Auston Matthews & The Sluggish World Cup Of Hockey Sales

USATSI_9152966
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS

With the signing of Auston Matthews by the Toronto Maple Leafs making it official, it’s only a matter of time before he’s in a Maple Leafs uniform and attempting to meet early expectations, once the regular season pucks begin dropping.  

But something unique and relatively rare is happening in the same city Matthews will call home, and I’m a bit curious as to why it’s not been a bigger “sell” so far.

The World Cup Of Hockey hasn’t been organized and played in twelve calendar years, and last time it was, in 2004, it was split among the three NHL rinks in Toronto, Montreal, and St. Paul, Minnesota — while four rinks held round-robin “group play” matches among four European nations: Stockholm, Helsinki, Cologne, and Prague.

Now, that tournament’s fresh in my mind for a bunch of reasons, but while hosting the morning show at (then) Detroit’s top sports station, WDFN, I decided I had the time and wherewithal to buy a Toronto-based ticket package for the World Cup.  It was something I’d never had a real chance to do before.  The previous World Cup in 1996, I was still a “starving student” beginning my final post-secondary year towards my second Degree (Broadcast Journalism), and there weren’t any games at all in either Detroit or Toronto, so the nearest venue from London, Ontario was the then-labeled Corel Centre in Ottawa.  A no-go with the start of school being so time-constricting and important then.

I had been to one “Canada Cup” game — and that was 1991, at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton for a round-robin game between Canada and USA, and if you’ll recall, Canada’s squad in itself was a hot button of controversy.  Mike Keenan, then the Blackhawks coach, had cut Red Wings star Steve Yzerman, AND Blues star Adam Oates and burgeoning Nordiques star, Joe Sakic. Instead, he kept the likes of Russ Courtnall, Dirk Graham, Steve Larmer, and 18-year old Eric Lindros on the team.  Yes, three of the top six NHL scorers in 1990-91 were sent packing for what seemed like role players and a “kid” who was going to be great, but had never played an NHL game.

Well, Lindros did impress me in person that evening, but it was certainly bizarre that he was on the team, without an NHL contract. If he’d had his knee shredded in the tournament, the Nordiques can’t trade him the next spring for what they did get for him from Philadelphia, and Lindros gets no multi-million dollar contract.

In 2004, my friend and I who went to the opening Canada v. Russia match were disappointed Russia scratched a soon to be 19-year-old Alexander Ovechkin — who we did get to see play the following night, scoring a third-period goal in a win over Slovakia.  I hate to be “that guy”, but, yes, it was a thrill to watch him play in person at that age, a year before he’d skate with Washington in a 106-point rookie season in 2005-06 after the NHL lockout concluded.  I got to do the same seeing Sidney Crosby with Rimouski a couple of times at the 2005 Memorial Cup in London, and it was worth the very late-night drives back to Detroit to be ready to be on-air the next morning at 6 am.  Crosby didn’t have a ton to work with, but he was dazzling, until the Sunday afternoon final when the London Knights’ depth just swarmed and overwhelmed Crosby’s Oceanic in a 4-0 win. 

That brings us to the upcoming incarnation of the World Cup of Hockey — and I think I know the reasons many will give as to why this is the case — but ticket sales have been sluggish, even for the Canada matches.

Now, outside of the secondary market, the NHL and NHLPA have been selling full tournament packages where a buyer would get all the games (and all are taking place at the Air Canada Centre) and two distinct and separate “half” packages where the customer gets a fair sprinkling of all eight teams.

There are two obvious concerns I had when the tournament was announced. Had I been on an organizing committee for it, I would have voiced as plans began to be orchestrated:

1) It’s a real risk to have such a tournament played in one venue in one city, even if this town is a relatively “cash-embedded” and “hockey-crazy” city, compared to others.  Yes, the players will no doubt appreciate settling in and not having to go from Toronto to Edmonton to Chicago to Montreal and back to Toronto for what is a “best-on-best” tournament. But where players and their respective teams’ management members do want as little wear and tear on the players as possible leading into the regular season.

The concern also has to be that, no matter how much you love hockey, it’s asking an awful lot when vacations are over, school is back in, and lives are returning to normal to ask people to consider attending 12 round-robin games, two semi-final games, and potentially a best-of-three final.  There are ways around it — groups of 4-6 parties do split Maple Leafs season tickets, and Blue Jays season tickets, and it’s easy to draft the games, and figure out who can go when.  So far, though, sales have been sluggish.  I went on the official website for the game tickets, and I can buy eight tickets together anywhere — you know, for just under the price of a pretty nice SUV with all-wheel drive.  Life can be expensive sometimes, but the price point WHEN you have saturated only one (not three or four) markets with all the games might be just a little high.  (Note: current packages on sale run from approximately $1330 CDN/ticket to $2600 CDN/ticket — for either 16 or 17 games)

2) I was turned off by the concept of the two “gimmick” teams, North America U24 and Europe — and I still am, to some extent.

I explained the concept of this to a sports-crazy European friend of mine Saturday night — this friend doesn’t follow “ice hockey” to any extent but explaining the gimmick teams, he just started laughing uproariously at the silliness of it.  Yes, imagine if the recently-completed Euro 2016 team featured a “Leftovers” squad of the best players not on any of the other qualifying teams for the tournament — although in a year like this, half of them would be from the Netherlands, with maybe an honorary Bosnian or Scot for good balance. 

All that said, ticket-buying (and selling, mind you) technology has changed so much since that last World Cup in 2004. After Canada’s breathtaking semi-final win over the Czech Republic (a Vinny Lecavalier OT winner), I sold the Canada/Finland tickets I had for the Final for face value on the street in the celebratory aftermath, knowing had I driven back to Detroit with them, they’d wind up in the recycle bin if I couldn’t find someone who lived near me eager to go, and more importantly, eager to give me proper value for them.

But let’s double back to Auston Matthews — he’ll be a much-discussed player for the North America team.  Co-GMs Peter Chiarelli and Stan Bowman made him a no-brainer addition as one of the final seven players chosen to a 23-man roster including Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin, Johnny Gaudreau, Nathan MacKinnon, and Sean Couturier — not to mention, Matthews’ new teammate, Morgan Rielly on the “Young Guns” blueline.  

As gimmicky as the concept still is to me — as I’ve sold it to a few pals of mine — when else could you potentially see a line with McDavid and Eichel on it together?  Or a power-play with Matthews and McDavid?  I’ve made it definite in my mind that I will take the GO Train down to at least one of the North America games, and maybe a couple for this reason alone.  Will the North America team play physical enough to compete with older squads?  That I’m not sure of — it only stands to reason that the Young Guns can’t be as strong physically or as seasoned with experience as any of the other seven “regular” rosters.  But will each game look like Men v. Boys?  That I’m not sure of.

The surprise for me is the easy accessibility of tickets for their games.  I might be letting the cat out of the bag, but if you’re a Maple Leafs fan, and live in the Toronto area, and you want to see Auston Matthews play in such unique circumstances (again, with Morgan Rielly) — a mere glance at the Stubhub prices tells you it’s not unreasonable cash to spend to do so.

After some “friendly” matches at different venues, Matthews, McDavid, and company battle Leo Komarov and Finland on Sunday, September 18th at 8 pm.  StubHub lists 300 level tickets for as low as $49 US, and lower bowl 100s starting at $79 US but, can you see ANY of Matthews’ 41 home games dressed in Maple Leaf garb this season for less?  That seems unlikely.

North America plays fellow new Leafs addition Nikita Zaitsev and Russia the very next afternoon – a Monday 3 pm game.  Tough for some of you (as of this moment, I’m not one of them!) to get to, I’d bet.  But if you choose to, it’s $60/ticket in the door and $96/ticket in the 100s.

Their final round-robin game is two days later against Sweden, also at 3 pm — lowest price yet, $42/US gets you in, and $84 US can get you a lot closer to the glass and the action in the lower bowl. 

I need you to get the full context of this — it’s an “international” game and could feature Henrik Lundqvist, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Aaron Ekblad, Victor Hedman, Nick Backstrom, Seth Jones, the Sedin Brothers, Jonathan Drouin, AND Auston Matthews?  And you would argue $42 US isn’t enough to pull your kids out of school and zip them down there?

Now, maybe I’m too fascinated by this type of stuff — but I think big picture whereas some guys in my industry just watch the games, and that’s about all they can handle.  But I’m fascinated by who watches, how long they watch for, who goes to the games, what do they spend when they’re there. I must admit, after the Leafs drafted Matthews, I thought you’d see a significant surge in demand for those games involving Team North America.  It hasn’t happened.  Is it going to?  Not sure.

Remember also; Leafs fans have almost never had a North American-born Leaf to cheer for internationally anyway — whether he’s Canadian or American.  Yes, of course, Sittler and McDonald in 1976, but no Leafs have excelled internationally for either nation since.  Sittler was a cut in training camp for the 1981 Canada Cup team, and Rick Vaive was cut in 1984 in camp as well (coming off his 52-goal, 93 point season).

When Doug Gilmour played internationally, it was before him being a Maple Leaf and by 1996 when he was a Devil, he wasn’t getting invited ahead of Gretzky/Yzerman/Sakic/Lindros/Messier.   I’ve often made the case on the radio that if Canada had sent NHLers to the Olympics four years earlier than they did (for Lillehammer in 1994), Wendel Clark probably is playing well enough then (when healthy) to make that squad, and be impactful.  The only US-born player that comes to mind to represent Team USA in a Canada Cup or World Cup is Mathieu Schneider in that same 1996 tournament.

I know Toronto gets rapped pretty hard for a lack of support of anything non-Leafs related.  I’ve always maintained NHL teams are far more entrenched in regionality than any national fixation.  People in Vancouver aren’t falling over each other to watch a Sens/Habs game in January, nor are people in Montreal sticking toothpicks into their eyelids to make it through the Saturday late-night Jets/Flames game in late November.  But, Toronto, this is the superstar you’ve been waiting for — and as I’ve just demonstrated, it’s cheaper to see him and other young superstars play Russia than it is to see his Leafs play the Carolina Hurricanes in early February.

So, yes, it’s unique, it should be fun, and I’m going to try to keep my grumbling about the tourney format to a bare minimum.  I’d rather see Matthews playing on Team USA than a contrived and schticky “Young Guns” squad. But he’s playing, he’ll play hard, and it’s incredible that a soon-to-be Leaf great (potentially, people, potentially) gets to be tested so distinctly against the best Finland, Sweden, and Russia have to offer.  It’s worth the ticket — just don’t take mine.

  • MigBoron

    Been there, done that !
    Cost of tickets, fighting QEW traffic for 2+ hours, exorbitant parking in Toronto plus rip-off concessions for what amounts to a glorified exhibition game. I’ll stick to watching on tv , thanks .

  • MigBoron

    Brady, you hit it out of the park. It is a gimmick and having all the games in one city makes it less special, and more crowded on the sports schedule, especially in September when people get way busier again.

    Agree on the sentiment about Wendel Clark. It would have been wonderful to see him as a Leaf and a Canadian Olympian at the same time. I had a tough time not cheering for Sundin a lot internationally, just because he experienced very little winning as a Leaf.

  • MigBoron

    The problem I have with this cash grab is that it’s NOT Team Canada vs Team wherever because there will be 24 and under Canadian players on that gimmick team that would normally play for Canada. So this has nothing to do with National teams or best on best, it’s what the NHL brain trust expected they could maximise profits. This is an NHL exhibition series, nothing more, and I doubt I watch a single minute of any game.

  • Gary Empey

    Nicely written article. I am looking forward to seeing some hockey. I will be rooting for the young guns over the fat cats. I am surprised all the games will take place at only one venue. It does seems to be a good price to see a game at Air Canada Center.

    @ MigBoron – Rather than fight the traffic on the Queen E, you should park somewhere and take the Go Train in.

    Re – “rip-off concessions”

    Why does the public relations dept, not realize ripping off their fans for food and snacks will leave a lasting bad impression on the very fans they need, to continue to be a popular, and successful franchise. For some it will be the main thing they remember. Nobody should be leaving the arena feeling they just got ripped off.

    • Gary Empey

      as far as the rip-off concessions are concerned, there is a simple remedy. For one game, nobody buys anything. Watch the prices plummet. Nobody holds a gun to anybody’s head saying they must buy beer or popcorn or whatever. Yes, it is nice to have a drink or snack while at the game, but is it vital? No. Go out after, save money and chgat about the game, etc. If you went to buy a shirt that should cost 60 bucks, would you pay 100? No. So, if people are going to spend stupid money on the concessions, KNOWING they are getting ripped off, that is their choice.