Will Ottawa hockey fans fall victim to the PWHL's success? | Opinion

Will Ottawa hockey fans fall victim to the PWHL's success?  |  Opinion

City columnist Bruce Deachman writes that a new, smaller arena at Lansdowne Park will be too small for Ottawa’s professional women’s hockey team.

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Published June 11, 2024Last update 4 hours ago4 minute reading

Ottawa
April 27, 2024: Ottawa fans came out in full force, cheering on their favorite PWHL players during and after the warm-up skate. Here, fan-favorite goalie Emerance Maschmeyer stops to give away a puck to a lucky young fan after the warm-up skate. Photo by JULIE OLIVER /POSTMEDIA

Monday night’s Professional Women’s Hockey League draft was all about looking forward, with each of the league’s original six teams aiming to improve their chances of winning the Walter Cup next season and beyond .

(And yes, we might as well start referring to Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Minnesota, Boston and New York as the PWHL’s Original Six, since it’s easy to imagine the league expanding to other cities before long.)

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The Ottawa club’s victory, in particular, is one of the league’s biggest stories. Despite playing in by far the smallest market of the six cities and ultimately failing to make the playoffs, PWHL Ottawa led the league in average home attendance during the regular season, with nearly 7,500 fans in each of their dozen games at TD Place Arena. (By comparison, league champion Minnesota, which plays its home games at the 18,000-seat Xcel Energy Center, home of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, came in second, with 7,138. Meanwhile, the average the league was 5,448.)

It is not unreasonable to expect this support to continue. Ultimately, this success came after a very short run for the PWHL as a whole: the schedule, for example, was published only about a month before the season began, while the names and crests of the individual teams have not yet been announced. Subsequent seasons should develop more smoothly.

Meanwhile, if you attended even one home game, you’ll understand why Ottawa was so successful. The atmosphere at the games was totally fun and welcoming, with young people cheering everywhere, many of them wearing the hockey sweaters of their childhood teams. And while professional athletes from all sports serve as role models, that aspect of sports fandom isn’t as evident anywhere else as I saw it at PWHL games. The fans felt very connected to the players.

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The fans, of course, came to cheer on Ottawa, but they seemed equally excited to be among other like-minded fans. If you get 7,500 people with that mindset in a room, you’re going to get a lot of electricity, and PWHL Ottawa has been one of the most exciting additions to this city’s entertainment landscape.

However, at the risk of sounding like Eeyore, I worry that the team, and specifically its fans, could end up being victims of that same success.

The club is expected to move to a new but significantly smaller stadium at the start of the 2028-29 season. The stadium and concert venue capacity planned for the berm of Lansdowne Park’s Great Lawn, including suites, club seating and standing room, will peak at approximately 6,500 people for hockey games. That stadium size, Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group president and CEO Mark Goudie says, matches almost perfectly with the events he has held and hopes to continue hosting at Lansdowne. As a concert venue, it perfectly fills the gap between the National Arts Centre’s 2,000-seat Southam Hall and the Canadian Tire Centre’s NHL-sized arena, suitable for Bruce Springsteen and other celebrities. As a hockey rink, it is the perfect size for the Ottawa 67s.

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But not the PWHL.

Based on last season’s attendance, the new stadium would shut out about 1,000 Ottawa fans at each game, and many more at some games; Consider the more than 8,300 who attended the season opener in January.

If that happens, one possible outcome is that fewer available seats would be accompanied by higher ticket prices, resulting in many fans no longer being able, financially or logistically, to attend games. And with that, quite possibly, would be missing the perfect mix of fans that made attending games this season a pleasure.

Otherwise, the team needs to consider a broader scope, a difficult task with a single solution. If the Ottawa Senators finally get a stadium downtown, adding the PWHL to the mix would be a good option. Otherwise there is nothing suitable. The Center Slush Puppy in Gatineau, home of the Olympiques, only has capacity for about 4,000 people.

But just as the draft does not provide any degree of certainty, no one knows what the future will hold. Were the record crowds a result of the novelty of having professional women’s hockey in the city and therefore destined to decline as the novelty wore off? I think the fans will most likely maintain those levels or push them further. And how might the expected expansion of the regular season by a half-dozen games per club affect attendance? I reached out to the league, but due to this week’s draft, no one was available to comment.

With two more seasons left on the team’s lease at TD Place Arena, the picture will likely become clearer before the old Civic Center falls under the wrecking ball. But before that happens, the team and the city must look forward and navigate what will hopefully be even greater success.

bdeachman@postmedia.com

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