Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Realign This!

It wouldn't a hockey season (or a month for that matter) if somebody somewhere wasn't incessantly whining about the Caps being in the Southeast Division instead of the Atlantic/Patrick Division. Now let me say that I don't mean to specifically beat up on Eric and the folks at On Frozen Blog because the folks in Darwin's Waiting Room get the same wild hairs every so often as well. It almost drives me to drink.

According to the Caps Media Guide and the NHL.com history pages, we can compare attendance history vs. the Caps divisional opponents very easily.

When the Caps came into the NHL in 1974-1975, they were placed in the Norris Division of the Wales Conference. As a matter of fact, that was the first season that the "Historical" names were used. The Caps were in a division with the Montreal Canadiens, Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Detroit Red Wings. Sounds like fun huh? The Caps stayed in that division for their first 5 seasons. The Caps average attendance those years were 10,004, 9,835, 10,931, 10,872, and 9,925 respectively. Montreal wasn't any slouch of a team during that time either and one of the "needed rivals" was in our division the entire time.

In 1979-1980, the Caps got realigned into the Patrick Division which was in the Campbell Conference at that time. The Caps now had Philadelphia, both New York teams, and Atlanta in their division. The average home attendance? 11,062. You could make the argument that the Caps were helped by geography but that was also the best Caps team to date. Atlanta moved to Calgary in that off season and in 1980-1981, the Caps averaged 11,800. But guess what happened when Calgary was moved out and Pittsburgh moved into the Patrick Division? Yep, a drop in 1981-1982 to 11,377. The Caps were five points worse than they were the year before.

The Caps made the playoffs starting in 1982-1983 through to 1995-1996. The Caps highest average attendance was 17,251 in 1989-1990 when the Caps were actually two games under .500 but won the Patrick Division Playoffs for the first time in team history. The Caps didn't break the 14,000 mark in average attendance until 1984-1985 when they averaged 14.008, their sixth season in the Patrick Division.

The Caps got moved into the newly created Southeast Division in 1998-1999 season coming off of their Eastern Conference Title and with Susan O'Malley cooking the books they averaged 17,281. That mark was beaten in 2001-2002 when the Caps averaged 17,341. That also happened to be Jaromir Jagr's first season in Washington. Since joining the Southeast and getting lesser visits from old Patrick Division foes, the Caps have only once averaged fewer than 14,000 fans. That was last year's post-lockout post-firesale average of 13,905.

So what has been proved? Well Eric has a point and I think he's on the right track when he says that the winning will cure the Caps attendance issues. The highest average attendance figure comes with the Caps playing in the Southeast Division. People can cry and moan all they want, the Caps attendance will suffer more from poor play and lack of superstar players than they will from "a lack of old rivalries." Based simply on attendance, it took the Caps six years to build up a rivalry with their Patrick Division foes but those were also some of the best teams that the Caps have ever put out on the ice. The 1984-1985 Caps posted 101 points. I'll agree with anyone who says that the current playoff format doesn't build division rivalries the way they used to. The Caps have a superstar now in A.O. once the team's play improves history shows us that the attendance will too.

Finally, I think it is a sad commentary on the Caps and the Washington fans that they believe that they "need" rivals and the rival fans in their home arena in order to have enough incentive to come out and support the local team. Many moons ago I became persona non gratta with the old Caps ownership because I blasted their "come see the rest of the NHL" marketing which included blatantly selling tickets to fans from other cities in the local papers. Real fans not only support the team through thick and thin but no matter whom they are playing. Let's quit the whining about this and move on.

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