The ugly truth about South Florida hockey fans

The Florida Panthers have struggled to attract fans to their games. (J Pat Carter/CP)

The truth is, Monday night wasn’t the first time that 7,331 people showed up at the rink in Sunrise, Florida for a Panthers game — even though that hits the record books as an all-time low attendance number.

It’s happened plenty over the years, but they’ve always chosen to mislead by giving away tickets, or flat out inventing a number that was not accurate.

Not anymore, say the Florida Panthers. From here on out, they promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about hockey fans in South Florida, so help them Gary.

“It’s called out price integrity model,” said new team president Rory Babich. (The ‘I’ word is one he uses often in a 20-minute conversation we had Tuesday morning.) So, even though Panthers tickets are Canadian Football League cheap, they are not free anymore to anyone holding a valid Florida driver’s license, or to consumers of a certain brand of vodka or chicken wings.

And before you judge the Panthers, you should know this: In the National Hockey League, a team can literally give you a ticket for free, then count you in its attendance — even if you never set foot in the rink. It’s been that way for some time, and teams like the Panthers — who have ridden that pony has hard as any organization — have become an ownership carousel as a result.

Same with Arizona, which was sold again last week.

“Integrity is our model,” Babich pledged. “When our owners bought the team, the message starts at the top. We’re all about integrity.

“We need to reset our business model. It’s going to take time, and it’s not going to be easy. But we’ve got to be honest with ourselves, with our employees, our fans and the public.”

It could be a hard habit to kick. Let’s face it: With a lower level season ticket package that starts at less than $1,100 they are already giving them away, by Canadian standards. Still, nobody in the history of the Sunbelt expansion has found more innovative ways to paper the house than these Panthers.

But when that fan sits down in his or her $25 seat, they should not be made to feel like a sucker because the guy sitting across the aisle got a free ticket when he boxed the field at the greyhound track.

It’s simple business sense, you’d think: Don’t give your product away for free. If it were indeed so simple however, perhaps the newspaper industry might have handled the arrival of the World Wide Web a little differently.

“It will take time for what we’re doing down here to catch on,” Babich admits. “We’re trying to create value in the tickets.”

The Panthers were sold again just prior to last season, to Vinny Viola and Doug Cifu. On April 8, they announced plans to reduce capacity at the BB&T Center to 15,700 for hockey games — down from the 2010 capacity of 17,040. They’re draping off the high, end zone seats these days because the Panthers simply don’t need them right now.

The difference at Monday’s 1-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators was, Panthers management didn’t fall into that cliché of a trying to pass a fib off to the hockey world that there 13,000 tickets out. They took their bruises, mostly from the Canadian/Ottawa media who fired off tweets with pictures of banks of empty chairs. But there is something to be said for standing in there and taking one’s medicine.

“We knew what was coming last night,” Babich said. “It would have been much easier to paper the house [or] inflate the number, but that’s not what we’re about.”

Give Florida GM Dale Tallon some credit. He added Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Shawn Thornton and Willie Mitchell among others. He also brought home native son Roberto Luongo last season, and No. 1 draft pick Aaron Ekblad looks like he’ll stick.

There are players here to come and see. The problem is this is Florida, not Manitoba. Not enough sports fans in Sunrise can tell Luongo from Ekblad, and that won’t change until the Panthers, which have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, are any good.

“As we have seen before,” points out Babich, a New Yorker and former Rangers season ticket holder. “People have come to the rink to support a winning hockey team here. It’s early in the season, but we fully expect our team to be … a lot better on the ice.”

Good luck. May the truth be with you.