With the regular season completed, I looked at ESPN's listing of attendance numbers, and generally, things look pretty healthy in the world of NHL. Nineteen teams fill over 90% of their arena, eighteen fill over 95%.* There are only four teams that don't fill at least 80% of their venue. It also just so happens that those four teams are the ones that might be better served by moving. And, as you might be aware, the NHL has a history of moving teams more than anybody, except maybe the NBA. Maybe.
*Nashville fills 94%. I think it's out of spite to my statistical analysis.
Columbus is 27th on the attendance list (by percentage). Nationwide Arena holds 18,144 people for hockey, the Blue Jackets average 13,250 for games. That comes out to 73.58% by my math (well, Excel's math, actually). Now, one year's attendance numbers can be misleading. People generally aren't going to come out for a bad team the way they will they will a good team. So, let's take a quick look at the good years. Or year. Columbus has made the playoffs once in their ten year history, in 2008-09, where they were swept in the first round by the Red Wings. And that year Columbus averaged 85% of their arena. Not bad, but only good for 24th in the NHL, and not a great crowd for the best year in franchise history. One has to wonder if Ohio is that big of a hockey market. One thing they have going for them is the arena. I've not been there personally, but it draws rave reviews. We'll keep digging here.
At 28th, we have the Atlanta Thrashers. They share a building with the Hawks, which means there isn't the same kind of concern about an empty building. They only draw 13,403 per game, good for 72% of the building. They came in the year before Columbus, and have also made one trip to the playoffs in 2006-07. They did win their division to qualify, but were then swept by the Rangers. They drew a tad over 16K fans that year, only good for 21st in the NHL. Their ownership situation is in flux, and I'm not sure this team has ever turned a profit. The NHL has already pulled out of Atlanta once, I would say it's not your traditional hockey market. I would say let's keep digging, but instead, I'm going to say this is a team worth moving. Quebec is hungry for a hockey team again. I would be surprised if they couldn't get a deal for a new arena together to revive the Nordiques. Then we can get these great jerseys back again.
Next on the list is the Phoenix Coyotes. This has actually been a pretty good team over the years. But, the ex-ownership has come out to say they've never made money in the desert. They've never drawn particularly well, except for playoff games. And they are currently owned by the NHL who is desperate to keep them in Arizona in an arena that nobody seems to like. There were already rumors about moving this team to Hamilton, Ontario. Which isn't a bad idea, I'm sure Toronto can support another team. But why not move them back to Winnipeg? There is a veritable gnashing of teeth to bring the Jets back. The problem was never fan support. True, Winnipeg (like Quebec City, actually) is not a large market. But, if they can build a better arena to generate more revenue, it should be big enough to keep an NHL team. And anything that lands a team back in Canada can't be bad, right?
Last on the list is the New York Islanders. This is sad to me. New York supports hockey, but their support goes to the Rangers and Devils. The Islanders have a proud history, but nothing is going in the present or the near future. The arena is regularly voted worst in the league, and it seems all plans to renovate or build a new one go nowhere. Ownership has been up and down, though the records have been almost without fail down for the last ten years. They barely scraped into the playoffs three times, and one year climbed up to fifth in the conference. It's been the cellar other than that. They have a small arena, Edmonton is the only comparable sized building. The difference being Edmonton still sells out to watch a very down Oilers team. The Islanders do not. I hate to say it, but it seems New York is oversaturated with hockey, and the Islanders are the odd man out. Where to move them? I've already got two teams back in Canada where they belong under my plan. They could move to Hamilton, but then they're still going to be stuck playing second-fiddle to the Maple Leafs. Maybe third if the Sabres get good again. No, I think they need to find a market they can finally call their own. Not an original idea, but Kansas City just built a new arena, and would love to have a team to anchor it. The NBA doesn't seem particularly interested. Why not move the Islanders there? They would probably need to be renamed, and I've never loved the Scouts moniker. But I'm sure the good people of KC can come up with something. That way, they still get a good sized market without another winter sport to interfere, a lot like their cross-state rivals in St. Louis.* And maybe the Islanders can get their games on something other than a college radio station.
* The Blues, it should be noted, generally draw well although they haven't spent a lot of time as real contenders.
That puts three teams on the move. Leave Columbus for now, see if they can grow that market. Their only saving grace is that arena, though. The other teams either have another tenant or a building nobody is happy with anyway. So, Blue Jackets, be on notice. If another city is hungry for hockey, you're up next (Return of the Whalers, perhaps. Who doesn't love these?). The Panthers aren't far behind either. How much longer before Gary Bettman finally concedes the move south was a bad idea?