Ultimate Standings: Ice Is Hot

Originally Published: February 3, 2004
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

Last year we didn't include NHL teams in our standings because it seemed pointless to ask fans to grade their team's affordability or stadium experience, not to mention fan relations, in the middle of a lockout. This time around, hockey's back, but not soon enough for us to gather all the data we need to calculate comprehensive rankings. The early returns, though, tell an amazing story: Hockey really is back.

Sidney Crosby
Super prospect Sidney Crosby has helped usher in the the new NHL.
When MLB and the NBA had work stoppages in the 1990s, attendance plunged and stayed depressed for years. Not so in the NHL. Once rinks reopened, teams reported that fans and corporations renewed 87.7 percent of season tickets, up almost three points from the renewal rate in 2003-04. And the league as a whole had record attendance in October.

Discounts and early-season gimmicks account for part of the surge. Even good teams decided to cut ticket prices -- Colorado by up to 20 percent, Dallas by 16 percent -- to lure back fans. The new rule changes have probably helped too. But there's something deeper at work: hockey fans are even more loyal than they are long-suffering. Even after the lockout destroyed an entire season -- after their sport treated them as badly as any league has ever treated its fans -- puckheads describe themselves in our surveys as more passionate for the NHL than MLB or NBA fans do for their leagues. They also reported, on average, an increasing commitment to their favorite teams and rated their players more likable than fans of other sports graded theirs.

So when the lockout wiped every team's slate blank, hockey fans were ready to believe the best about their clubs. Canadian teams not named Toronto think the new salary cap will finally give their franchises a fair shot at winning a Cup. Raleigh, Nashville and Tampa are introducing themselves to the game all over again. They're coming out to see the Great One behind the glass in Phoenix, the Next One in Pittsburgh and one of the planet's truly great arenas in Saint Paul, Minn.

Only time will tell if this boom will last once hot teams go cold in soft markets and prices go back up everywhere. For the moment, though, NHL franchises have to be glad that hockey's deep freeze didn't turn their fans' hearts cold.

See more of the Ultimate Standings.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.