hopefully more fans will come out and watch (the Smokies).”
While a Canadian public opinion poll conducted by Ipsos-Reid near the start of the 2004-05 lockout found that 52 percent of those polled blamed NHL players for the lockout and only 21 percent blamed the owners of NHL teams, this year’s results may be different.
The owners are looking to cut the players share of the profits from 57 percent to 47 percent, about a $330 million collective pay cut, and of course the players aren’t budging – well not much.
The NHLPA proposal Wednesday accepted gradual reductions over a longer time period – five years – in anticipation of a bigger split of “hockey related revenues.” That bucket of money grew from $2.1 billion in 2003-04 to $3.3 billion last year.
Other issues like increasing entry-level contracts from three years to five, salary caps, revenue sharing, and determining who is most gluttonous remain.
During the last lockout, over 300 NHL players went to Europe to play while many others joined minor league and junior teams.
In the Western Hockey League, the Calgary Hitmen were the most watched team in North America, averaging 10,062 fans per game. Their season total of 362,227 shattered the WHL and CHL records and represented a 33 percent increase over 2003–04. The Vancouver Giants also experienced a massive increase, finishing second in the WHL with 302,403 fans going through the turnstiles.
“I would guess it was a 15 percent increase for us,” said Smoke Eater director Scott McKinnon. “But we had a pretty good team that year too.”
But then again, teams absorbing NHL players also cause a ripple effect.
For instance, Pittsbugh Penguins’ 2012 first overall draft pick Derrick Pouliot, along with Sven Bartschi (Calgary Flames), Joe Morrow (Pittsburgh Penguins), Nino Niederreiter (New York Islanders), and Ryan Johansen (Columbus Bluejackets) are all eligible to return and play with the Portland Winterhawks this season. Which means a guy like Winterhawks forward and Trail native Joey Baker and four other players may risk losing their spot.
Teams will be much improved, as the filtering process settles and mean a bonus for fans, but then again new arrivals means another player gets bumped down the line.
Still, the absence of NHL hockey should translate into more fans in Cominco and Beaver Valley Arena seats, a few more burgers and programs sold, and a few more fans investing in the future of their hometown teams.
“It’s an unfortunate good thing for us,” said McKinnon. “If it goes into December and January and we’re playing well I figure it will be a definite plus for us.”
The Nitehawks president, Bedin, agrees.
“I think the challenge for us as local teams is to provide a setting and a product that not only the hockey team but the whole experience at the hockey arena has to be what people expect, and we’re getting a second chance at this market that a lot of times we don’t get,” says Bedin. “If the NHL gets locked out everybody has to get their fix.”