TO SELL OR NOT TO SELL: THE SITUATION
There is no Hurricanes related topic more important, or more timely, than the potential sale of the team. Whether you are a believer in the #sellthecanes movement or dead-set against potentially losing the team, it is important to look at the facts. If the Beatles could go on sale, couldn’t the Hurricanes too?
I have decided to break this post up into multiple parts. Part 1 will look at the root of the current problem.
So what is all the fuss about?
Since it has already been covered in detail by the various other bloggers and media people, I will not get into the financial details of the Canes. For more detail see: Kingsmith. All we need to know is that the Canes are losing money, and have been losing money for a few seasons now. Worse, projections for the future are not bright. A huge part of the problem is the on-ice product.
The Lethbridge Hurricanes are not a stellar hockey franchise. Historically, they leave the being stellar to teams synonymous with winning like the Tigers, Hitmen, and more recently, Oil Kings. That is not to say that the Canes have never had any success or been an entertaining team to watch. At times they have been both a winner and a producer of grade-A NHL caliber talent (see: Dwight King, Brent Seabrook, Kris Versteeg, Zach Boychuck, etc). I suggest that we look at the Hurricanes history as a whole, dating back to the early years of the franchise for some perspective.
Diving back to their first years as a franchise, 87-88, the Hurricanes have some astounding statistics. Since that year, the franchises all time record is 868-963 + overtime losses, ties, and shootout losses. That is a winning percentage of 0.476 lifetime. Unless you are a Columbus Blue Jackets fan, this is not an impressive record. In the world of CHL hockey, with the rapid rate of player-turn-over, teams should not miss the playoffs or suffer near the bottom of the league for more than 3-4 years (my opinion). The all-time record indicates that the Canes have been on the wrong end of hockey for the majority of their time in Lethbridge. If we shorten the range of time, the stats get even less flattering. Over the past 13 seasons, the Lethbridge Hurricanes have made the playoffs 4 times. Of those four trips, only two of them were playoff drives that went beyond a first round exit. The amount of winning doesn’t seem to justify the limited run(s) of success. The end result of the losing is manifested in attendance.
As was noted at the Hurricanes recent public information meeting, attendance average was the lowest in team history this past season. In the 2014-15 hockey calendar, the average attendance at Enmax Centre was 2,982 for Hurricanes games. For a little perspective, the average attendance in 2001, when the Canes iced a .500 hockey team, was 3,069. Not visually a massive difference, but thinking further, it is alarming. The city recently spent millions in an effort to improve the Enmax Centre. The hope was to improve and modernize the entertainment options in the ageing arena. The Hurricanes ought to have benefited the renovations. It hasn’t turned out that way. Further, the number of people in the city has also grown significantly, but not translated to people in the stands. In 2001, the population of Lethbridge was 68,712. In 2013 the population was 90,417. That is 32% growth in population. Despite a 32% increase in population, and a recently updated and improved facility, the Hurricanes have actually managed to dip below the 2001 average attendance.
I understand that there are far more factors at play than simply how many people live in Lethbridge now versus 2001, but it is still fascinating. In a league that survives primarily off of “at the gate” revenue, to say this is a major issue is an understatement. I believe it shows, among other things, franchise fatigue in the city (a topic for another post). I would argue it is also a display of apathy, a far worse scenario for ownership than anger or frustration alone. Indifference is the birth pang of franchise failure and I would argue the Canes are dangerously close.
Some have suggested that the problem isn’t the Canes, but instead point the finger at the city. Lethbridge has, for a long time, worn the label as a fickle sports town. People don’t seem to get too excited for anything around here, much less a losing hockey team. To a certain degree, I can’t argue that position. In fact, at times I find myself guilty of the pigeon-holing. However, winning begets many things, and financial success is one of them. I would argue that, were the Hurricanes a more consistently competitive team, the fan base would have grown closer to an average of 4,000 by 2015. This number became a reality following the 08′ run to the WHL finals. The next year attendance averaged 4,128 per game. Lethbridge, like every other city, loves a winner. It is one thing to support a previously successful team through tough times, it’s another to blindly throw money at a team that has never proven itself capable of winning.
The Hurricanes are hurting both on and off the ice. Though the team was able to salvage the second half of the season under the direction of new GM/coach Peter Anholt, the season as a whole was a massive loss. With pressure mounting from inside and outside forces (ie. Robson, community, etc), shareholders now hold the fate of the team in their hands.
The team, under the current community owned structure, has never had extended success off the ice. Fans have only been able to take-in four playoff appearances in thirteen seasons. Average attendance is at an all-time low despite a 32% increase in the population of the city and facility upgrades. Lethbridge has proven it is capable of supporting a WHL team but has suffered through too many losing seasons of the Hurricanes. Blame has shifted (rightfully) to ownership and management.
My conclusion, though painfully obvious, is that something significant needs to change in how the Hurricanes are manged at the highest level. The off-ice drama surrounding the team (another topic for a future post) has had a negative affect on public perception and support. The negativity is seen as justified in the community when the team struggles on the ice.
Should ownership take accountability for the past 13 years or does the blame fall on the players? Do you have faith that the current board/hockey operations are the right people to turn the tides? What would you need to see change before you could support the team again?
All I know is that the past six years have had far too many off-ice drama’s and not enough Enmax beers and JUHA JUHA chants.
*Edit – That Boney M cover was probably a little much… keep your expectations low and I won’t disappoint you again.