The Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors have been the best team in the Ontario Hockey League since the start of the season. They finished with the best record in the league (53-13-0-2) and have only lost one game thus far in the playoffs to reach the OHL’s championship series. At the end of the month, they will host Canadian junior hockey’s crown jewel -- the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
On Tuesday night, they beat the Owen Sound Attack 5-2 to win the opening game of the OHL Final at the Hershey Centre in front of 2,644 fans – far less than half the arena’s 5,800 full capacity. On the same evening, an announced crowd of 11,815 at Le Colisee in Quebec City watched the Gatineau Olympiques eliminate Patrick Roy’s Remparts 5-2 in Game 7 of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League semi-finals.
As much as players and coaches will say they don’t pay attention to attendance, it’s impossible to ignore the sea of empty seats at the Hershey Centre during a remarkable playoff run of 12 wins in 13 post-season games for the Majors.
“We just want fans behind us and it’s starting to get frustrating,” forward Jordan Mayer said after Tuesday’s game. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have more fans than that. The Majors fans that do come out are awesome and we’re really thankful for that, because they’ve always supported us. Hopefully we can just keep advertising and people will see that this is the finals – maybe they missed that? We need some support.
“You can write that I got down on my knees and begged.”
And while he didn’t go that far, Mayer’s desperation to play in front of a packed house at home was just as evident. A four-year veteran with the Majors, Mayer said he’s grown accustomed to playing in front of sparse crowds and was hoping that their long and successful playoff run would bring more people to the Hershey Centre.
Rick Radovski, the Majors vice-president of marketing and sales, believes that there are a few obstacles that prevent Mississauga – a city of roughly 700,000 – from drawing more fans to what is an exceptional on-ice product.
“There’s a wide variety of factors we can find,” said Radovski on Wednesday. “Some of them are excuses. It’s easy for someone to say, ‘Well the demographics aren’t in our favour.’ It’s a factor, but it’s not something I’m going to hold my hat on.”
The growing number of immigrants in the GTA, the vast array of entertainment options, lack of strong media presence, not enough marketing and general community apathy are a few of the other factors some in the OHL use to explain the lack of support for the Majors outside of the diehards. Of those factors, Radovski believes the lack of a clear communication channel – no daily newspaper or local radio station that serves Mississauga solely – has hurt the most.
“The key for us is getting the info out,” said Radovski. “We don’t have an easy way to get things out. If we want to bang on doors and go to people’s houses, well there’s 750,000 of them in Mississauga, so where do you start?
“It’s a tough building to fill and if you look around the league, we probably have one of the largest sales staffs in the league and we probably try more sales initiatives and promotions than any other club in the OHL, because we need to do that to get the attendance that we have.”
Owen Sound, the smallest market in the OHL, is already close to selling out the cozy Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre for Game 2 of the series on Thursday. According to the Attack, they’re expecting in excess of 3,500 fans, leaving Mayer slightly envious of going into opposing arenas and seeing the kind of groundswell for junior hockey missing in Peel Region markets like Mississauga and Brampton.
“For a team like us, that hasn’t had huge support all year, when we go into those situations it’s like, ‘Whoa!’’ It’s pretty surprising,” said Mayer of playing on the road.
The Majors have had a tough time selling playoff tickets, even with the added cachet of being the Memorial Cup host and one of the marquee teams in the Canadian Hockey League. According to the official attendance figures made available by the league, the Majors have averaged 2,649 spectators over the course of eight home dates throughout the playoffs. The official seating capacity of the arena – according to the Hershey Centre website – is 5,400 (5,800 with standing room), meaning that the team has drawn fewer than half of the capacity in the post-season.
“I’m thinking about going out on the street with a billboard strapped to my chest,” said Majors defenceman Marc Cantin. “Maybe if we parade around Mississauga with our jerseys on, who knows?”
Cantin is a playoff veteran having gone to three OHL finals – once with Belleville, last year with the Memorial Cup-champion Windsor Spitfires and now with the Majors. He said he’s never seen a rink for the meeting of the league’s two best teams as empty as the Hershey Centre on Tuesday.
“It doesn’t even have an OHL Final atmosphere,” said Cantin, who played in front of 6,000-plus fans in Windsor the previous two seasons during the Spitfires’ back-to-back Memorial Cup runs. “Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything more we could do. We’ve put a good enough product on the ice that I thought our attendance would increase the further we went, but that’s clearly not the case. I thought we’d be packed for sure tonight, similar to the WFCU (Centre in Windsor), but that’s kind of sad to see.”
Not only has the lack of attendance been noticeable to the players, TV viewers and those fans braving Toronto traffic and inclement weather, but by the Majors opponents as well. After Mississauga clinched the Eastern Conference title in front of 2,394 fans – many who had made the trip from the Niagara region – IceDogs head coach and general manager Marty Williamson made mention of the team’s sparse crowd.
“They're a fantastic team and they've had a great year,” Williamson told reporters after their Game 5 defeat. “People need to tell the people in Mississauga that they've got a fantastic team, it was an embarrassing crowd.”
Attack defenceman Jesse Blacker, a Toronto native, said playing at the Hershey Centre provided a nice respite from the Western Conference final against the Windsor Spitfires, where he was jeered mercilessly by the more than 6,000 Spitfire fans at the WFCU Centre throughout the series.
“It’s nice not getting booed every time you touch the puck and it’s nice to have some cheers,” he said of the many fans that made the drive from Owen Sound, including one full bus.
Blacker said at the end of the day, however, it doesn’t make a difference to the Majors because they’re a team that has become adept at making and feeding off their own energy, regardless of how many people are in the stands.
“It’s not like it’s a change for them not having any fans – no disrespect to them – I just mean that they’re used to it,” said Blacker. “(The Majors) create their own emotion and they’re good at it.”
“Sad, but true and honest,” said Cantin, when told of Blacker’s remarks. “That’s the way it’s been.
“We have to create our own energy. I give a big shout out to all the fans that do come, because I know there are some great Majors fans out there – probably some of the best fans in the league— it would just be nice to see more of them.”
Cantin might get his wish, as Radovski said he expects a much bigger crowd for Game 3 of the series on Friday night in Mississauga, since the team generally draws better on the weekends.
“Scheduling is a big thing for us,” he said. “We are an organization that is very reliant on our group sales… a tough part of that is once you get to the playoffs your group numbers just get demolished. People don’t have time to plan and organize groups whether that’s minor hockey, school or different community groups – you can’t schedule that on three days notice.”
In fairness, Majors management team seems to be trying. During the second-round series with the Sudbury Wolves, Majors tickets were available for purchase on the popular discount coupon site, wagjag.com, where two “red-level” tickets were sold at half-off, costing $15. The next round for the Eastern Conference final, the same tickets were available for $19. Numbers on the wagjag website indicate a total of 465 people took advantage of the 2-for-1 discount for the playoffs.
Radovski said the difficult part about those types of discounts is that there’s no way of knowing whether of not the Majors are cutting into their game day walk-up sales. There’s also the issue of devaluing a product many faithful season ticket holders have paid full price for, though Radovski said he’s yet to receive any negative feed back from their fan base.
“You have to look at that as a success,” said Radovski of the coupon initiative. “People bought and you kind of hope that they’re people that were purchasing their tickets at the spur of the moment and normally wouldn’t come, but it’s tough for us to really find out who that was.”
Toronto and the surrounding areas have always been billed as a NHL stronghold, where there’s no runner-up to the mighty Maple Leafs in terms of fan support. And even though the Majors and the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies have seen their regular-season attendance numbers grow, they’re still not at the point where they’re close to selling out on a regular basis despite costing only a fraction of an NHL ticket.
“A lot of people really like the Leafs,” said Blacker, a second-round draft pick of the Maple Leafs in 2009. “With the Marlies, people don’t really realize that’s where all the NHL players really come from, and there’s good hockey in the AHL too. So it’s surprising that the draws aren’t bigger.”
Cantin, however, doesn’t put much stock in the “Leafs or bust” argument.
“I’d like to think so, but the Leafs are done (for the season) and most Leaf fans generally are hockey fans,” said Cantin, a Boston Bruins prospect. “If there’s no Leafs then there’s the Marlies. If there’s no Marlies than there’s the Majors.”
Whatever the case might be -- if it means wearing a bulletin board, or going door-to-door handing out fliers -- the players proudly representing the city of Mississauga all want to send their community the same message.
“Just come out to the games,” said Mayer. “That’s all we want.
Just some more supporters, please.”