Sports

Gauntlet Sportspinions: don't blame the Europeans for playing hockey

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A few years back, during the Stanley Cup playoffs, the entire population of Toronto had dreams of championships dancing in their heads. It was the spring of 2002 and they just defeated their arch-rivals, the Ottawa Senators, and were headed to the eastern final against the "lowly" Carolina Hurricanes. The Leafs' dreams went up in smoke to those same Hurricanes, as the good ol' boys from Down South booked a trip to the Cup finals. It was around this time that the term "Team of Destiny" and the Hurricanes began to become synonymous. Any sports fan knows what happened next: Carolina showed up to the big dance ready to fulfill their prophecy only to be rolled up and sent packing by the perennial powerhouse, the Detroit Red Wings.

It's not like the Hurricanes had anything to be ashamed of. They were an uprooted franchise, formerly of Hartford, and had only recently started to make in-roads in the college basketball and NASCAR haven of the south. In contrast, they were up against the well-oiled machine that was the Red Wings, who were propelled by some of the best to ever play the game and some of the most rabid fans the league has ever seen.

Fast-forward to today, where the 2007-08 NHL season has brought with it annual domination by the Wings who seemingly always find a way to win. But, as Bob Dylan likes to remind us, "the times they are a-changin'."

The Wings have yet to sell out a home game this year and there seems to be a movement within the popular media to point to the overturn in North American talent as the culprit for Detroit's sagging attendance. In their pre-season warm-up show, the talking heads of TSN spoke, seemingly without thinking, about how the Wings just could not be as popular with the blue collar population of Hockey Town with stars named Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Filppula. When the Wings last visited the Saddledome, Peter Maher echoed this same sentiment, pointing to the strong European content as the culprit afflicting fan attendance. There was no way that the decline in attendance could be directly attributed to the ethnic makeup of the team, could it?

The simple answer to this is no, if we are talking strictly empirical data. The 2001 edition of the Red Wings was comprised of 14 players from North America and 11 Players from European countries. Looking at the current edition, there is an even split of 12 players from North American and European locales. If the Joe Louis Arena was rockin' at capacity in 2001 with 11 Europeans, how can you attribute today's attendance problem to the addition of one more player from across the Atlantic? There may be something to be said about the exit of such all-world players as Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan from the scene, but I find it hard for any fan, casual or not, of hockey to not be mesmerized in the same way by the smooth dangles and top-notch finish of guys like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

The Red Wings are suffering in attendance from outside ailments the team has little control over. Detroit's economy is predicated upon a recently declining domestic automobile industry. The less money one has floating around in one's rainy day fund, the less likely one is to drop $200 greenbacks to take the family to the Joe for a night. Not a fan of that argument? How about this: the Red Wings are no longer the only game in town. With the emergence of the Lions and Tigers in football and baseball, respectively, as legitimate teams--well, the Tigers anyways--there is only so much of the sports consumer pie to go around. Someone is going to take a hit and it is likely that the Red Wings are the team footing the bill. Also, consider the concept of saturation. The Wings have been so good for so long now, Detroit area fans may have become gluttonous, taking for granted that their Wings will be there to entertain them when it comes to the big hockey dance in the spring. What's most likely is that all the above combine to make a meaty stew of attendance discontent. No matter what, though, the notion that the Red Wings' large contingent of talented Europeans are to blame for the decline in fan attendance in Hockey Town, USA is simply not the case.

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