The National Hockey League begins its 94th season this week hoping to capitalize on the void in the winter sports calendar left by the NBA lockout and boosted by the Stanley Cup Finals last June that drew solid ratings and led to a 10-year, $2 billion TV deal.
There’s also buzz about the Jets landing back in Winnipeg and the anticipated return of the league’s biggest star, center Sydney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, out since January after a concussion. Ticket brokers are hoping another story line is a boost in sales across North America, particularly in cities facing the potential revenue losses of no NBA games.
Boston fans pining for the Celtics, or still stunned by the lack of playoff baseball, can dry their Red Sox tears on the Bruins championship banner that will be raised Thursday, October 6, on opening night at the TD Garden before the faceoff against the Philadelphia Flyers. The big, bad Bruins returned to their glory days last spring when they hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in 39 years after a seven-game Finals win over the Vancouver Canucks.
“I think this is a great opportunity for the NHL to fill the void,” said Jim Holzman, owner of Ace Ticket in Boston. “Maybe people who weren’t necessarily hockey fans will get turned on.”
Liz McDonnell, analyst for the ticket search site SeatGeek.com, said their data shows that in dual-sport cities, NHL prices are up on the secondary market over last year.
“Essentially, Boston, New York, L.A., Detroit, and D.C. have seen prices for their NHL teams go up over the past month,” McDonnell told TicketNews. “Minnesota [averaging $10 lower than 2010] and Chicago [$17 lower] prices have dropped significantly. Interestingly, there hasn’t been an increase in NHL ticket sales volume in ANY of these cities except for Boston when compared to the same period for 2011.”
McDonnell’s research showed Bruins sales are up nearly 50 percent since August 1, compared to the same period last year.
A TicketsNow.com survey last week showed that Chicago Blackhawks tickets were accounting for about 20 percent of total hockey tickets sold on the resale marketplace. That doesn’t surprise Chicago broker Max Waisvisz, owner of Gold Coast Tickets.
“NHL [tickets] are moving great,” he said. “I think it’s going to help hockey 1,000 percent. [With no NBA] people still want that event to go to. We even did well on preseason tickets, which is unusual. Plus, we had such a bad baseball year in Chicago. The Cubs and White Sox were terrible.”
In Philadelphia, the Flyers brought 600-goal scorer Jaromir Jagr back to the NHL after three years in Europe. The 39-year-old totaled four goals in three preseason games. That, more than the lack of the NBA, may boost Flyers sales, said Jake Conaway, general manager of Wanamaker Ticket Office in Philly.
“People are pumped up,” Conaway said. “There’s the superstar factor with Jagr. …The lack of NBA might help, but really it’s two totally different crowds. Different fan bases.”
What will help Philly brokers is that Citizens Bank Park, home of baseball’s Phillies, will host the NHL Winter Classic on January 2. The New York Rangers are the opponent for what has become the marquee event for the NHL’s regular season and a ratings winner for NBC Sports, which signed a new TV deal with the NHL in the off-season that will keep the league on the network and NBC-owned Versus for the next 10 years.
The annual outdoor New Year’s Day hockey game was moved to January 2 in 2012 so it wouldn’t conflict with the final Sunday of the NFL regular season on January 1.
“We’ve got the Redskins coming in New Year’s Day,” Conaway said, “So, what a sports weekend that will be.”
In New York, brokers told TicketNews last month that the Rangers opening the regular season in Europe this week and continuing an extended road trip in North America while the finishing touches are put on the first phase of renovations at Madison Square Garden has hurt the preseason buzz for the Blueshirts. In Washington, another early playoff exit for the Capitals last spring appears to have hurt their sales, despite the presence of another superstar, Alex Ovechkin, and some experts again picking the Caps to win the Eastern Conference.
Caps sales are “slightly weaker than last year,” said Danny Matta, founder of GreatSeats.com, a Washington-area broker. “The pricing is down [averaging $14 lower than last year, says SeatGeek]. I’ve got opening night in six days [Saturday vs. the Carolina Hurricanes at the Verizon Center] and I’ve still got 30 seats left to sell.”
The Penguins open with a three-game trip across Western Canada, but fans hoping to see Crosby will be disappointed. He’s practicing with the team but still hasn’t been cleared for contact. A mid-October return is a best-case scenario for the Pens, who will have center Evgeni Malkin back after knee surgery.
The Jets return to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence has made their tickets a hot commodity and boosted the team’s average ticket price to $176.55, second in the league only to the Toronto Maple Leafs, according to SeatGeek.com.
Jets season tickets sold out in 30 seconds after the franchise’s sale to True North Sports & Entertainment and its relocation from Atlanta to Winnipeg. Demand is so high, the team is only selling individual tickets through a random drawing or through its exclusive fan-to-fan ticket exchange. Resale marketplaces, such as StubHub.com, show tickets listed for as much as $2,350 apiece for the opener this Sunday, October 6, against the Montreal Canadiens.
The Jets are still in the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division, a holdover from being in Atlanta. The Jets, as well as the New Jersey Devils, introduced a dynamic pricing system this season, with marquee games against notable teams and weekend dates priced higher.
In the West, the Canucks will try to recover from last June’s Game 7 loss to the Bruins (the highest-rated telecast of an NHL game since 1974) and the subsequent postgame rioting that was a black eye for the city of Vancouver. After a city report took the team and police to task for its security failings, the Canucks announced a responsible fan behavior marketing campaign that will include TV, Web-based and in-game announcements at Rogers Arena.
On the ice, the Canucks are again led by the high-scoring Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel. Vancouver will likely be challenged in the Western Conference by Chicago, the Detroit Red Wings, the San Jose Sharks, who lost in five games in the Western Conference Finals last year, and the Los Angeles Kings.