Thursday, January 15, 2009

Junior hockey is uncool; what are you gonna do about it?

Reducing a sporting issue to a spitting contest between Toronto media personalities is an easy way out, even when it is Mike Toth and Steve Simmons.

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.

"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."
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.

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,, Jan. 8)
Forcing them to care. That always works (Nov. 13, 2008)


Greg said...

Shows how hypocritical the World Juniors really are: we Canadians just go bat-shit-loco during a tournament no one outside of Canada gives a real hoot over for two weeks and then completely forget about the junior players.

I swear, Canadians love it when we're assured to win something that re-affirms our collective navel gazing tendencies. Fairweather nationalism is really lame.

For the record, I'm willing to bet one big reason a wider diversity of communities aren't as involved in hockey has a lot to do with the fact hockey's a very expensive sport to play. It's interesting how so many of Toronto's elite private schools like St. Mike's or UCC have exceptional hockey teams. Just saying.

kinger said...

Does the mainstream media not bear some responsibility here for not paying attention to junior hockey?

I mean, what's a junior highlight pack - 30 seconds out of their hourlong shows?

Anonymous said...

Canada is not a sporting nation, we are a "wet blanket". We never have much supported our "favorite" sport (one which does its best to shoot itself in the foot by running playoffs into June by which time we're not paying attention, instead savouring our preciously short summer days). Compare the support football gets at all levels in the US and combine with the laughable refusal to spend money on sport and fitness ("hospitals (reactive) NOT sport/health (proactive)"), and you get - - - Canada - wet blanket, we only participate in things we can win with a half-assed effort. Like hockey (no one else much plays it), or equestrian (requires no funding). Other than that we celebrate excuses and personal bests. What the hell happened to a proud nation that was ready to stick it to anybody in any sport? Why don't we have 80,000 seat stadiums for college football? Why don't we want to participate and have fun? Apathy, jealousy and laziness?

T.I. Stewart said...

Kinger starts on a great point. A number of the "top" sports reporters - certainly not all, but some - who gang on at WJC time are no different than the GTA "hockey fans" Toth and Simmons rile against with their work. They show up at tournament time, bump the junior beat guys out of the good seats, and report without the lesser understanding and context.

Imagine my shock when I heard Team Canada actually had scoring beyond John Tavares when Cody Hodgson put up the first of his many multi-point games. "No shit Sherlock Holmes," grumbled anyone who has actually watched CH in action recently.

The timing of the CHL trade deadline allows some reporters pay a little more ink to juniors for another week following the WJC's conclusion, and then the fleeting affair ends and fans won't even see similar coverage at Memorial Cup time, which is a damn shame.

Reporters and columnists shouldn't get all the blame, however, as editors certainly decide where their staff members park their pens in many circumstances - so it's a systematic issue, a chicken-and-egg thing. Where would the Battalion attendance go if Toronto's Star and Sun newspapers filled pages with CHL copy each week? But is that worth doing if the readership doesn't currently give a hoot as it is?

sager said...

Greg has a good point about who plays hockey ... but tens of thousands of people who have never played football will watch the NFL. There's more to it than whether you played the game.

It still comes back to what the teams to get out a crowd. Granted, teams also have their diehards who complain that the music is too loud.

Dennis Prouse said...

We are vastly overthinking this issue. Junior hockey is precisely that -- junior hockey. As a result, it is always going to have somewhat of a niche appeal to hardcore hockey fans. Casual fans don't want to go because they don't know any of the teams or players, and as a result don't feel comfortable.

Who tends to be hardcore hockey fans? Well, it's guys like me, i.e. middle aged, middle class white guys and their school aged kids. (Why do I love junior hockey? Because I used to go to tons of games with my middle class white dad back in the day.) This is why the successful junior hockey franchises like the Ottawa 67s aim their marketing efforts almost exclusively at minor hockey kids and parents. Jeff Hunt knows where the fish are.

New arrivals to Canada generally continue to follow the sports they followed back home, namely soccer. Their kids, OTOH, provided they were born here, do tend to integrate pretty fully. The son of a new Canadian will likely go to a junior hockey game, but his father will have little to no interest. His father may follow the Leafs or Sens, but junior hockey is a little too hardpan Canadiana for a new immigrant.

To follow up on Neate's England question, I would almost certainly go to a British hockey game before I went to a soccer game. Why? I grew up with hockey, and I just don't "get" soccer. This is why I understand perfectly when large groups of immigrants move heaven and earth to watch soccer here - it is ingrained in them, just as hockey is ingrained in me.

DR said...

Wait, did Toth say that Mel Kiper, Jr. is one of the brightest media minds in the U.S.? Also, it might be more accurate to say that Kiper tracks the NFL draft, which, as Tim Tebow could tell you, is quite different from U.S. college football.

A couple of incomplete thoughts on the actual matter at hand:

-the World Juniors have become the hockey equivalent of American Idol (James Duthie = Ryan Seacrest; Pierre McGuire = Paula Abdul)

-the teams closest to Toronto (Brampton and 'Sauga) are expansion teams in suburbia - in other words, teams that people don't have any connection with in cities that many of its residents tend not to feel very strongly about.

-I may just be a fuddy-duddy but the loss of many of the old unique arenas has taken something away from the OHL experience. only a small chunk of people follow the arrival and departure of players very closely and most people's connections to one team or another is, like college sports, tends to be based on something fairly arbitrary (ie. this is the town where I grew up and went to some games when I was kid, so they are my team). as the old arenas are replaced with scaled down versions of modern NHL rinks and the sweaters and even team names are perpetually tinkered with for the sake of earning a few more bucks, that connection is weakened. other than peterborough, which i think still has community ownership, can anyone think of another city where the old arena was refurbished instead of replaced? there probably are some, I just can't think of them.

sager said...

The thing is, what to do when the middle-class white guy demographic isn't very strong in your market? Granted, there is the perception, rightly or wrongly, that junior hockey is second-rate, and that just won't fly in Toronto.

That's why, especially in Brampton's case, you have to look at trying something else. And yes, the OHL has gone through its own "malling" much like the NHL did in the 1990s.

Anonymous said...

Getting back to DR's post....
OK, if James Duthie = Ryan Seacrest and Pierre McGuire = Paula Abdul, then who in hell = Simon Cowell, dawg?

DR said...

that is the flaw in the argument. you could make a case for bob mckenzie, who always seems to pick someone other than the canadians as the favourite in his tourney preview but ends up praising them when they win. gord miller is randy jackson. john tortorella is the new one. the cutaways of stephen harper and his kid are the random shots of celebrities in the audience of the season finale. kazakhstan is all the really bad singers from the first few weeks. however, the main comparison is that they are both something that people get really excited about and take really seriously for a few weeks, but is usually of little consequence in either the music industry or the hockey world.