The NHL drops the puck this Saturday, Jan. 19, kicking off a 48-game regular season schedule, a season shortened by the 113-day lockout of the league’s players by its owners.
However, hockey itself never went anywhere.
In fact, the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, a collection of 11 Junior A hockey teams, is reporting an increase in its overall attendance.
According to MJHL commissioner Kim Davis, the higher numbers are mostly due to the Virden Oil Capitals, the former Winnipeg Saints who relocated to Westman for the 2012-2013 season.
“Still, even if you factor Virden out of the equation, our attendance is up, not double or anything like that, but maybe eight to 10 per cent in most markets,” Davis says.
Davis says the attendance increase is consistent with the MJHL’s numbers during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. He says the reason there’s not a larger increase is probably due to the fact that the majority of MJHL teams are located outside of Winnipeg, with the exception of the Winnipeg Blues.
“In Dauphin, people don’t have to decide whether to go to the Winnipeg Jets game or the Dauphin Kings game,” Davis says. “Where it has an impact though is if there’s a Jets game on TV or a Leafs game or whoever, they stay in and don’t go to the Junior A game. That’s likely where the 10 per cent increase comes from.”
Two hundred kilometres west of Winnipeg, the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League have actually seen its attendance decrease slightly from last season.
Rick Dillabough, the Wheaties director of sales and sponsorship, says the team’s ticket sales are down mostly due to the fact that it’s not in a playoff position, currently occupying the basement of the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
“Despite the fact we’ve had our fair share of troubles on the ice, our numbers are only down slightly from last year when we had a very good team with some high profile players like Mark Stone and Michael Ferland,” Dillabough says. “That we’ve maintained a 4,000 attendance average is likely because fans haven’t had the NHL to watch.”
Where the lack of Crosby and Ovechkin seems to have had little impact is in minor hockey, that is, the Mite, Atom, Peewee, Bantam and Midget age divisions.
“I don’t think it’s had a significant impact on our programs,” says Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba.
“Certainly when the NHL is playing and you’re participating in an NHL city like Winnipeg, it generates a profile for the sport and makes the sport a little more attractive, but kids are still going to participate in programs because there’s a difference between the professional level and the amateur level. In one, you participate for a living, the other is for enjoyment.”
Woods jokes that an NHL lockout would have to last 16 years to negatively affect the state of hockey in Manitoba. It’s that ingrained into our province’s culture.
Davis, while happy the NHL is back, feels the same way.
“The game doesn’t belong to the NHL,” Davis says. “It doesn’t belong to the NHL owners and it doesn’t belong to NHL players. It belongs to me and to you and to everybody else.”