Junior hockey players get the rock-star treatment for two weeks during the world juniors and are afterthoughts 24 hours later, especially in the GTA. Toth, of Rogers Sportsnet and the FAN 590, had his say a week ago today. Sun Media's Simmons, on the following day, had a column headlined, "Apathy greets juniors," which began, "It is Thursday night at the Powerade Centre and for every seat that is occupied at least five are left empty."
(You can almost picture Rainn Wilson as a Rolling Stone editor in Almost Famous -- "Mmmmm, dark. Lively.")
Simmons' column was referred to as a "disgrace" during a rather pointed editorial reply during a subsequent Rogers OHL broadcast. Please leave personalities out of this, since it's a good topic (and our own Duane Rollins made a point to go see for himself when the Brampton Battalion and Mississauga St. Michael's Majors played at 12 noon on a weekday so classes of schoolchildren could witness major junior hockey in all its splendour).
Simmons was blasted a bit. Presumably some people would not mind hearing him accused of ripping the attendance when he had "never been in the Brampton Centre prior to that game."
That being said, Toth at least dared to run his hand along the fourth wall of every story about low attendance at OHL games in Toronto -- namely, how well these franchises do to turn first- and second-generation Canadians on to hockey? Simmons, no disrespect, goes on about "tak(ing) the easy highway drive for the least expensive entertainment you'll find everywhere," which seems to gloss over the fact that most Toronto sports fans, especially younger ones, rely on public transit when they're going to see the Raptors, Leafs, Blue Jays or TFC. It also assumes people who live close by Brampton's arena, which is located in a huge South Asian enclave, won't.
It's not even apparent that those transit options are handy for either the Battalion or Majors. Toth, who granted has come on a little strong on the subject in the past, at least waves hello to the elephant in the room, the question of growing the fanbase:
"Toronto is completely multi-cultural and sporting allegiances include everything from soccer to cricket. Brampton and Mississauga also have huge ethnic populations and many people from the two communities have never been inside a hockey rink.It is something of a common opinion among younger media types that stepping into an OHL arena often feels like a time warp. The crowd skews older and more homogenous. Between the incessant playing of Jock Jams '95 over the P.A. and the fact Larry Mavety is still GM of the Kingston Frontenacs, it is something straight out of another century.
"To their credit, both the Battalion and Majors are reaching out to new Canadians. For example, the two teams staged a special game for school kids earlier this year, featuring a 12.00 p.m. face-off on a Wednesday afternoon."
There's no excuse simply accepting that it won't change. Look at it this way. It's not mandatory you should adopt the favourite sport when you're relatively new to a country. However, if you were a sports-mad Canadian who had relocated to England, what would you check out first: The local soccer team's game, even if it was down in League Two, or a game between the Coventry Blaze and Hull Stingrays?
People look to sports as a cultural touchstone and will turn to what's popular -- socially approved mass movements and such. People come to Canada, they do take to the NHL. It's only right to wonder why that doesn't carry over to the major junior teams in the country's largest city, instead of going on about the Battalion's "disturbingly ugly green uniforms" and inveighing against teenagers being traded in junior hockey (although it's hard argue the players are not pawns in the grand scheme).
At least Toth tried to move the debate forward. It is also worth asking if how the OHL's a keep-your-helmet-on rule, which will probably reduce fighting, might affect attendance. There might short-term pain. It might also change some impressions of the sport among people who are missing the hoser gene that makes you stand up and cheer when two 19-year-olds start whaling on each other at centre ice, although granted, fighting has not been banned.
Point being, the whole low attendance issue is worth getting into. It happens to involve two media personalities who have sizable jeering sections, so there's a little something for the haters, plus knowing that Rainn Wilson was in Almost Famous will win you drinks at bars and cocktail parties.
A Toronto thing (Mike Toth, sportsnet.ca, Jan. 8)
Forcing them to care. That always works (Nov. 13, 2008)