Mitch Albom's column ("Wings come out big, so why don't the fans?") on Wednesday attracted a lot of attention, especially on sports talk radio here in the Motor City.
Albom didn't have any earth-shattering statistics to back up his opinions. They weren't even original — writers took shots at the Red Wings all season as rows of empty seats piled up faster than the $9 tickets sold (the marketing tool the Wings were using to woo fans back).
Those tickets, like the slap-in-the-fan's-face "Joe Bucks" post lockout, didn't work. For the first time in memory, Red Wings are pushing season tickets sales. According to the boxscores, every Wings playoff game in 2008 — unlike 2007 — have been sold out. But there's been empty seats, too many seats to use the excuse that people are in The Olympia Room boozing.
Album summed up his disgust with the fans after Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against Dallas this way:
"OK. End of lecture. I don't know if those tickets weren't sold (bad) or just not used (worse). I know only that if the Wings win seven more games, if they capture the Cup, if they keep up this excellence and they do it with this many empty seats, we don't deserve the name Hockeytown. And it'll be our loss."
But who would they be losing the title to? Yea, the Minnesota Wild have sold out every season at the Xcel Energy Center. Buffalo tried to grab away the title of Hockeytown, but hockey fizzled slightly there this year. (Maybe once the Bills leave for Toronto that will change...)
But it's increasingly difficult to bill Detroit as Hockeytown. It's not the town it used to be. It's a Tigers-sometimes Pistons-maybe Michigan or Michigan State football-but rarely Lions-and occasionally Hockey-town now.
As a hockey fan, this is troubling. It speaks not only to problems in Detroit, but also the league at large. But more ridiculous than empty seats at playoff time is the story The Detroit Free Press ran the next day on A1:
"Hockeytown is having a rebirth. ...
Thursday night, Joe Louis was nearly full by the end of the first period. A free T-shirt promotion had created long lines at the entrances and the crowd arrived unusually late. Yes, there were empty seats, but nothing like the recent past.
No one is suggesting this team is shoving aside the Hall of Fame-laden squad of 2002 in the pantheon of Detroit's memorable championship runs. That was the year the team had Scotty Bowman as its coach, and players including Yzerman, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Luc Robitaille, Sergei Fedorov and Dominik Hasek.
But consider: Playoff ticket sales are up by about 1,000 per game compared with last year. The Wings were the No. 1 page on freep.com in April and gathered twice as many page views as the Pistons. They even beat the Lions.
And for the first time in five years, Detroit's FSN affiliate reported an upswing in the ratings. Last year, the station averaged a 3.6 rating during Wings games in the regular season, the lowest in the history of the station. This year, the number jumped 34% to 4.7.
TV ratings for NHL games have jumped 30% across the country on all of FSN's affiliates. Not so stunningly, said Greg Hammaren, FSN Detroit's senior vice president and general manager, the biggest rating came for a Wings game.
'And it's not even close,' he said. 'It's hard not to like this team.'"
This is disgusting. Yes, Albom is a columnist and the aforementioned story ran in the news section. But this feels wrong. The Freep hasn't been immune from the Wings ticket bashing this season. Running that column and then that front page story the next day just reeks of a phone call made from a dark office in Joe Louis Arena to the Free Press brass.
Either way, the jury is still out on whether Detroit still merits being called Hockeytown, USA. It didn't look good yesterday, when Versus TV crews had to round up fans outside the Joe to produce the "crowd" shot you saw before the game. And the storied octopus is oddly thrown from the same spot in the arena at the same point during the anthem every playoff game.
But the Wings are up 2-0 in their series against Dallas. The Tigers are struggling. And the Pistons aren't garnering the same buzz, either. The Lions are still the Lions.
So maybe there is hope for Hockeytown yet.
SHOW PHILLY SOME BROTHERLY LOVE: I'm not even fighting it any more — I'm a Sabres fan cheering for the Flyers.
Need another reason? Elliotte Friedman just did a Marty Biron profile on "Inside Hockey" prior to Game 2 between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on CBC. Best quote? Biron, talking about his son, Jacob. His son tells him the same thing before each game — tell Danny Briere to score a goal, have another shutout and bring me home a puck. He talked about Game 1 against Montreal when that didn't happen, and Jacob wouldn't even talk to him.
Great stuff! Sabres fans have to love the Briere-Biron connection; Biron also mentioned how Brian Campbell used to hide his goaltender pads in the locker room, while Marty would hide Campbell's stuff in the ceiling tiles.