When I first heard that the Toronto Maple Leafs were having a “Fan Festival” to “give back to the community”, I was pretty stoked. Several other NHL teams have had similar initiatives, and it’s a good way to connect with fans that aren’t usually in the stands. More importantly, something like that is almost impossible to mess up.
Leave it to the Toronto Maple Leafs to do just that, in what turned out to be a complete disaster.
Before getting into the actual activities, let’s talk about the ticket prices. After all, an event like this shouldn’t cost much. You’re not going to see a game; you’re either watching people talk or doing small activities. But the reality is, it cost more to go to these events than it costs to go to a regular season game in many markets.
Once you got Ticketmaster fees out of the way, it cost $50-$65 to attend Friday night’s festivities, and $40 to go to to either of the Sunday events. VIP passes cost $500. These passes also got you a drawstring bag, a printed out hockey card of a random player, and a voucher for a free popcorn and mini-can of coke. That’s a lot of money; you can buy tickets for a Los Angeles Kings game on Stubhub right now for less.
But let’s keep with the fan festival comparison. The Ottawa Senators are three weeks away from having their event. They’re also doing theirs inside of the arena, but are limiting it to just one day. For $10, fans get a bobblehead, get to watch two practices (Ottawa and Binghamton), an intrasquad game, and like the Leafs, get access to a full autograph session, a Q&A, or (technically and, but time permitting) a centre-ice puck drop. If you’re a season ticket holder, the event is free.
This to me makes a staggering amount of sense. Yes, the fact that the Senators are largely irrelevant by comparison plays a factor, but it seems like a more suitable amount of money if your mission statement is to “give back” to the fans. Not gouging them would be a nice change of pace.
Even the incentives seemed a little bit cut throat. They hyped up that booths would be selling concession items at “Maple Leaf Gardens Prices”. While technically correct, what you would guess meant “the glory years” was more like “the day we left in 1999”. A slice of pizza and a small pop for $5 is cheaper than what you’d pay at a Leafs game today, but isn’t exactly better than what Pizza Pizza charges in store or the cost at a local rink. They had a bunch of moved player (aka, literally hundreds of Bolland jerseys/shirts) items for sale, but even then rounded the numbers up a bit instead of going with their usual 75% off. Your voucher for a free coke didn’t apply to the bottles, as they knew you would get frustrated in the hour-long line (we’ll get to that later) and buy a bottle for double what it costs outside of the building.
Capitalism at it’s finest. I don’t blame them, but again, contradictory to the mission statement.
On to the event. We’ll start with Friday; gates opened at six, but you weren’t allowed to go to your seat until 7:15. But hey, you got the chance to check out stuff that would be available this weekend a little bit early! That’s neat, right?
Sort of. They ran out of dressing room tours within minutes, and the centre-ice puck drop was packed too. But hey, time to eat pizza, chat, and wander. Can’t complain too much. Eventually, we’re allowed in and get to wait another 45 minutes for the night’s festivities to get under way.
On the agenda? A Q&A with Leafs management, one with some of the players (Bernier, Phaneuf, and Lupul), and the presentation of new rings to a bunch of Leafs alumni. The only real advantage to being there? Some people got to ask questions, and a couple of others got to scream things. Screaming things definitely happened; one man started screaming unintelligibles about David Clarkson (to which the fan who was supposed to ask a question at the time responded “this isn’t Yuk Yuks, no heckling”), and another yelled for Joffrey Lupul to be given the C (as he sat next to Dion Phaneuf).
Other than that? You paid for a worse experience. The speaker systems weren’t set up properly – for the first few minutes only the VIP section was getting proper sound. Certain mics would cut out in certain spots. Dave Nonis’ mic didn’t work at all. You were better off watching everything on the Leafs website for free afterwards. Though it was pretty neat to see the rings being presented.
I had hopes that Saturday would be better. Not so much for me; I had no real interest in doing any of the events, but I wanted others to have a good time. As you may have seen on Twitter, this didn’t happen for many. The event was rammed with guests, way too many to allow for access to any of the “things to do”.
From what many people have told me, meeting players and getting autographs required a commitment of two to three hours in line. What’s worse is the fact that the guys making the appearances weren’t going to be there for that long, so you would get in line for one person and see another (with no schedule). Eventually, staff were cutting people out of lines entirely after already waiting long periods of time.
It wasn’t just the players that drew lines either. The on-ice stuff was a zoo. The Leafs dressing room was an impossibility. The combine centre was jammed. Members of Leafs management wandered the halls to give people some sort of entertainment as they waited, but this just lead to areas of the building being straight up impossible to navigate as mobs formed around them.
In the end, the Leafs did some cool things on a long-term scale this weekend. Giving the alumni their rings was nice. The new statues look really cool. But these things could have been done as smaller mini-events of their own, and not made into features of a cash cow. Leafs fans found themselves stuck in crowds of disappointment, and walking out empty handed and emptier walleted. Come to think of it, maybe they did give the “game experience” to those who usually don’t get it.