“Well I don’t know why I came here tonight, I got the feeling that something ain’t right, I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair, And I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs, Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am, Stuck in the middle with you.” These are the lyrics to Stealers Wheel song Stuck in the Middle With You from 1972 where it eventually became a huge hit climbing up to #6 on the Billboard charts in 1973. It was a song that sort of re-emerged in the cult classic Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction. So here we are, in the middle of the list, rankings 20 to 11 of the Best and Worst fanbases in the NHL.
There certainly is a reason why comedian and late-night talk show host David Letterman sticks to just doing a Top 10 list. It doesn’t get long and drawn out, and even if some jokes bomb it is almost a near certainty that some will do at least ok or pretty well. I am not a big Letterman fan but I have little doubt a lot of people watch his show solely for the nightly Top 10 lists. So what does this have to do with this list? I understand that it probably is a bit long, afterall this is a 3-part article series but since we’re talking about fans I think any fanbase is owed explanations for the grades that I have given. It may not make them accept the grade, but it at least gives them an idea why their team earned what they did. As I said earlier, comments are more than welcome (as long as its clean and relevant).
Just to reiterate for those that may not have seen the The Best and Worst Fans in the NHL: 21 to 30 article. Each of the league’s 30 teams will be assessed on three basic criteria: 1. Attendance average for the last 3 seasons. This will entail tabulating the season average against the maximum capacity of the arena they currently play in based on statistics provided by The Hockey News‘ 2010-11 Yearbook. At least 75%-80.9% will equal 6.0, while anything below 75% capacity would equal a 5. 81%-85.9% will equal 7.0, 86%-89.9% equals 8.0. 90%-99% equals 9.0 and anything over 99% will yield a score of 10. 2. A simple Google search taking note of amount of blogs and team-related message boards listed as well as message board activity. Each component will be graded on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being outstanding or perfect and 0 being very poor. A portion of this grade will take into account the team’s average finish during that span of time. In the case of online presence teams are awarded .1 point for every individual blog or team-focused message board that is out there and can receive a maximum score of 100 which would equal a 10 on the 1 to 10 scale with partial points included. No, I do not want to tabulate users on message boards because those numbers can be highly misleading. So for now I am going to stick to a website based count. For every assessment there will be an explanation for the grade. I would also like to toss out a small disclaimer. While the title of the article is the best and worst fans of the NHL it does not mean that all of the fans of any particular NHL team are bad. It just means the support for the team; one way or the other isn’t as great as it may be between various teams. The team’s will be listed with their total score tabulated next to it. So without further adieu, let’s begin…
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#20 New York Islanders Attendance grade: 7.0 Online presence: 6.2 Total Fan Points: 13.2
Rationale for ranking: I have a feeling that I may catch some flak for placing the New York Islanders this high, considering they were 29th in the NHL in attendance with a dubious average of 12,736 per game which is down just over a 1,000 fans from 2008-09. Yet, what did the Islanders really have to look forward to? The arrival John Tavares and that was about it. Head Coach Scott Gordon kept his squad made of a mix of NHL journeyman and youngsters more competitive than it should have been most nights, but it wasn’t enough to qualify for the post season. The Nassau Coliseum, rated by ESPN the Magazine as the Worst arena / stadium in professional sports may offer great sightlines but little else unless you like old and gloomy. With the Lighthouse Project in a perennial state of standby that may not change anytime soon and Islanders owner Charles Wang as well as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman have been making statements that progress needs to be made soon. So how did the Islanders rank this high? It all has to do with the team’s online presence which is considerable. The team may be lousy, but there certainly is a dedicated fanbase that wants to talk about the team. When you consider how bad this team has been, and how the roster often resembles that of an AHL team its somewhat impressive they’ve been able to draw as well as they have. The Islanders, led by General Manager Garth Snow have been stocking up on draft picks and they do have some good talent in their pipeline but help is still a few years away. If that ‘bright side’ isn’t enough there was another survey done by ESPN the Magazine about the cleanliness of concession facilities that may provide something for Islanders fans to cheer for since they were just 1 of 2 stadiums / arenas to have no violations in any of its concession facilities.
#19 Dallas Stars Attendance grade: 9.0 Online presence: 4.6 Total Fan Points: 13.6
Rationale for ranking: In 1993, the organization moved from Minnesota to Dallas and allegedly brighter pastures and when the team won the Stanley Cup in 1999, some felt it was vidication of that relocation. Yet rather steadily since that Stanley Cup victory, attendance continues to slide and the team finds itself drifting off the Dallas sports radar in comparison to the NFL’s Cowboys and NBA’s Mavericks. It is hard not to notice the considerable amount of empty seats that one can see at American Airlines Center and makes me struggle to believe the team actually averaged 17,215 fans per game last year. Add into it a tough economy which has hit team owner Tom Hicks pretty hard in the pocketbook, and the team went from one that freely spent cash and had a star studded roster throughout the early part of the decade to one hovering closer to the salary floor and working to improve from within. Hicks is working to sell the team, but in the meantime it has forced Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk to be creative with salary even if it means parting ways with fan favorites Mike Modano and Marty Turco. Online the Stars have a moderate presence but still fairly muted when you consider how relatively successful they have been over the last 10 years. Dallas does have some young talent in its system in Loui Eriksson, James Neal and Jamie Benn but are they really going to be enough to spark a newfound interest in the team? They better because unless the team gets a free-spending owner the team will have to lean on the kids more than ever before.
#18 New Jersey Devils Attendance grade: 8.0 Online presence: 5.8 Total Fan Points: 13.8
Rationale for ranking: Two years ago, New Jersey Devils fans took great pleasure in insulting me and my list of the Best and Worst fans of the NHL as they took great offense to being ranked in the bottom 1/3rd of the league. However for a team that finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference last year, and plays in a nearly brand new Prudential Arena they still lag a bit at the gate compared to their success on the ice ranking just 20th in attendance. I’ve heard the excuses; the issues in getting to the arena, the part of Newark its located in, blah, blah, blah. I’d ask them if they’ve been to United Center in Chicago? That’s hardly in a real friendly part of Chicago yet they sellout night after night in a much bigger arena. Online the Devils have a strong presence, but it still seems strange that a successful team like New Jersey could not consistently sellout each night. The team has been aggressive as evidenced by the Ilya Kovalchuk trade and later contract offer and seems to be in the mood to win now. Will the fans start showing up in order to watch a more wide open offensive attack led by Zac Parise, Kovalchuk (most likely), Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac? If history is any occasion the fans won’t fill the building until the post season and that seems unfair to a team that has brought so much success to their fanbase. New Jersey fans may again think that’s unfair, and to be honest I don’t care, the #’s speak for themselves and the deserve the place they have earned.
#17 Boston Bruins Attendance grade: 9.0 Online presence: 4.8 Total Fan Points: 13.8
Rationale for ranking: The Boston Bruins are a team amongst giants of other leagues with the New England Patriots, a resurgent Celtics team, and always the Red Sox but hockey has strong roots in this part of the country. Lots of kids, and a fair amount of NHL’ers first learned to play in and around Boston, and the city is also home to two elite college hockey programs in current National Champion Boston College and last year’s champ, Boston University. So perhaps that can lead one to understand how the Bruins can get lost in the shuffle. After finishing atop the Eastern Conference in the regular season in 2008-09 the Bruins had an erratic 2009-10 but still managed to make the playoffs only to be eliminated in the 2nd round after choking badly to the Philadelphia Flyers after squandering a 3-0 series lead. Bruins fans have shown a fair amount of loyalty through some very mediocre seasons throughout the early part of the decade, and as the team has built itself back into one of the more potent teams in the Eastern Conference they still fill up TD Banknorth Garden to at least 90% capasity each night. So why did they end up where they are? Again online presence is fairly small when you consider the fact this is a traditional hockey market. The blogs and message board are of high quality but there just is not alot of smaller independent places out there in comparison to the rest of the league. The 2010 Winter Classic was a great showcase for the city of Boston, and was very well attended as one would expect but didn’t really cause an incredible amount of discussion. Perhaps a Stanley Cup is needed for a city that has gotten use to its share of champions over this last decade.
#16 San Jose Sharks Attendance grade: 10.0 Online presence: 4.6 Total Fan Points: 14.6
Rationale for ranking: The HP Pavillion is always a tough place to play for any opponent the Sharks face, its almost always at or at the very least close to capacity and they are loud and raucous. That fact alone may surprise people that the Sharks rank 16th on my list. I’ll get to the main reason why this is true a little bit later. The Sharks are immensely successful on the ice, easily one of the best teams in the regular season the last 4 seasons but as we all know the playoff success has not matched up to their dominance throughout the year. Despite a star studded lineup that features one of most productive forwards in the last 5 years in Joe Thornton and high scoring teammates Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau they just haven’t been able to make their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. So why do the Sharks fanbase rank so low? Ironically, the same team that features computer / software companies like Seagate and Hewlett Packard as some of its most significant sponsors does not have a very strong online fanbase. In Northern California, not all that far from Silicon Valley for whatever reason the Sharks fans have not started many websites or message boards just to discuss the team. Maybe they’re just waiting for the team that seems to have all of the tools to finally live up to the hype and deliver a championship that it appears to be in contention for season after season.
#15 Ottawa Senators Attendance grade: 9.0 Online presence: 5.6 Total Fan Points: 14.6
Rationale for ranking: A Canadian team rated only 15th? Blasphemy some may say but in a lot of ways the Senators are Canada’s forgotten team. Don’t get me wrong, they have a dedicated fanbase who are proud to don their team colors and jerseys. However they’re the only Canadian team that does not play to sellout crowds each night, Sens fans filled ScotiaBank Place to about 95.3% of capasity last year. Not even Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper can be blamed for that. Online the Senators have the weakest presence of any Canadian team. Sure, the Senators are Canada’s newest franchise (despite the old roots from the earliest days of the league) but how could any team in a nation so hockey crazy struggle to sellout and only have an above average online presence? Like the New Jersey Devils, their fans point to the difficulty in reaching the arena as a reason it doesn’t sellout each night but doesn’t that sound like a poor excuse? Ottawa has been in sort of a holding pattern as a franchise making tweaks to its lineup, but consistently ignoring its most glaring problem, that of its play between the pipes. There have been many different attempts but none ever seem to deliver as promised and in some ways the franchise seems to be a bit snakebitten; good enough to make the playoffs only to be derailed by insufficient goaltending. Senators fans may hate being the red-headed stepchild of a franchise in Ontario but their inability to do something every other Canadian franchise is able to do (sellout, very strong online presence) makes them an easy target.
#14 Los Angeles Kings Attendance grade: 9.0 Online presence: 5.8 Total Fan Points: 14.8
Rationale for ranking: It was a great year of prospect for the young, hard-working Los Angeles Kings squad that qualified for the post season for the first time since 2002. The Kings have been feeling the heat a little closer to home ever since the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007 and through savvy drafting they have built themselves an extremely formidable core of young players that will keep them very competitive for a long time. Especially at the blueline, led by budding superstar Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson who demonstrated their outstanding poise in the 2010 Olympics. The Kings also have skilled yet strong stable of forwards led by Anze Kopitar and the hard-charging Dustin Brown and the grit and determination of veteran Ryan Smyth. So as you can see there is plenty of talent to draw fans to Staples Center most nights and finally there is a buzz in the organization that hasn’t been around since the Wayne Gretzky trade. Online the Kings have a fairly solid stable of fans that regularly post on message boards and produce high quality blogs that follow the team’s every move. If the team continues to improve as expected I have little doubt that sellouts will become a common occurance. This team’s fans have patiently waited to feel the excitement of a championship and you could see their exuberance at the draft this summer where they feel their patience will finally pay off.
#13 Philadelphia Flyers Attendance grade: 10.0 Online presence: 5.3 Total Fan Points: 15.3
Rationale for ranking: Flyers fans are much like any other in Philadelphia; intense, proud and they enjoy physical contact. This year’s Flyers squad that qualified for the playoffs on the last game of the year and turned that into a long playoff run only to succumb to the powerful Chicago Blackhawks showcased Philadelphia at its finest. Flyers fans have been very steadfast in their support of the team and routinely sellout Wachovia Arena night after night. The fans embrace the rough and tumble style of play, the hardnosed talent of Chris Pronger, Scott Hartnell as well as the skill of smaller players like Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux. While not nearly as dirty as the Broad Street Bully days of the 1970′s with players like Bobby Clarke, Dave “the Hammer” Schultz and Ken “the Rat” Linseman, the Flyers still love to intimidate and throw their weight around to the fans’ delight. So why just 13th? For the great strength and intensity of their fans at the games they have a very modest online presence. Yet Flyers fans are immensely loyal and can almost be as intimidating as their style of play is.
#12 Detroit Red Wings Attendance grade: 9.0 Online presence: 5.5 Total Fan Points: 14.5
Rationale for ranking: Michigan has been through some rough economic times the last few years, especially in the Motor City where they boast one of the highest unemployment rates in the United States. It may seem cruel to bash a franchise in an economically depressed area but their has been a noticeable amount of empty seats in Hockeytown. Joe Louis Arena was filled to 97.4% capasity throughout the 2009-10 sesaon, but the bad economy has steadily eroded the fanbase as it simply doesn’t have the funds to buy season tickets like it once did. The arena is old and showing its age but that certainly hasn’t hurt the product on the ice and Detroit showed its resilience by fighting back from a slow start. Having locked down franchise stars Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen to long-term deals as well as inking perennial Norris Trophy contender Nicklas Lidstrom to what will likely be his final contract so the fans have more than enough reasons to show up. Online, the fanbase is very modest when you consider how strong the team has been over the last decade. As a fanbase Red Wings fans travel remarkably well and they seem to have small caches of fans in nearly every city but too many times there are fans dressed as empty seats at their home games and hopefully a slow and steady economic recovery can bring those fans back.
#11 Buffalo Sabres Attendance grade: 10.0 Online presence: 5.6 Total Fan Points: 15.6
Rationale for ranking: The heavy snowfall, the fans of teams that come close but don’t win the big championship Sabres fans have become used to the fact their team plays on a budget, but they certainly have a passion for the game best typified by its flamboyant TV announcer Rick Jeanneret. It has forced them to endure the departures of players like Daniel Briere and Brian Campbell. Sabres fans spirits have been buoyed by the incredible play of goaltender Ryan Miller who guided Buffalo to the top of the Northeast Division last season. Add into it Calder Cup winner as they NHL’s top rookie, the hulking Tyler Myers on defense and the Sabres have some great things going for it. What is not as well known to many people outside of western New York is the fact of the plentiful choices for hockey in that part of the state as there are numerous minor pro and college hockey options and perhaps that may explain the modest online presence the Sabres have. The area has produced a lot of high profile talent like Dustin Brown, Patrick Kane and Erik Cole just to name a few so the tradition is there and despite the limitations of the franchise the fans keep filling HSBC Arena night after night.