On this eve of the official end to the lockout, the prospect of studying the schedule Saturday and Blue Jackets training camp on Sunday seems simply wonderful. But I’ve also realized we’re likely wandering back toward a set of cliches both from and about the Columbus area.
On Sunday, the Ohio Health Ice Haus will be packed with folks watching training camp. Emboldened fans will proclaim a victory for their cause: “Columbus is obviously a hockey town,” they’ll cry. Yet during the season, Nationwide Arena is likely to face another sub-85% attendance year. Completely ignoring the arena lease, outsiders will put on the smugly exclaim, “Columbus is not a hockey market! Relocation! Contraction!”
It’s a moronic quasi-debate, perpetuated by less-than-scrupulous baiting journalists, outside fans that aren’t willing to fathom hockey in Ohio, and local fans that don’t want to see their city and team dragged through the mud. Yet the contentions from all sides are unfair. Surely Columbus fans must submit that seats are relatively empty compared to the rest of the NHL. But those who call for relocation would be wise to note the ratings success that good hockey has brought in Ohio. Heck, even pre-2004-2005 lockout Columbus saw strong attendance and a very full Arena District.
But maybe that’s not good enough for the here-and-now crowd. So how about this: if we’re willing to admit current turnout woes, I’m sure they’re also willing to submit that, by their standards, neither Chicago nor Pittsburgh is truly a hockey market.
A bit rattling, no? It shouldn’t be. The 2003-2004 season saw both the Blackhawks and Penguins in the bottom four of total home attendance in the NHL, with Pittsburgh in dead last. Even immediately after the lockout, Chicago continued to languish in 29th place (a horrifying 62.1% attendance in 06-07) until the 2007-2008 season. Columbus’ percentages and total attendance have yet to drop to the levels seen in Chicago or Pittsburgh
Of course today we wouldn’t dispute that the Hawks and Pens have thriving local support, but when both squads were terrible on the ice, neither city wanted to watch the product. Pittsburgh had four abysmal years and a lockout before things turned around. Chicago went 10 seasons and a lockout with only one playoff appearance. Thanks to high draft picks working out, they how have winning teams and fans appeared.
The Jackets have seen 11 years and a lockout with one playoff appearance. If we are willing to believe John Davidson, Columbus can be turned around, rebuilt, and made to win. With winning, Central Ohioans can become like those same eager fans that pack the United Center or Consol Energy Center.
In my estimation, Columbus is as strong an NHL market as Pittsburgh or Chicago, in the same place those teams were pre-04-05 lockout. Ohio just needs a team that will erase bad memories and encourage attendees (both old and new) to see what’s here. With the new Davidson-run management, I believe that team, while not here yet, will arrive very soon.