Hockey Canada looks for answers to world junior attendance woes at Bell Centre

Hockey Canada looks for answers to world junior attendance woes at Bell Centre

MONTREAL — International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel wonders if Montreal is a one-team town and that’s why attendance has been weak at the world junior championship.

“Here, everyone says, there’s one team — it’s Canadiens, Canadiens, Canadiens,” Fasel said Thursday. “Montreal is the Montreal Canadiens, there you go.”

It certainly seems that way with the wide stretches of empty seats at the Bell Centre for a world junior tournament that was such a huge hit in Calgary and Edmonton in 2012 and in Ottawa in 2009.

Hockey Canada president Tom Renney said ticket pricing and sales strategies will be reviewed with an eye to boosting sales for the next time it is held in Canada in 2019 in Vancouver and Victoria.

In Alberta, total attendance hit 455,342, while in Ottawa it was 453,282.

But it drew only 366,370 in Canada’s two largest cities in 2015 and will fall short of that when final figures come in for this year’s event.

While attendance was decent in Toronto, Montrealers balked at high ticket prices, especially for preliminary round games not involving Canada. The best draw in the opening week was about 9,000 for Sweden-Finland, but for most games the building was nearly empty.

Fasel said that even with empty seats, the world juniors is still a big event in Canada.

“In 1997, we had the junior championship in Geneva and the total number of spectators for the tournament was 33,000, for all the games,” he said. “I was at a game where there were about 20 spectators in the arena.

“Here in Montreal, we could expect more for sure. But for the young players, having the opportunity to play at the Air Canada Centre and the Bell Centre means something. Even if it’s half full, you’re on the ice of the Canadiens and that means something.”

The IIHF stages the under-20 tournament at least every third year in Canada, where it has a much larger following than in Europe. Next year’s world juniors will be in the border city of Buffalo, N.Y.

After Canada drew decent crowds, but not sell-outs, in group stage matches in Toronto last week, a gathering of only 10,215 turned out to the 21,000-seat Bell Centre for a quarter-final Tuesday against the Czech Republic.

After ticket prices were slashed, there were 13,456 for Canada’s semifinal win Wednesday night over Sweden. A much larger crowd was expected for the final on Thursday night against the United States, with ticket prices starting at $87.

Hockey Canada chief operating officer Scott Smith said the drop came even though prices were slashed by 30 per cent overall from the 2015 event and strategies were adjusted making sales less oriented to package deals.

Pricing for the two Montreal-Toronto world juniors was based on the Calgary-Edmonton event, where there was so much demand that a lottery was held for the right to buy tickets.

It may be that fans have more choices now with the emergence of ticket re-sellers.

And holding it twice within three years in the same cities may have been too much for those fanbases.

But voices on social media suggest a backlash from those who felt Hockey Canada was being greedy. Many used the term “cash grab.”

Smith said the key is to find a balance between fair pricing and earning enough money to help fund development programs for players, coaches, officials and anyone else involved in the sport.

“Clearly, we’ll learn from this experience and make 2019 even better,” said Smith. “This event creates legacy dollars, that’s the term we use instead of profits.

“Every dollar goes back into development across Canada, the IIHF and to participating teams, so there is a responsibility to find the right balance.”

He said that overall, Hockey Canada was “pleased with the experience we’ve had here.”

Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press

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