- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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What's a "hockey town"?
That question has been batted around for years, probably even before Babe Dye was ringing up those better-than-a-goal-a-game seasons for the Toronto St. Patrick's and the accompanying argument about whether he was a better Babe than the fat guy waddling around the bases for the Yankees.
It certainly was a hot topic when I got started in this business.
And it still is.
Going through a desk the other day, I came across a clipping of an old column of mine. It was from another era, when the NHL had 18 teams, the WHA still was in business (barely) and Elvis only a short while earlier had left the building (permanently).
The issue was what makes a hockey town, and it had come up because even the head of the players' union, "Honest Alan" Eagleson, had mused that the league would be better off eliminating several markets and many jobs. (Maybe that should have been a hint about his integrity.) Several franchises, including the Colorado Rockies, were struggling at the gate, and the thinking among hockey folks at that point -- and these were men who wore tuxedos to league functions and often threw up on them by the end of the night -- was that there could be only one reason for games not selling out.
Those cities had to be bad hockey towns -- or not hockey towns at all.
The interesting thing was that the standard was selective, because cities such as Detroit, where the empty seats in the Olympia for Red Wings' games were numerous, got an "Original Six" free pass, although the teams considered the "Original Six" weren't the league's "Original Six" at all.
The NHL generally outdrew the NBA in cities with both franchises, but hockey wasn't drawing in some cities where the teams were rotten. Even St. Louis, where the Blues earlier had been an ultra-hot ticket, had slipped at the gate. Bad teams weren't capable of drawing folks to the ticket queues, because, after all, tickets were creeping into that scary realm of double digits.
Like an outrageous $11 -- ELEVEN DOLLARS! -- for a decent seat.
The simple answer, then as now, is that a hockey town is anywhere where a decent team draws interest and paying customers, and the loyalty is resilient enough to slip only slowly or not at all, if and when the on-ice fortunes slide.
But smart consumers refusing to patronize terrible products and hockey towns are not mutually exclusive. Unsold seats in Vancouver, Boston, Edmonton and Calgary in the 1990s, for example, didn't mean they no longer were hockey towns. And the absolutely embarrassing number of empty seats in the United Center for Blackhawks games, contrary to the opinions of the mainstream media whose natural interests lie elsewhere and pounce on any chance to reconfirm their ignorance of the sport, is not indicative of a lack of passion for hockey in the Windy City. Rather, it illustrates an aversion to the Blackhawks' ownership and their lack of on-ice success. In my view, Boston and Chicago are better hockey towns than ever because the interest in the sport itself -- especially in college hockey-crazy Boston -- is as great as ever. They are wonderful hockey towns which hold the NHL, to slightly different degrees, at arm's length.
It's that simple.
In Denver, the terrible Rockies had some great players and intriguing soap opera elements, but didn't draw and moved to New Jersey in 1982. The Avalanche won the Stanley Cup immediately after arriving in Denver in 1995, officially haven't had an unsold ticket in nearly 11 years, yet now are conducting a season-ticket campaign (including ads on, ironically enough, Rockies baseball broadcasts). The sellout streak is about to end because of the perception that the franchise is slipping and season tickets aren't necessary to get into the arena, but that won't make Denver any less of a hockey town.
Over the years, though, my definition of what constitutes a hockey town has evolved to go beyond simply NHL support.
Of course, if the phrase used is "Hockeytown, U.S.A.," with a capital H, that means you're acknowledging the Red Wings' ingenuity in copyrighting the term and agree that it's a fair description simply because several of the team's fans actually live within the city limits of Detroit, rather than in the suburbs or on the other side of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.
(Teasing is always part of the hockey town debate -- as is the tendency of some folks to take the teasing too seriously.)
So, many years after first pondering the subject, here are my additional standards for what constitutes a (good) hockey town:
-- At least one radio sports talk show host in town can discuss who should play the point on the power play.
-- The NHL, whether for 80 years or eight, has spurred rink construction and participation in the sport, for players barely old enough to stay upright and for accountants dropping in at lunch.
-- The fan next to you who knows the life story of every player, can give you the rundown of the organizational prospects in the AHL and in college, and perhaps can excoriate the opposing winger in a voice that can peel paint, is just as likely to be female as male. Or maybe more likely.
-- The hats are thrown on the ice before the puck is fished out of the net.
-- Fans have come to understand the differences between Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And when a writer or broadcaster is stupid enough to call a Slovak a Czech, the e-mails pile up.
-- Nobody boos when the whistle blows because the winger was about 12 feet offside.
-- Fans spot the too-many-men-on-the-ice infractions, even the non-obvious ones, and are pointing and yelling before the calls are made.
-- No one is surprised when the anthem singer first breaks into "O Canada" before the game against Edmonton.
-- Fans care not only because they're in fantasy leagues and/or otherwise gamble on the games.
-- Kate Smith is be best remembered for "God Bless America."
-- A bar with a current or former hockey player's name on the sign can be a popular hangout, rather than a one-way ticket to failure.
-- "Shut-ins" who haven't been to a game for years, if ever, circle the games in red on the TV schedule, watch every darned one and come to feel as if they know the fourth-line winger because he's always willing to talk between periods with a towel around his neck.
-- The goalie can't go to the mall or if he does, he signs autographs before heading into the Sharper Edge.
-- If a disc jockey says "Five for Fighting" or "Barenaked Ladies" is next up, hockey fans get excited, and not because two enforcers brawling or a soundtrack from the Folies Bergere is on tap. They're about to hear from some of their own.
Actually, in a North American era in which minor league pro hockey is proliferating, when junior hockey remains popular in Canada and pockets of the U.S., and when college hockey has its hotbeds, a "hockey town" can be just about anywhere.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
12dScott Burnside and Craig Custance