The Sens Army is lying pretty low.
There's a malaise in Hockey Country, no question. Ottawa Senators attendance is down more than 1,100 fans per game compared to the same point last season. (The average is 1,191 after Tuesday's game vs. Edmonton.) Take a look around the next time you're out, in a non-sports context. You could shoot a cannon through a Tim Hortons during the noon rush and not hit anyone wearing a Sens hat or hoodie in some parts of town.
(Update: Forbes magazine NHL valuations are out: Note which team lost money.)
There was "grumbling" (Ottawa Citizen) about the $14 cost for the tickets to the game the club's American Hockey League farm team played at Scotiabank Place last weekend. Two seasons ago, after the run to the Stanley Cup final, parents would have paid twice that to give their kids a Bag O' Glass if it had the Senators logo.
At the very least, though, the Senators' fall from grace is an issue. Will anyone write about it in this town? In Ottawa, make the barest inference the hockey team's doing poorly and you'll taste hemlock in your chicken shawarma. You're either a naysayer, a hater or a Leafs fan — theres always a label small minds fall back on. Plausible deniability, don't you know.
The media here is understandably in the tank for the organization. It's the city's only claim on major-league status. Pointing out anything negative is a sure ticket to the shit list. So, no one is going to suggest that the Senators can only be profitable and fill the arena when they're winning even though that's a bad business model in a salary capped-league. They only will if the Senators end up cap-in-hand again like they were in 1999 and 2003 and, personally, let us hope that does not recur.
People who are not beholden to the Senators for access are starting to ask these questions about owner Eugene Melnyk's plaything. Some mental red flags went off in October when there were 2,000 empty seats for a home game vs. the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Around the same time, James Mirtle made a parenthetical comment the Sennies "could lose millions this year if they miss the playoffs."
All told, the Sennies are down an average of 1,141 fans from the same point as last season (from 19,484 to 18,343 after nine home dates). Late last night, you could have gone on the team's website and reserved four 100-level tickets for Tuesday's home game vs. Edmonton without having to sit behind the net, even with the game a little more than 36 hours away. FOTB Jean-Pierre Allard reports, "The Orleans SENS Store has closed its doors with Christmas just around the corner."
It would be glib to say this points to a downward spiral that will end with the franchise becoming the Mississauga Senators between now and the next time the Leafs make the playoffs. To be clear, it's nowhere near that point. (Granted, that might explain why the Eunibomber lashed out at Jim Balsillie back in the summer when he was trying to move a team into Southern Ontario.)
There are outside influences weighing on the franchise. The NHL is a mess. Gary Bettman's NHL is designed to make all 30 teams semi-watchable about half the time. That has hurt the Senators, who had a stacked team from 2003 through '06, more than some franchises.
Many passive sports consumers who got on the Senators bandwagon might be backing another team. Most sports consumers in any city are fluid in their tastes. It's the nature of the beast, not matter how it angers the diehards who are there for all 82 games, since getting a life is not an option (GAC).
It's a combo of discontent with how the team has fallen (7-7 this season vs. a suspiciously spongy schedule), the economy, Ottawa's demographics and the city's cultural paternalism.
Ottawa is not a town of front-runners. You typically hear, "this city loves winners," when someone is trying to make an argument about bringing a CFL team back to town (and I do hope it works). That's off.
It is a town of followers which loves whatever maintains the status quo. People claim the CFL teams died because of poor on-field performance. However, the Rough Riders had decent support throughout the 1980s, when they didn't have a single winning season. It took a solid decade of losing, a league-wide crisis in the CFL and owners from (affects scary voice) out of town before people started staying away.
Institutions govern so much of life in Ottawa that people fall into herd mentalities. It happens to the best of us and most of us are nowhere near the best, present company included. Those government-town stereotypes are true to some extent. This is one of the few places where a team could even use a slogan as militaristic as "Sens Army" and "A Force United" (which some culture-jamming bloggers altered to "A Farce United" last season) without getting some media outcry.
Ottawa is like a city composed of insecure teenage girls. The analogy fits Toronto, too, except in T.O. the creature has sharper claws. If Toronto is the character Rachel McAdams played in Mean Girls, Ottawa is the one played by Lacey Chabert. Fitting in and doing whatever is popular at that moment is everything, because they know they can be cast out and won't be missed.
That seeps into sports. "Hey, let's get the CFL back! ... "Hey, Toronto has a World Series baseball team, so let's get a Triple-A club one year before a strike devastates the professional baseball industry and accelerates the death knell of the closest MLB team, the Montreal Expos." They were late to the party.
When the CFL comes back, people will attend because Roger Greenberg, Bill Shenkman, John Ruddy, Jeff Hunt and whoever becomes mayor after Legal Suit Larry O'Brien say they should. The culture is that top-down.
The Senators are not as much of a thing to do among people who only get into sports when it's part of a socially approved mass movement, the ones who are needed to sell out the building and make impulse buys. It's of a piece with having a well-educated populace which has spent a tremendous amount of time in institutions like universities, which are paternalism in a can.
Never mind that mindset has actually put the team behind the 8-ball since the early days and that they've managed to make it work as much as they can. Institutionalized NIMBYism (in the form of the National Capital Commission) eventually led to the Senators building an arena way out yonder in Kanata in the mid-1990s, far from the city's population core. In Toronto, the teams might (might?!) suck and blow, but at least you're downtown once the Blue Jays, Raptors, or TFC are through indulging their flair for mediocre public display.
In Ottawa, you're stuck waiting a half-hour to get out of the parking lot before driving home. People in the public sector were willing to trade sleep for seeing enthralling, winning hockey, as opposed to what they're getting.
That should hopefully help explain there are somee small warning signs are there. It's certainly fair game at a time whe the Canadian hockey mafia start speculating whenever any U.S.-based team has a small crowd (granted, we're talking less than 10,000 in some places), but oh no, you couldn't possibly suggest Bettman's idiotic-times-eight business practices will impact a small-market franchise in Canada playing in a poorly located arena.
As for the Senators organization, as someone who's interested in successful group dynamics and leaderships — call it compensation for some career-related issues — one does wonder who keeps Melnyk in line. (This is speculative, to be sure.) Former GM John Muckler and former president Roy Mlakar were old-time hockey guys. One can imagine them telling Melnyk to shut up and that the only thing he knows about ice is that it's needed to make diaquiris. You wonder who's there to tell Melnyk he's not going to recover that $4-million bonus he had to pay Dany Heatley since it was a binding contract, or that suggesting fans and critics should "get a bomb and blow themselves up" is unbecoming.
Deny, deny, deny, all you want, but the Senators have some issues off the ice (as for on the ice, let's leave that to the professional sportswriters). The easy way out is to say it's the economy, calibre of opponents or people staying home to save local television by making sure they watch all 3 CSIs on CTV.
It will get harder to ignore if the Senators keep sliding. No one can stand here in 2009 and tell you where the NHL will have teams in 2019. Just don't be too smug.
(For anyone doubting the 1,191 figure, I counted. Bear in mind it's a small sample size and there are variables such as day of the week and opponent. For instance, last season's 10th home game was on Saturday afternoon, this season it was Tuesday:)
Opponent '08-09 '09-10 Total
Det/NYI 20,182 18,075 -2,107
Phx/Atl 20,179 19,360 -819
Bos/Pit 19,318 17,014 -2,304
Fla/TB 18,952 17,732 -1,220
Ana/Nsh 19,762 18,970 -792
Wsh/Bos 18,485 20,154 +1,669
Phi/Atl 18,938 17,297 -1,641
NY/TB 19,061 17,511 -1,550
Mtl/NJ 20,475 18,971 -1,504
NYR/Edm 19,619 17,977 -1,642
Avg. 19,497 18,306 -1,191