Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Blame Game

I have to say that the Canada-Slovakia game was quite entertaining. Winnipeg Jets fans are probably salivating at watching Nic Petan's performance tonight while Ottawa Senators fans have to be impressed with Nick Paul and Curtis Lazar. However, as I was watching the game, I found myself reading multiple reports over who is to blame for the poor attendance numbers in Montreal at this year's IIHF World Junior Championships. The IIHF came out today and pointed the finger directly at hockey Canada, stating that ticket prices were far too high. I find this to be a bit hypocritical by the IIHF as they profit from the tournament greatly, but there should be concern as there were a lot of empty seats in Montreal when this tournament usually sets attendance records in Canada.

Hockey Canada, who is the host committee for the tournament, has the final say on what the ticket prices should be set at in their venues, and it's clear that prices were set way too high. Tickets in Montreal started at $71 and ranged to $336 for the New Year's Eve game - nearly the same prices as tickets to Montreal Canadiens games! Tickets for the round-robin games against Slovakia, Germany, and Finland ranged from $66 to $261. No offence to anyone on the committee, but those ticket prices are insane.

If Hockey Canada was smart, they would cap prices at the highest amount for a ticket to the closest CHL team's games. These are still junior-aged players, so paying junior hockey prices would be an attractive way to bring fans out to see the next wave of NHL superstars. When you consider that you can get tickets to next Tuesday's game between the Eastern Conference-leading Montreal Canadiens and the second-place-in-the-Western-Conference Nashville Predators for anywhere between $54 and $228 right now, seeing Canada beat the hell out of Slovakia or Germany in the round-robin at $261 per seat seems just a little extravagant.

I am a huge supporter of Hockey Canada in its many forms, but when hockey parents are saying that prices to keep kids in hockey is out of control, Hockey Canada will now shoulder some of that blame. Hockey Canada has its own programs to run and I realize that those cost money, but gouging the fans who come out in droves to support the junior players in what is arguably the biggest tournament in Canada behind the Olympics is completely wrong.

When asked by reporters at his press conference regarding the tournament about the masses of angry fans on Twitter complaining about ticket prices, IIHF president Rene Fasel turned the tables on Hockey Canada by stating, "I was really surprised. If you would have done this pricing in Europe, you would have nobody in the arena."

Therein lies the rub for Mr. Fasel and the IIHF.

By bringing this tournament to Canada every three years, they guarantee themselves a major windfall of money because fans in Canada are rabid for this tournament. Sponsors line up, fans buy tickets en masse, broadcasters pay through the nose to cover the tournament, and the IIHF smiles like a pig in mud because they see the bundles of money pouring in. Pointing the finger at Hockey Canada frames them as the bad guys in this experiment despite the IIHF making a bundle of money off Hockey Canada's back. I'm sorry, IIHF, but you can't be two-faced in this one when you come to Canada and suckle like a hungry baby at the teat known as the Canadian love of the game.

Instead, as stated above, Hockey Canada should cap the most expensive tickets at the top price of a local junior team or, if more than one team is in the immediate area, the average of the top prices of those teams' ticket prices. That would put the most expensive tickets in Toronto around $40 and those in Montreal at $45. Call it even at $50 per ticket at the upper price point, and you have a sold-out Bell Centre for all of the round-robin games.

According to Scott Stinson's article in the National Post on December 1, 2014, "[t]he last time the WJC was held in Canada, a reported $6-million went back to the CHL and its teams, out of an estimated $22-million in profits." Yes, you read that correctly - $22 million in profits! More than a quarter of the profits made went back to the CHL. I don't want to say that it's wrong to do so, but charging NHL prices for tickets and then greasing the palms of the teams who supply the players seems a little shady. If CHL prices were charged, you wouldn't hear me say peep about it since fans would be charged those prices as it is to watch the junior-aged talent. Seems elementary, no?

However, a pile of the money that is made by the tournament goes back into local hockey programs from the host communities. This money is used to grow the game by improving and implementing programming through those communities. That's a pretty good reason to continue to raise prices, right? But I counter that Hockey Canada could grow the game and have more children exposed to the game by putting them in seats. Tickets should be affordable for all fans, not just those who have a corporate account and an large credit card balance. While I get that the money wouldn't be as plentiful in terms of helping local programs, but the growth of the game by having more young fans in the stands would make up that shortfall.

Secondly, isolating a number of those available tickets for families and youth teams would also be a massive gain for Hockey Canada, the CHL, and the IIHF. The women's game has grown through the grassroots community in amazing ways, and you still see crowds at those games dominated by the younger fans. The World Junior Championships has become more corporate-based than grassroots-based despite the fact that none of the players in the tournament are earning a dime for their efforts. Bring back the younger fans to watch their heroes play the world's best without charging parents an amount equivalent to a small country's GDP.

I have nothing against the idea of going into Montreal in 2017 and hosting the tournament there. It's a city with a rich hockey history, and the fans in Montreal deserve a chance to show that they are as passionate as the fans anywhere else in the great country. They just shouldn't have to pay through the nose to have that opportunity. Hockey Canada has the chance to do something revolutionary with the World Junior Championship: make it accessible to all.

And in the end? Who cares what the IIHF says about that.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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