Invasion of the Away Fans, or Can't We All Just Get Along?

My brother and I went to a hockey game a few years ago. The team in question was having some problems that year, both on the ice and off. The team had played in the Stanley Cup Finals a few years earlier, but lost the series. Now, there were issues with team ownership, and that combined with a couple years of losses were hurting attendance. My brother was a fan of the visiting team and was wearing their sweater. I, as was my custom at the time, wearing the same Flyers sweater that I wore to every hockey game I attended, no matter who was playing.

We arrived at the game to see a lot of cars that were obviously from out of town. The arena, while not empty, had a lot of pockets of empty seats and the visiting team's fans seemed to outnumber the fans of the home team. The visiting fans were enjoying discounted tickets to the game. Whenever the visiting team made a great play or scored a goal, the crowd erupted in cheers. The home team scored the first goal, but by the end of the first period, the visitors were up 2-1. There wouldn't be any more scoring until midway through the third, when the visitors erupted for five goals, eventually winning the game 7-2. The visiting fans left triumphant while the few home fans left unhappy.

Does this sound familiar?

It was December 2003, in Buffalo, NY. The visiting Red Wings had drawn a large number of fans from Windsor, ON, which is across the river from Detroit. The Sabres, like the Red Wings, drew (and still draw) a lot of fans from the cities across the river in Ontario, Canada. The Sabres, like other businesses in the area, offered a discount to Canadians by taking their currency at face value rather than the 90 cents or so on the dollar of the exchange rate. The Sabres' owner was arrested for wire fraud in 2002 and the NHL stepped in and took control of the franchise. At the end of the season, several veteran players were traded as the team tried to control its costs while waiting to be sold.

Eventually the team was bought by Tom Golisano. Though they made some missteps, they started winning again. That and the stable ownership, brought fans back into the building.

There are a lot of people in Canada and the northeastern United States who conveniently forget this and similar stories involving teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins. Attendance and other problems aren't the sole province of sunbelt teams and teams in other "non-hockey markets." Similarly, it is not only sunbelt teams who are invaded by fans when teams with large fanbases are visiting. Ask a Whalers fan. These groups are desperate to see the Panthers, Thrashers and Coyotes move to colder climates, and to a lesser extent, the Lightning and Hurricanes. One of the reasons they give is poor attendance.

Although it sometimes takes some odd or flat out desperate marketing, the Panthers are not as bad a draw as some might think. There are several teams that consistently draw less than the Panthers, including the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets and Phoenix Coyotes. There's only one sunbelt team in that list. Before (and right after) the lockout, closer to the Panthers' last playoff appearance, you can add such non-hockey markets as Pittsburgh, Washington and (yes) Boston to the list of teams that were regularly outdrawn by the Panthers.

Another reason given is that the people of the sunbelt, and Florida in particular, "don't know anything about hockey," "don't have a hockey culture" or "don't deserve hockey." Let's talk a little about demographics. In Broward County, where the Panthers play, over a third of the population is from a state that's not Florida. Slightly less than a third were born in Florida and the remainder were born outside of the United States. Of those born in the United States, the largest by far is from New York and most are from other places north. In addition, significant amounts of people from New York, Ontario and Quebec spend the winter months in South Florida.

This was all taken into account when the franchise was awarded. The Panthers were put in South Florida as a destination market, one where part of the audience would often be made up of people traveling to a vacation spot and another would be a portion of the large amount of people who moved to Florida from colder climates. Keep in mind the large number of northeasterners and Canadians in South Florida before declaring that we don't know anything about hockey.

As for the hockey culture, between the retired NHL players, the transplanted northerners and their children there are enough hockey players to keep the ice rinks in South Florida busy. Although there are six rinks (Three in Broward, two in Palm Beach and one in Miami-Dade), most with multiple ice surfaces, it can be hard to get ice time because of the large number of teams using them.

Finally, as for the claim that people in Florida don't deserve hockey, that's just mean spirited. I could just as easily say that the people of Southern Ontario don't "deserve" to come into New York to buy goods with a much smaller sales tax. But it would be just as wrong-headed, and the people running the businesses making the money from the border crossings don't care what I think about that.

In short, Panthers fans, can we please calm down about being "invaded" by fans of the visiting teams? It's not going to stop any time soon. There's a lot happening here and we have better things to do than watch a mediocre team lose. Some, present company included, do so anyway, but most are going to find something else to do until the team is worth watching. Ask the Marlins and the Heat.

And hockey fans of all parts north, can you cut it with the whining and talking down to people about whom you obviously know little? If you want a team somewhere there isn't one, that's great. I hope you get one. I'm sure people in Quebec City and Winnipeg would love to have an NHL team in their city as much as the people of Minnesota love having a team again. But the way you're going about it makes you look bad.

How about it? Can we all talk about what's *really* important, like is Sidney Crosby coming back from that concussion this season, is Boston or Pittsburgh going to offer too much for Stephen Weiss, are Philly and Tampa's goalies going to cut it in the playoffs and *just what the hell was Dale Tallon thinking trading Salak to Chicago*?