"Good seats still available."
It's a phrase not commonly associated with the Winnipeg Jets, certainly not since the NHL returned in 2011 and a hockey ticket quickly became the hottest in town, often making you the envy of all your peers.
Which is why Tuesday's announced crowd of 14,764 at Bell MTS Place is significant. It marks the first time, at least officially, that the club has failed to pack the house for a home game since re-locating from Atlanta, a pretty incredible string of 332 sold-out contests.
The downtown barn, as currently configured, seats 15,325 for hockey.
No doubt some will note the irony of the lengthy streak coming to an end against the Arizona Coyotes, a.k.a Jets 1.0 who bolted for the desert following the 1995-96 season due to a number of factors, including sagging attendance at the old Winnipeg Arena.
And while nobody is suggesting the current incarnation of the club is in any kind of significant long-term trouble, it's certainly an interesting development. And one, according to True North Sports & Entertainment, that's been expected, even if it might be catching plenty of observers by surprise.
"As it’s our ninth season in the NHL, it’s anticipated that occasionally some games will not be sell-out crowds," Rob Wozny, TNSE's vice-president of communications and content, told me Wednesday in response to a series of questions.
There have been games in the past where not every seat was occupied, but it was still listed as a full house. That's due to a number of factors, including people not using their tickets and game-day NHL "holds" being released but going unclaimed. Those are all still counted as sold tickets.
Just before puck dropped for last Thursday's home opener against Minnesota, I went on Ticketmaster and counted about 160 available seats for purchase, mostly individual. It was a smaller number, around 40, for Sunday evening's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In both cases, the announced attendance was a sell-out of 15,325.
"As Winnipeg continues to clean up from one of the worst storms in our city's history, we're also feeling some impact as fans have other priorities this week." – Rob Wozny, TNSE's vice-president of communications and content
But Tuesday was different. True North unable to claim every ticket was spoken for in one form or another for the first time. The end result was the smallest announced crowd in Jets 2.0 history as they lost 4-2 to the Coyotes.
Now, 561 unsold seats is hardly a reason to hit the panic button and have the moving trucks on stand-by, especially considering thousands of people are still grappling with the aftermath of the massive snow dump and power outages over the Thanksgiving long weekend.
"As Winnipeg continues to clean up from one of the worst storms in our city's history, we're also feeling some impact as fans have other priorities this week. Additionally, we've had a heavy event schedule including two recent sold-out Elton John concerts, two sold-out Jets games and two Moose games. As a result, we're anticipating some softer crowds for both the Jets and Moose," said Wozny.
"Please keep it within context that demand for some games will naturally be higher than others, and if there are tickets unsold, it’s an extremely small amount. Context is important here — approximately 98 per cent of our capacity (on Tuesday night)."
Indeed, a look around the entire NHL shows only a handful of teams have attendance at 100 per cent or better. Some markets such as Ottawa (61.2 per cent), the New York Islanders (71.6 per cent), Florida (85.3 per cent) and Carolina (85.5 per cent) would love to have a rink that is 98 per cent full on its worst night.
With an average crowd now of 15,138, the Jets are still at 98.7 per cent capacity through three games. Here in hockey-crazed Canada, that trails only Toronto (103.3 per cent). Winnipeg is the same as Montreal, slightly ahead of Edmonton (98.4 per cent) and Vancouver (98.3 per cent), quite a bit ahead of Calgary (94.9 per cent), and miles ahead of the sad-sack Senators.
"We’re one of the few teams in the NHL that has a season seat holder wait list, and we’re grateful to our fans on that list awaiting an opportunity to move into season seats." – Rob Wozny
The Jets continue to have a sold-out season ticket base, and any unsold seats are among those that are left available for single-game sales.
"We’re one of the few teams in the NHL that has a season seat holder wait list, and we’re grateful to our fans on that list awaiting an opportunity to move into season seats. As we enter our ninth season, the waitlist is approximately 4,000 seats," said Wozny.
Still, moving those available game-day tickets is proving to be a chore, not a luxury. Most season-ticket holders will tell you that, as the demand isn't nearly the same as it was a few years ago.
All of which explains why you've started to hear and see more promotions than ever for purchasing tickets, including mini-packs, along with Tweets from the official team site declaring "good seats still available" sometimes just a few hours before faceoff.
My social media lit up late Tuesday night and through Wednesday at the mere mention of the empty seats, with several folks offering their own hot takes about who or what is to blame. Among the common themes: Overpriced tickets, which continue to go up every season. Expensive concessions and beer prices. A diminished on-ice product this season. A financially tapped-out market, which includes back-to-back playoff appearances.
Then there's the fact Winnipeg is a saturated sports market these days, especially when it comes to hockey. You have the Jets and their AHL affiliate, the Moose, playing a combined 79 home games, not including pre-season or playoffs. You also have the Winnipeg Ice playing their inaugural season in the Western Hockey League, not to mention the Winnipeg Blues of the MJHL, the Bisons men's and women's teams, the MMJHL, high school and minor-league hockey, which occupies so much time among participants and fans of the sport.
"Historically, October has traditionally been a bit of a slower month for selling available inventory as fans settle into the fall hockey season," said Wozny.
Fair enough, but that's never prevented them from packing the place. Wozny said it's too early in the season to speculate on what might be the root causes of a potential attendance drop, but that it's a situation they continue to monitor.
"We’ll continue to review attendance as part of our regular course of business. We’re in an enviable position of having a very committed fan base," he said.
With so much roster turnover this summer, it was pretty much a given the Jets might have some struggles when it comes to the on-ice product this season, and we've already seen some early evidence of that with a 4-4-0 start. But now, for the first time, some off-ice challenges have emerged as well.
There's no question the honeymoon phase is over when it comes to the local love affair with the hockey team. And while there's no sign a future divorce is on the horizon, it seems the relationship is a lot more complicated than it used to be.
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.