You're not a sports town, Saskatoon
Cory Wolfe, The StarPhoenix
Published: Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Seriously, Saskatoon, what are you waiting for?
In case you haven't noticed, the Blades are one of the best junior hockey teams in the country. With a 17-6-1-0 record, they deserve a spot in the Canadian Hockey League's top-10 rankings which will be released this morning, and they carry a five-game winning streak into tonight's game versus the Kootenay Ice (7 p.m., Credit Union Centre).
Still, barely 4,000 people -- that's less than two per cent of Saskatoon's population -- seem to care. The Blades' average attendance through 14 home games is a mediocre 4,160. That's an embarrassing turnout for a city that will host the 2010 world junior hockey championship. But it's further evidence that Saskatoon is not a sports town.
Not even close.
Sure, Saskatoon loves to host big events -- world juniors, the Brier, the Vanier Cup -- but when it comes to consistently supporting hometown teams, this city's track record stinks.
The University of Saskatchewan Huskies, one of Canada's most successful university football programs for the past two decades, averaged just 3,560 fans for five home games this year. And the Hilltops, winners of four national championships since 2001, are lucky to draw 1,500 for a game.
Certainly, the Blades alienated many local fans by posting losing records in nine of the past 13 seasons. But Saskatoon's indifference towards the current group of Blades is inexcusable. Average attendance at Credit Union Centre is actually down from 4,300 last season when the team missed the playoffs for a second straight year.
That doesn't make a lick of sense.
Red Deer, which has one-third of Saskatoon's population, averages 5,438 fans per game. And those people are showing up to watch a Rebel team with the third-worst record in the WHL.
Too expensive, you say? Well, at $15.90 for an adult ticket, the Blades have the lowest walk-up prices of any WHL team in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. (Regina, for example, charges $18.25.) Still, Credit Union Centre crowds are dominated by members of the Seat family. They're easy to spot -- dressed in teal and blue and looking suspiciously like, well, seats.
My job isn't to put bums in the seats. The Blades don't sign my paycheque. If they did, I'd be out of a job. This newspaper has been one of the team's harshest critics in recent years -- dissecting the franchise's shortcomings ad nauseam. We've explored bantam-draft busts and admonished underachieving teams. And when the Blades started 1-4 this season, this press-box appraiser called them on it.
But the Blades have since proven they're for real. They've beaten the best teams in the league and they're on pace for a 51-win season. The franchise record is 52 set in 1982-83.
When the Spokane Chiefs visited last Saturday, Saskatoon dominated -- yes, dominated -- the Memorial Cup champs for two periods. Only a strong performance by goaltender Dustin Tokarski kept the Blades from filling the Chiefs full of goals. Saskatoon outshot Spokane 26-13 through 40 minutes and netted two third-period goals to win 2-1.
And when Blades goaltender Braden Holtby -- who's normally one of the best -- had an off night versus Swift Current on Sunday, his mates bailed him out. The Blades fired 58 shots to overcome a 4-0 deficit and win 6-5. Exciting, no?
The only thing this team can't seem to conquer is the apathy of its fan base.
© The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2008