It is said to be “lonely at the top.”
The Ottawa Senators confirm it can also be lonely at the bottom.
Sitting in the stands of the Canadian Tire Centre over the weekend, but especially Thursday night with the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in town, fans couldn’t help but notice the extra elbow room. And empty seats. The official attendance for the St. Louis game was 9,204, the smallest crowd since the Senators moved into their current building in January 1996.
“I saw worse when I started my career in Chicago,” Senators goaltender Craig Anderson said afterwards, referencing the bad old days of the Blackhawks when Bill Wirtz was owner. After Wirtz’s death in 2007, the Blackhawks underwent a resurgence and the club won Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015. Last season, Chicago averaged 22,734 fans, best in the NHL, despite missing the playoffs. This week the Blackhawks celebrated their 500th consecutive sellout.
The Senators, a once-proud organization representing Canada’s capital, dream of a single sellout.
Crowds for visiting Tampa Bay Saturday night and Minnesota on Thanksgiving Monday were better, but only slightly, at 11,023 for the Lightning and 11,500 for the matinee with the Wild.
After four home dates – the Senators drew 15,135 for their Oct. 5 home opener against the New York Rangers – Ottawa ranks 30th of 31 teams in overall attendance with an average gate of 11,715. Even the traditionally wanting audiences for the Florida Panthers are ahead of Ottawa with an average crowd of 14,531, albeit after just two home dates. Tickets in Ottawa are also Florida-style cheap. Stubhub had seats for US$12 in the hours leading up to the St. Louis game.
Only the New York Islanders, with no fixed address, rank below Ottawa at 11,320 per game after five home dates.
With season ticket sales at an all-time low (a source says as low as 3,500), attendance is going to be a concern in the nation’s capital all season. A 1-4 start to the season doesn’t help, but beyond a bump here and there as some of the young talent emerges and the rebuilding Senators establish an identity, an overriding issue is a stigma around ownership of the team.
There is a segment of the fan base that has vowed they won’t go to games unless Eugene Melnyk sells the team. Hailed as a hero when he bought the team out of bankruptcy in 2003, Melnyk has more recently been associated with myriad of off-ice litigations and the departure of popular stars like Daniel Alfredsson, Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone, as well as an inability to get a downtown arena built on LeBreton Flats. In 2018, a #melnykout campaign raised $10,000 from the fan base to pay for billboards in Ottawa directing fans to a melnykout.ca website.
That campaign reflected a malaise in the marketplace that had been evident in attendance figures for the past few seasons. Once a lock to draw 18,000-plus to Canadian Tire Centre, the Senators average attendance dipped to 16,744 in 2016-17 and has been in a free-fall since – 15,829 in 2017-18, 14,553 last season and now likely well below that in 2019-20.
For a mid-sized Canadian market, the Senators always took pride in their home crowds. Minus the iconic Original Six brands of their neighbours to the east (Montreal Canadiens) and west (Toronto Maple Leafs), the Senators carved out a loyal following by becoming a competitive team in the late 1990s. After a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007, the Senators season ticket base peaked at 13,000 and the team drew an average of 19,821, virtually a sellout every game.
The arena has since been reconfigured and current capacity is 18,652.
In a government town, fighting through a federal policy that forbade government departments from buying or giving away tickets as a private business can, it has never been easy to build a season’s ticket foundation. Ottawa doesn’t have the corporate base of a Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver.
The Senators rely on having an entertaining product, good relations between the players and the community, and marketing a few star players. This past season, the departures of Karlsson, Stone and Matt Duchene turned off a lot of fans and it may require a change at the highest level before fans buy into the vision of a major rebuild.
Senators year-by year attendance. (Civic Centre from 1992-96, capacity 10,500).
The Senators worked on special teams throughout training camp and seem to have them half right. They have improved their penalty killing, which was one of the topics of the infamous Uber video. Ottawa finished the season ranked 23rd (79.2 per cent). This season, using a very aggressive approach in their own zone, and making entries difficult, the Senators have improved to 16th in the NHL to date, with a kill rate of 81.8 per cent.
The power play is a different story. Minus the high end talent they had at the start of 2018-19, the Senators have yet to score on the power play in 17 opportunities. They are among three NHL teams without a power-play goal (Anaheim and New Jersey are the others). In 2018-19, Ottawa finished 13th in the league with a conversion rate of 20.3 per cent.
“We’re just not making plays,” said head coach D.J. Smith after his team was O-for-5 on the power play versus the Wild. “You can say structure or whatever it is, there’s guys that are wide open and guys are not passing the puck to wide open players.
“Guys are bobbling it and maybe squeezing (the stick) a little too tight. We’ll have to certainly look at giving some other guys opportunities. It’s gone long enough and we’ll probably have to try some new people.”
Thomas Chabot, Ottawa’s power-play quarterback, played nearly six minutes on the power play (5:57) against Minnesota and did not register a shot on goal in the game.
Logan Brown erupts
Changing personnel on the power play could mean calling up big centre Logan Brown at some point. After going pointless and minus-one in his first two games, Brown scored twice and added two assists in Belleville’s overtime win over Binghamton Saturday. He was plus-four. Linemate Drake Batherson had a five-point game.
At times last season, the line of Brown, Batherson and Nick Paul were the best trio in the AHL. Paul was called up to Ottawa on the weekend in case he was needed Monday, but didn’t dress against the Wild.
Brown was said to be the angriest of the players cut at training camp, and his agent, Andy Scott, has spoken publicly about concerns the 11th overall pick of the 2016 draft has not had a legitimate opportunity at the NHL level.