Are we turning into the Leafs?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ah the Toronto Maple Leafs. The only other team that has been around almost as long the Montreal Canadiens. Love hate 'em or really hate 'em, we can't seem to live without them. They've played a big role in the Canadiens' history and for a long time they've a big part of making our mental well being ("yeah, so we're not doing well but at least we're not the Leafs!"). So obviously it's a major insult to suggest that we're even remotely anything like them, but after suffering through this season - never mind just last night's epic fail against the very same Leafs - I have to say I'm dead serious when I ask that question. And in this case I'm not even talking about the players or the coaches or even the general managers. I'm talk about us, the fans, who watch the Montreal Canadiens.

Last year, Macleans magazine ran an article about why the Leafs stink. It was interesting in that it shed light on how utterly messed up the management is in Toronto. It cited the problems of a huge corporation owning the team and how there's no incentive to make the team good. But while the article tried to pin it solely on the management and all the infighting that has gone on over there, it did concede at the end (in a roundabout fashion) that maybe it's the fans' fault. It's well known that the Leafs' fans fill the Air Canada Center every night regardless of how their team does. Forty-years of crap playing by the Leafs hasn't driven away their fans. They may be bitter beyond belief, but they still follow their team. They still go every night, sit in their seats, watch their team lose, leave with a minute or so to go and repeat the same thing at the next game.

I've said before that I believe that this city's love for its hockey has hurt the team. We're obsessed over our team. When I first said that, I meant that it was bad for the players that we scrutinize everything they've done, are doing and will do here. Now, I think it's bad for the team in a whole different way - and it's much worse than talking about Carey Price's mental state for ten hours at a time. By filling the Bell Center every night, we're hurting our team. Why? Well, look at the Leafs. Regardless of performance, the Leafs' fans still fill that building. There's no incentive to change the team. The more I look at it, the more I think that it's looking a lot like the same situation here in Montreal. While it's been a long-standing joke in this city that the Leafs suck, I think it's time we looked at ourselves and how our actions could be turning our team into the Montreal version of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As their website reminds us, the Montreal Canadiens have been continually sold out since 2006. After the dark '90s it would seem as though the team is finally getting back on track, no? Well, let's see, the Habs missed the playoffs in 2007 when it came down to one game at the end of the season and they lost it (to the Leafs too!). After a slow start in 2008 they finished the season on top of the conference before flopping majorly in the playoffs. And this year? After a fairly good first half of the season, they are now fighting for that eighth spot in the playoffs.

I don't think I need to mention just how many godawful games have been played this season, but what I'm trying to get my head around is why the Bell Center is still full every night? Okay, so, most people probably bought those tickets earlier this year when they had no clue that their team would be going down faster than the Titanic, but what about last year? or the year before? or the year before that? If we can actually trust ESPN for a second, then we can see that Canadiens have been in the top two in attendance since at least 2001. This is quite amazing when you think that the Canadiens have missed the playoffs three times since 2001 and their best result since 1993 has been extending the Carolina Hurricanes to six games back in 2002. Attendance is usually linked to the success of the team but that's not the case in Toronto and it's not the case in Montreal either.

While we could all point out how bad the management has been over the last fifteen or so years, the problem, I think, does go deeper than that. Yes, management has made some very bad decisions with regards to their players and their coaching staff. But those higher up - above the general managers - haven't really been made to pay for their bad choices. And by this I mean that when the Canadiens lead the entire league in attendance and sellout for three years in a row, they're still making money regardless of how many bad general managers have been hired and fired. And when you're making a lot of money off of the franchise, is there really an incentive to make it better? Why change something when it's working already? Sure the fans and the media scream about and the players moan about how tough it is to play here, but do those higher up really care?

Consciously or not, they're safe in the knowledge that they won't be losing revenue any time soon. They're safe in the knowledge that they won't have to worry about being relocated like Phoenix or Nashville. They don't have to worry about attendance problems like Atlanta From their point of view, they have the perfect franchise right now. They have a huge fan base that is willing to pay up a lot of money to go see the games (over the last eight years the Canadiens have gone from 27th to 2nd in ticket prices. We're second only to... guess who! The Maple Leafs!). They have fans who buy the overpriced merchandise that they sell. Win or lose, they have fans who will still come back the next game. If Bob Gainey is fired after this year, will it really matter if they bring in Joe the Plumber to take his job? I doubt it. We may complain or agree with the choice but either way we'd still fill the Bell Center.

And that puts us in the same sinking ship boat as the Toronto Maple Leafs.

So what to do we about it? Short of pretending that this team doesn't exist anymore - which is an impossible task - I don't know. I wouldn't say that these guys are exploiting the fact that this city is crazed about its hockey. At the end of the day they're just doing their jobs - and they're making money off of it. The Leafs may have forty plus years of futility to their name, but the Montreal Canadiens now have fifteen years and counting of epic fails to their name as well. If we dont' want to sit here having this same discussion in forty-years about how bad our team is, we need to figure out a way to change this. And the sooner the better.


Grrrreg said...

I was busy commenting on your post about the choice of the next coach when you wrote that one.

I think it's an interesting point, but I'm not sure I agree with you on this one. This debate about the role of the fans has been raging for a long time on some leafs blogs. And I don't think it's fair to blame the fans attitude for the ineptitude of the management, be it in Toronto or... *gasp*... Montreal.

I don't think you can really argue the managment hasn't really tried to improve the product on the ice and built a better team (in Montreal). They're spending to the cap. And the hockey decisions are made by the GM, not the owner. And I don't think the GM's willingness to make the team better can be questioned. Or more precisely, I don't think there's a single GM that thinks he can get away with a lousy team, just because people are filling the building.

To come back on the owners, two other things make me think they do care about the performances of the team, regardless of the fidelity of the fans.
- 1. if the team sucks too much, they don't make the playoffs. And missing the playoffs is missing a LOT of money (tickets, crazy sales of shirts, jerseys, flags, TV revenues...).
- And 2. I think in a lot of cases (not true for Toronto, though), the owner is a billionaire who is, among other things, drived by the excitment of owning a successful team. It's shitty psychology, but I think there's some pride and ego involved here. For some of them, a hockey team must be like a little boy's toy. It's funnier if it's shinier than the toy of your best friend.

Well, that was another lenghty comment...

Eternal Pessimist said...

Sorry...the thought occured to me last night =p I love your argument though. You raise good points! However, being the stubborn person that I am, I must argue with you.

First off.. I wasn't necessarily arguing that management hasn't tried to fix things here in Montreal. Bringing in Gainey was a definite effort to bring in someone who knew what the heck they were doing. nor was I blaming the fans for some of the truly awful managment failures. I'm blaming the fans for continuing to support these failures for showing up to the games.

I don't think anyone is sitting there actively thinking "hey, I got a crap load of money so I don't give a hoot if we win or not". I don't think Gainey thinks that, I don't think George Gillett thinks that, I don't most of the players think that way.

But passively, there's not that nagging feeling that if the team doesn't do well is it going to fold. Is there a sense of urgency to create a better team here in Montreal? For the fans, yes, there is. But higher up, is there that same feeling? In most cases teams need to win and they need to keep winning to gain renvenue just to continue operating. In our case, there isn't that same sense of urgency because we continue sitting through all these messy years. Yes, playoffs make a lot of money but you can make the playoffs and still not be a contender. We're the almost perfect example of a team that's made the playoffs many times but has failed to go past the semifinals.

Again, I don't think Gillett is sitting at his home going "oh well, the team is doing decently but they won't be a contender but I don't care because I've got my money". But unlike with Liverpool, we dont' have money problems here.

If Atlanta, Nashville, Phoenix, Columbus, Florida or Tampa Bay don't do well then they crash and burn. If the Habs don't do well, everyone b*tches but goes to watch them anyway.

It's like continually giving candy to a kid who misbehaves. You know what the kid is doing is wrong, but he's just so adorable so you hand him candy. He takes the candy because he likes it but he doesn't learn that what he's doing is wrong because he keeps getting candy for it.

Okay so that was a bad exmaple but you get my point... Maybe?

Grrrreg said...

I get your point, but I'm stubborn too, so I'll answer.

Regarding the fans, well, you can't really expect them to stop showing up in cities like Montreal or Toronto. I mean, there are only 21000 tickets a game, and so many more fans. Even if a fan decides he's had enough with the poor play of the team, you have thousands of people waiting outside for his seat. You can't blame them for jumping on the chance to see a game once in a while, even if the team sucks.

I agree that it does take away some pressure to know that the building will be full no matter what. But then, what's wrong with this? I mean, as you wrote, if you don't think Gillett is sitting at his home going "oh well, the team is doing decently but they won't be a contender but I don't care because I've got my money", then what's the problem? If you have to agree that they do try to make the team better, then it means there's no problem actually.

I'll even go further, and play devil's advocate for a while: The sense of urgency that does exist in the cities you mentioned hardly helped them to built better teams so far. Actually, this sense of urgency may even be dangerous. It may be an incentive to mortgage the future of the team to look better right now. Like when the thrashers gave away all those picks to get Tkatchuk for the playoffs a few years ago, or when the Panthers take the risk to lose Bouwmeester for nothing this summer in the hope of making the playoffs this season.

I'm pushing a bit here, but well, you get it. I have to go to sleep now, but this is a cool discussion!

Eternal Pessimist said...

Well, I guess if people want to spend a lot of money to watch their team suck, then that's their problem, but I personally hated the idea of spending a lot of money to watch the Habs lose to the Islanders. No, they can't win all the time, but I think people can get when their team is sucking majorly in general versus when they have a bad game. I'm sticking with my bad example of the kid and the candy.

As for Gillet and co....I can point out that even Toronto has tried to make their team better too. Bringing Brian Burke and Ron Wilson were examples of that. It remains to be seen what will happen here but they're only the most recent example of attempts at bringing in better people.

I'm pretty sure even in the '90s they were at least making a minimal effort to make the Habs better but obviously that didn't work.

Fine, so you're right that the teams I'm mentioning haven't exactly turned into powerhouses. Buuuut... if those teams filled their buildings then they wouldn't need to turn them into great teams because they were making money off of the fans who came. But they can't be fill their buildings unless they're good to begin with.

We don't have that problem here.

As for the Thrashers and the Panthers examples that you gave... You have a point. But I think that those are just bad choices by management in the case of the Thrashers. I wasn't around for the Thrashers thing but it's never a good idea to trade a pile of draft picks for a player - unless that guy is Ovechkin or Malkin and you're already a contender - but even then, that's just a stupid move that Toronto would make.

The JayBo decision actually seemed semi-sane to me at the time of the deadline. The Panthers would have needed him if they were going to get into the playoffs - which if I remember correctly, they were in a playoff spot at the time. Remember, they're still not out of the playoffs by much right now. Then again, it might have been smarter to go with draft picks if they were being offered them but I could argue the point that the Panthers made the right decision at the time to keep JayBo.

Grrrreg said...

Well, I actually agree about JayBo, I was just stirring the pot. :)

Eternal Pessimist said...

Stirring the pot makes for good conversation though! Hence the reason why I brought this topic up =)

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