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This year’s World Juniors attendance is feeling the heat

John Cairns’ News Watch - World Juniors empty seats are a symptom of larger issues, including the mess at Hockey Canada and the fact that it’s summer.
Close up of hockey puck and stick
Hockey in August? Are you kidding?

REGINA — Today, I’m going to be the latest to do a rant in print about the crummy attendance being seen at sporting events in this country.

We all know about the attendance at Roughriders and other games around the CFL, and we can go on about that alone. But have you seen the attendance at the World Junior Hockey Championships?

This is the rerun of the tournament back in December in Edmonton, which ended up being completely cancelled soon after it began because of multiple cases of COVID-19 breaking out. Now, they are holding it again from Aug. 9 to 20 and hope to crown a champion this time. 

But my goodness, this tournament is just beset with problems, not the least of which are all the stories about Hockey Canada paying millions of dollars to settle sexual assault allegations. As a result, there has been a flight of corporate support away from the World Juniors, as big companies refuse to be associated with this sort of reprehensible behavior. 

It seems the fans are refusing to be associated with it either. Attendance has plunged, particularly for the games not involving Canada. They have seen attendance so low that local kids' minor hockey could outdraw them. 

For instance, on Day 1 Latvia versus Finland drew 376 people. Day 2 of the tournament, Sweden versus Switzerland drew 453 while Germany versus Austria drew 473. 

The games involving USA have been marginally better with a couple of games around 800 or so people, and over 2,000 for the game versus Sweden. Of course, the Team Canada contests have drawn the best, but even these aren’t great. Against Latvia they drew 2,779 and against Slovakia it was 3,216. It was over 5,000 for the game against Czechia. 

This is just plain awful, folks. Back in the old days the World Juniors would get much better crowds than this for all their tournament games held in this country, including Canada’s. They would even sell the Canada games out. Not this year.

Of course, a lot of people are pointing at Hockey Canada and the scandal involving them as the prime reason why people are staying away. Among other things, this scandal involves allegations against previous Team Canada players who played at World Juniors in 2003 and 2018. So, the World Juniors are impacted directly.

I am sure there are many who are in no mood to shell out extra money to support Hockey Canada at the moment. Fans are rightfully ticked off at them over their handling of this situation. Now that I think of it, could the corporate flight away from Hockey Canada be a factor in the low attendance? Those big corporations with their deep pockets could always be counted on in the past to buy a few tickets.

But there’s more to it than that. Could the real issue be that it’s summer?

This is exactly it. This is not hockey season. Edmontonians are instead taking the opportunity to enjoy summer. They are going to the lake, they are going to outdoor festivals. They are enjoying life in the sunshine.

I know some people point to how places like Florida have sunshine all the time during hockey season, and that doesn’t keep people away there. But in Edmonton, they know full well their sunshine weather only lasts for three months or so, and so they take full advantage of it when they have it. They know that when September rolls around, the weather will go straight to heck. They’ll have plenty of time to be indoors watching hockey when that happens. Oh, by the way, hockey in August is a great reminder that winter is coming. It's depressing, and all the more reason not to watch.

The other thing commentators have pointed to is that there has been an abundance of hockey in Edmonton already. The Edmonton Oilers made it to the conference finals in the NHL, and the Edmonton Oil Kings went on a deep run and won the WHL title. So, they’ve had their fill of hockey, chewing up a good part of the spring. 

Besides, hockey in summer is just bizarre. It's like holding a baseball game outdoors in January in -30 C.

It was strange when the NHL had their bubble in Edmonton two years ago, and it is strange again now. Part of the World Juniors' appeal has always been the fact the World Juniors are a “holiday tradition.” It starts on Boxing Day and welcomes in the New Year, and is played to a captive audience of Canadians who are either with their families for the Christmas season, or are watching on the screens in the departure lounge at the airport when they fly home.

You're used to watching the World Juniors when the whole place is cold and covered in snow. But in the heat of August, when you're at the lake or cabin or somewhere, the last thing on your mind is hockey. I’ll bet a lot of people forgot this tournament was even happening right now.

Then you have the ticket prices. Let’s talk about that, because it is flat out ridiculous, again. There is nothing new about this, as the World Juniors have taken a lot of flack for ticket prices before. Yet year after year, nothing is done about it. You really do get the impression these organizers believe that Canadians are a captive audience. 

The non-Canada games have had ticket prices of around $50 for the lower bowl. For Canada round robin games, seats run around $134.50, and for centre ice it’s nearly $180.

You can get into several SJHL games for that amount of money. In fact, here are season ticket prices for the Notre Dame Hounds posted on their website: adults $225, and students and seniors $155. For the entire season. 

Yet in Edmonton, you’re paying almost as much just to see Canada blow out Latvia or somebody in a contest. We're not even counting the beer prices. Or the parking.

Beyond that, organizers had the bright idea to have regular local start times of 4 p.m., so the fans in Toronto could watch at 6 p.m., I guess. These organizers surely forgot that some people in Edmonton have to work for a living.

The big issue for people is that inflation is through the roof and everyone is cutting back. The prime thing getting cut from families’ budgets: outrageously priced sporting events. Another thing being cut: expensive road trips due to the outrageous price of gas. So, if you’re outside of Edmonton, you have double the reason to say no to the World Juniors. 

You know, it’s good to finally see hockey fans grow a spine and actually stand up to the hockey “establishment” for a change when it comes to ticket prices. For years, particularly in NHL markets in this country, fans would have to take out second mortgages on their houses to pay for outrageously priced season tickets. The World Juniors have gotten to be just as bad. Those in charge seem to treat the fans as a commodity, like cows to be milked. Or chickens to be plucked. 

So, seeing all these empty seats at Rogers Place is exactly what hockey’s powers that be richly deserve. It’s a beautiful sight, or non-sight. Hopefully the folks in charge get the message, and start lowering the prices in future years.

It’s possible the entire COVID-19 situation, which saw sports heavily disrupted and games not even played for long periods of time, forced a lot of people to re-evaluate their priorities. A lot of folks learned there was probably more important things in life than hockey games — and they learned this the hard way, by being deprived of their hockey fix for long stretches. 

Mainly, though, COVID-19 has forced fans to re-evaluate their financial priorities. It’s entirely possible fans are opting for less pricey forms of entertainment. If they are spending money on watching sports, it’s less often, and on things that have more of a big event appeal. The World Cup soccer qualifiers with Team Canada didn’t have nearly as much trouble selling tickets in Edmonton, as a prime example.

Clearly, the big event appeal of the World Juniors is waning, especially with these World Juniors being held in Canada almost every year, it seems. (Halifax is next up, in a little over four months.) Canadians are fed up with the World Juniors in general. Fans on Twitter always complain the games are overexposed on TSN as it is and take up way too much airspace and hype on their multiple channels every year. Now it’s summer, and we are getting even more hockey shoved down our throats. 

Yeah, it’s great that people get to see future NHL superstars, like the Regina Pats’ Connor Bedard, but it gets old in a hurry to see Team Canada always run up the score against hapless European countries all the time on TSN. Other than the medal round, these games are not even good.

Here’s something else to consider: Canada’s biggest rival Russia is not there, due to sanctions against that country for their insidious war on Ukraine. So now the World Juniors are guaranteed to be even more boring in the future. The one opponent you can count on to always give Canada a good game and perhaps produce a few good fights, is a no show.

We’ve heard time and time again about the need for a reckoning within Hockey Canada for the things they’ve done and decisions they’ve made over the years. Well, as far as I’m concerned there needs to be a reckoning about the World Juniors as well.

The folks at the top need to start treating the fans with respect, and that starts with lowering the ticket prices, and doing a whole lot of other things differently while they are at it. Hockey’s free ride is over.