The Vancouver Canucks were in Newark, New Jersey on Thursday night to take on the Devils. Most of the controversy behind the Schneider/Luongo reunion had passed through on New Jersey's earlier trip to BC a couple of weeks ago. Still, however, this is a game featuring a team that made a recent Stanley Cup visit, has two viable NHL superstars in the Sedin twins, an Olympian in Ryan Kesler, and one of the better goalies of a generation in Roberto Luongo.
Reported attendance on Thursday night in Newark: 13,203. Now, say what you will about Devils' attendance, this was a team that sold out 22 of 24 home games last season. They would've likely come closer to a sellout (probably hit one, at least in announced attendance) had a Boston, a Pittsburgh or even a Toronto or Washington shown up at The Rock.
It's not just a New Jersey-based problem either. As flawed as the statistic is, the bottom eight teams in the NHL in road attendance in 2011-12 (the last full NHL season) came from the Western Conference. That despite the existence of the Southeast Division, which, even with a full house in Winnipeg was still a little over 15,000.
In many ways, the lack of gate appeal for Western Conference (specifically west coast - you're fine Chicago, Minnesota and St. Louis) teams may be more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything else. The Pacific Division teams are typically not a big draw back east. However, NBCSN only plans to air six games featuring two Pacific Division teams this entire season out of 100 telecasts. One of those is the outdoor game between the Ducks and Kings, which airs at 9:30 p.m. ET on a Saturday night. Wonderful exposure.
The NHL is nowhere near the NBA in terms of national relevance, but let's talk about something the NBA does right that the NHL (and frankly, leagues like the NFL and MLB to a lesser extent) don't: build out west. Every week there are no less then two nationally televised NBA games featuring teams from the Pacific Time Zone. The league's most popular team, arguably, is in Los Angeles. The NHL has little more than a blip west of St. Paul unless a team makes it to the Stanley Cup Final. Edmonton, with all their crazy young, marketable talent, makes zero appearances.
It wasn't always like this. Back in the late '90s and early '00s, teams like Dallas and Colorado had a huge national presence on television. I know I'm stretching my thinking from gate receipts over to television quite a bit, but I think there's something to this. If teams like Dallas and Colorado -- where hockey has shown to be popular on television when the teams are solid -- perform at a high level again, you could see a lot more late night hockey in the Pacific Division.
Until then, however, don't be surprised if -- like on Thursday -- a lot of arenas feel dead when Vancouver or Colorado or Phoenix shows up. The NHL doesn't have fans that will show up for something they haven't seen before. They need to have it exposed and overexposed to them first.
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