Hat-trick of Winnipeg hockey teams not likely to last
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Turns out you can have too much of a good thing.
And the Winnipeg Jets, Manitoba Moose and Winnipeg Ice are learning that lesson the hard way this year, with plenty of good seats still available nearly every time each plays a home game.
That’s not an indictment at all on this market. We are among the healthiest and most vibrant in the world when it comes to hockey. The very fact we have an NHL team, an AHL team and a WHL team is proof of that.
But there’s only so much disposable time and income to go around, and even less so in this post-pandemic world. The cold, harsh reality is that it looks like this town isn’t ultimately going to be big enough for the Jets, Moose and Ice to co-exist for much longer.
No, the Jets aren’t going anywhere, despite a significant drop in attendance. Unlike what we saw in the mid-‘90s, ownership is stable and deep pocketed. True North continues to invest in the community, including major real estate projects (Portage Place being the latest) and re-development downtown. The foundation is rock-solid.
I suspect the Moose are here for the long haul as well, despite fewer fans than ever laying eyes on the product. Big-league clubs love having their minor-league affiliate as close as possible, with Winnipeg being among the first to do so when the St. John’s Ice Caps re-located to Canada Life Centre in time for the 2015-16 season. There’s a big benefit for myriad reasons, and you’re now seeing more and more organizations follow suit.
The Ice, however, appear to be on the endangered list. Despite promises from co-owner Greg Fettes in 2019 that a shiny new 4,500 seat facility would be built to house the re-located club from Kootenay, B.C., no ground has been broken. And if there’s a plan in place, it’s definitely a well-kept secret. Talk in hockey circles is increasing that the Ice are likely to be on the move once again.
It’s really too bad. Junior hockey at the highest level is often a non-stop joyride, with wild momentum swings and back-and-forth action that you typically don’t get in the much more structured, system-heavy professional ranks. And the club that continues to call Wayne Fleming Arena home is as exciting as it gets, with a legitimate chance to win a Memorial Cup following a 57-10-1 regular season that was best in the WHL.
There’s plenty of sizzle and star power on the roster, with already drafted prospects like Matthew Savoie (Buffalo Sabres), Conor Geekie (Arizona Coyotes), Carson Lambos (Minnesota Wild), Zach Ostapchuk (Ottawa Senators), Graham Sward (Nashville Predators), Carson Latimer (Ottawa Senators), Connor McClennon (Philadelphia Flyers) and Mikey Milne (Minnesota Wild) along with a prized young player who will get selected this summer such as leading scorer Zachary Benson (98 points in 60 regular-season games).
Despite all that, they’ve never really been able to establish a buzz around here. Case in point: Last Friday’s opening-round playoff game against the Medicine Hat Tigers, in which a crowd of just 1,247 was announced. That’s well short of the approximate capacity of 2,000, and significantly less than the regular-season average of 1,649, which was lowest in the entire league.
Junior hockey at the highest level is often a non-stop joyride, with wild momentum swings and back-and-forth action… Despite all that, they’ve never really been able to establish a buzz around here.
Imagine what those numbers would look like if the Ice were lousy.
It certainly didn’t help that the Jets were playing downtown at the same time. The Ice attendance rebounded a bit the next night (1,618) — the Moose had a home date that night as well — but that’s still hundreds less than what Kootenay used to get, which ultimately forced the re-location in the first place. It’s simply not sustainable.
The question we likely will never get answered is whether they could even come close to packing a hypothetical bigger rink that is probably never going to be built. The Ice are now awaiting their second-round opponent, and there’s a chance that it could be Connor Bedard and the Regina Pats. What a shame that would be for such a huge series to only be watched by, at most, 2,000 fans per game.
The Calgary Hitmen, it should be noted, sold out the Scotiabank Saddledome earlier this year (19,289) for a regular-season tilt with the Pats.
I’m often asked why the Ice wouldn’t move their playoff games to Canada Life Centre. The reality is, True North likely isn’t in a hurry to help out a competitor in a highly competitive market such as this, even if the Ice were capable of selling more tickets. There’s no doubt the Ice have cut into the Moose attendance, as both offer similar price points and cater to families and children, especially.
Consider this: The Moose averaged 4,722 fans in the 2018-19 season, when the Ice were playing their final season in British Columbia. That was around the middle of the pack by AHL standards. This year, Manitoba is drawing just 3,800 spectators per game. That’s 27th out of 32 clubs, with only Abbotsford, Tucson, Bridgeport, Belleville and San Jose attracting fewer fans. Cleveland leads the league with 9,527 per game, which is in the neighbourhood of what the Moose used to draw back in the pre-Jets 2.0 days when they were the only show in town.
To truly show how far those numbers have fallen, Manitoba drew 7,285 per game in their first season back in 2015-16, which was ninth best in the AHL.
Jets attendance has really taken a dive this year, with a sold-out barn now a rare occurrence rather than the norm. There has been just a handful of full houses this year, and the average crowd is 14,060. That’s 30th in the league, with only the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes (who play in a 5,000 seat college rink) behind them.
Case in point: Wednesday’s “game of the year” between the Jets and Flames pulled in 14,077. Granted, the city and surrounding area had been hit with a significant storm which likely impacted walk-up sales. But there was a time, not very long ago, when all tickets would have been spoken for long before the snow started flying. The reality is, this is now considered an average crowd around here.
There’s no question the fact fans have more options than ever on where to spend their hard-earned money is a factor as well.
Winnipeg is 22nd out of 32 if you go by capacity, with 93.7 per cent attendance. They are a much more expensive ticket than the Moose or Ice, and the biggest reason for the downturn is likely related to economic struggles and significant inflation.
But there’s no question the fact fans have more options than ever on where to spend their hard-earned money is a factor as well. And this doesn’t even cover the fact that many of the people who go to games, whether they’re the Jets, Moose and/or Ice, are parents and players themselves, racing from rink to rink for much of the season with their own games and practices to attend.
The three-headed hockey monster was a nice idea, in theory. In reality, it’s likely a case of biting off more than we could chew. A market “correction” is likely just around the corner.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.