A recent NHL press release trumpeted all good news in the attendance department for the league, but a quick and dirty comparison of game-by-game figures for the end of last season compared to this season at the Olympic break paints an uglier picture.
In a media mailout with the headline "NHL business momentum continues as league enters Olympic break," the NHL said that teams are playing to 91.9-per-cent capacity and that "more than half of the 30 clubs have seen increased or even attendance."
And yet, here's where I have the numbers as of Friday's games:
The 92-per-cent figure, as indicated, is accurate, but it's down from 95 per cent last season, the equivalent of an average of almost 600 fewer fans a game. Ten teams are down 913 or more fans per game from their full-season average last season, with Phoenix, Anaheim, Carolina and Colorado nearly 2,000 below last year's average.
That's not all that pretty.
Almost as disturbing is the fact that essentially no teams have made significant gains, with the Kings at the top of the heap in terms of increasing attendance and no other team having improved by more than 1.6 per cent. The impact of the recession is clearly being felt by the NHL, and without those big boosts in attendance in places like Chicago, there aren't any booms to be found.
A couple things worth noting here, starting with the Blackhawks figures: They're down for two reasons (1) they hosted the Winter Classic last season at Wrigley and pulled a big number for the one game and (2) they've reconfigured their rink to include a new restaurant/bar which has decreased capacity. Chicago's still a huge success story.
The Coyotes, meanwhile, are down for obvious reasons given their off-season turmoil, but are up from earlier in the season when they were averaging about 9,000 fans per game. Other teams, like the Predators, typically see strong boosts in attendance in March and April after football season, so their totals will come up.
It's highly likely we see the general trend continuing to be well down, however, given how far off so many teams are, and with five of those bottom 10 headed into playoff position, there could be some soft numbers in April as well.
(It's also worth pointing out that all of these figures are the "announced" totals, which are in some cases significantly off what the paid totals would be.)