Around SB Nation's Hockey sites you may have noticed a theme today. We've been encouraged to write pieces by our sponsor Samsung under the title "Enhance Your Experience", ways in which we think the game's presentation can be improved, either at home or at the rink. We'll each be doing three stories, to be published on Fridays, on the subject.
Arthur Javier of Anaheim Calling decided to write his piece on encouraging fans to get their non-hockey loving friends into actually playing the game, so that if they choose to go to a game, they'd appreciate it more. That subject definitely struck a chord with me, not in the sense he was suggesting, but on how games I attend have changed. I don't live in a NHL city, and have only been to a handful of NHL games in my life, so I can't speak very well for the experience at a NHL rink. But I do go to plenty of WHL games, almost exclusively at Credit Union Centre, the home of the Saskatoon Blades. The rink was recently 'upgraded' to a capacity of over 15,000, an upgrade that saw the arena completely filled in. It used to be that around one of the goals, there were no seats, either on the lower or upper levels. Now, there are no gaps in the design, it is a full arena.
The capacity became an issue when Saskatoon and Regina bid on the 2010 World Junior Championships. They had failed in two previous attempts to win over Hockey Canada, and the promise of more ticket revenue from the increased capacity helped bring the tournament back to Saskatoon, who had previously hosted the event in the same arena when it had about half of the current capacity back in 1991. Considering the main tenant is the Blades, who play for between 2500-4500 fans during the regular season, the building has become devoid of atmosphere. But there are ways to create a positive atmosphere, and it revolves around kids.
Before the Credit Union Centre expanded, there was a completely empty section behind the glass of one of the nets. This was the area in which stages were set up for concerts, so there was some logic to the setup. It did create some problems in the eyes of the Blades: it was the opponent's side of the rink for the longest time, and the Blades decided to go with an unorthodox idea, and had the sides switched (but not the benches). The idea was to have the fans get on the opposing team's goalie, and have louder cheers when the Blades scored a goal. This was partly satisfied by the switch, as it meant the majority of fans were seated in the Blades' offensive zone for 2 of the 3 periods, although it meant that teams had to deal with the 'long change' for the first and third periods, not only in the second like a normal rink.
The open space, though, provided an area for various other fan experiences: they had a hot tub which could be rented out, "comfort seats" which winning fans would be upgraded to, but most importantly, they had a ton of space where kids could play some shinny. There was other play area entertainment from time to time, but the shinny was a constant: the Blades were helping kids learn to enjoy games by actually playing it themselves. This was beyond the lucky youth teams that get to come out in the intermissions: you didn't have to have full equipment to play, you just had to want to have some fun. The kids generally played only during the intermissions, but I'm sure they could have continued if they had wanted to.
When you pay for a ticket to a hockey game, wouldn't it be great if you could actually play the game before hand? Most arenas have open areas, either in them or outside them, in which you could make this happen. It'd be sort of like the tailgate traditions in football, where pre-game festivities revolve around fans just playing shinny against each other. If not for adults, at least get the kids involved in playing. This would be much more likely to work on weekends than weeknights, so it may not be a permanent thing, but it'd make buying tickets for the game that much more exciting. And letting kids just play the game, even if they aren't in an organized league, will help bring those kids back as adults: this was a place where they had a lot of fun as kids, and they'll forever associate going to a hockey game with having fun.
Now, with no large area behind the goal to play, kids at Credit Union Centre play by one of the exits during intermissions, but it's not as well set up as before. The rink is so cavernous that there's definitely a lack of atmosphere even amongst the hardcore fans that show up consistently. I can't help but feel that the team is going backwards in terms of fan enjoyment with the new comforts the renovations brought... but I don't think it has to be lost forever. By making games more of an event, rather than getting a burger and an expensive beer or pop and sitting and watching the action, having fans participate in pre-game shinny could really liven things up, and keep people coming back. They could bring out former players to play as well, or even current ones if there's enough time for it. Make buying a ticket more about the sport, not just about the league.
To put it simply: just let the kids play.