Poor world junior attendance sends Hockey Canada back to the drawing board

Empty seats are seen as fans pass around a giant Canadian flag before the quarter-final IIHF World Junior Championships hockey game between Czech Republic and Canada Monday, January 2, 2017 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Empty seats are seen as fans pass around a giant Canadian flag before the World Junior Championship quarterfinal between the Czech Republic and Canada on January 2, 2017, in Montreal. (CP)

The empty seats are cause for concern. For the second time in three years, Hockey Canada has had to answer for poor attendance at the world junior championships in Toronto and Montreal.

Two years ago, the 2015 tournament was held in the same two cities. At that time, the Toronto portion of the tournament — which included the medal round — was able to draw fans, even for games in which Canada was not playing.

Montreal was a different story. The Bell Centre was relatively empty with large swaths of seats — particularly in the upper bowl — left empty. The problem was that tickets were priced far too high for junior hockey. As a result, Hockey Canada and the organizing committee re-evaluated the pricing for the 2017 tournament, focusing on boosting the Montreal market.

“We attempted to adjust our ticket price, specifically in Montreal, maybe more so than (in Toronto),” newly appointed Hockey Canada president and COO Scott Smith told reporters last week.

“There are some other games quite frankly that we had hoped to have a larger audience at.”

Whatever the tweaking, Hockey Canada hasn’t learned from 2015. Tickets are still being sold at exorbitant prices for junior games. This time, however, attendance in Toronto was equally as bad, and it appears world junior fatigue might finally be setting in amongst the ticket-buying public.

“If we knew then what we know now, we might not have gone back-to-back, but that has no bearing on the fact we’re very pleased that we came to Toronto and Montreal,” Smith told reporters.

On Tuesday, the worst seats at the Bell Centre — the Blue level — were being sold for $82.50 per ticket for Canada’s semifinal against Sweden.

With the 2017 tournament still poised to make a profit, the issue for Hockey Canada will become the 2019 world juniors which will be hosted in Vancouver and Victoria. Once again, Canada’s governing hockey body has vowed to reassess ticket prices.

The poor attendance in Toronto should also be a red flag for USA Hockey, which put the 2018 tournament back in Buffalo, N.Y., for the second consecutive time in the American rotation (Buffalo hosted in 2011). There’s no doubt USA Hockey wants to — again — draw on Canadian fans from southern Ontario, which formed a large part of the fan base for the 2011 tournament. The slumping Canadian dollar (vs. the U.S. greenback) is going to have much more of an impact this time around, especially if tickets are priced high.

This doesn’t seem to concern the IIHF, because — like their federations — as long as there’s profit, there doesn’t seem to be a problem. In November, IIHF president Rene Fasel was asked if he was disappointed the U.S. chose to return to Buffalo, to take advantage of the Canadian market.

“For sure Toronto fans will go to Buffalo again but (Canada) is unique,” Fasel told Yahoo Sports. “You love hockey here. The question is how much you can take.”

If high ticket prices and slumping attendance in Toronto and Montreal is any indication, the answer is not much more.