Detroit – There was a small group of fans – all wearing Red Wings gear – heading into Little Caesars Arena for the game against Ottawa on Friday night.
It was a matchup between two bad teams – really bad, in the Red Wings’ case – but that didn’t dampen the fans’ enthusiasm.
Jarad Southam, 24, from Wayne – wearing an Anthony Mantha jersey – and his three buddies could have been watching the game from home, or at a sports bar or restaurant.
But they came to Little Caesars Arena. They wanted to see the game live. And they said the tickets weren’t that expensive.
“We got the tickets on StubHub,” Southam said. “It really wasn’t that bad. We didn’t pay much.”
During this terrible Red Wings’ season, the team is still a success at the box office, ranking sixth in the NHL in average home attendance.
Sure, some of the fans have been no-shows, but the fans who are coming to the games are loud and enthusiastic, despite the Wings owning an NHL-worst record of 12-32-3 (27 points) and a goal differential of minus-81 – by far the worst total in the league.
It’s actually surprising how energized LCA has been more nights than not, and Red Wings legend and new general manager Steve Yzerman has taken notice.
“We know the passion of hockey in this city and our fanbase has been tremendous supporters,” Yzerman told Wings broadcaster Ken Kal last week.
Through Tuesday’s games, the Wings ranked sixth out of 31 teams with an average home attendance of 18,811 (96.4 percent capacity). A total of 451,481 tickets had been sold.
The nightly average is down only slightly from last season’s 19,120 average (98 percent capacity), and the 2017-18 season (19,515 average, 100 percent capacity) when LCA opened.
“It’s hockey, and they’re still the Red Wings,” said fan Corey Waggoner of Westland, wearing a Red Wings hoodie to Friday’s game at LCA. “Things aren’t going well now, but with (Dylan) Larkin, (Anthony) Mantha, (Filip) Zadina, and the draft picks, they’ll turn things around.”
It’s that passion and belief in the future that Yzerman noted.
“For this year, we know where we are in the standings and we know what our record is,” Yzerman said. “I've been really thrilled with the enthusiasm of our fanbase watching the games, supporting the team and having a positive attitude and outlook for where we're at and what we're trying to do.”
Players and coach Jeff Blashill have also noted the energy and enthusiasm inside LCA this season, despite the struggles on the ice.
"I'm very appreciate of it and hope everyone can remain patient as we go through this process, because as I've said and I'll say it again, it's going to take some time (to be a contender again)," Yzerman said.
With the vast amount of entertainment options in Metro Detroit, it’s that much harder for sports organizations to get fans inside their arenas.
“We have to do everything we can to make this a great experience and provide a great value to the hard working people of Detroit,” said Chris Granger, group president of sports and entertainment for at Ilitch Holdings. “Everything we do is focused on making sure that tonight’s the night, and you’re having a great time here at Little Caesars Arena.”
Granger acknowledged the passion of hockey fans in Detroit and believes they understand where the organization is now – and where it’s headed.
“This is more about our incredible fans than anything else,” Granger said. “Red Wings fans are passionate and knowledgeable and supportive of this team through thick and thin, through generations.
“Everyone understands what we’re doing. There’s no secret to the plan right now. Our focus on building our young players and building through the draft and ultimately building more and adding on through free agency. But we’re really clear about what we’re doing – and doing it the right way to bring more Stanley Cups to Detroit.
“That’s the end goal here.”
The Wings have been aggressive this season in formulating an array of ticket packages – mini-plans of various lengths and with a variety of opponents – and aggressively touting discounted tickets on social media and email.
“You’re seeing a wider range of ticket options,” Granger said. “That’s everything from mini-plans, Hockeytown college nights have been a big hit, as well as a handful of value-oriented offers.
“We’ve sold thousands of tickets this year at $20 or so. There have been no fees (promotions), Black Friday offers.
“What we’re trying to do is appeal to fans with different price points in mind. You can do that in a variety of ways, but create flexibility, and creating options is one of the things we’ve found that is resonating with the fans.”
A heavy emphasis on themed games – such as Sunday's Kids Day, which proved to be an enjoyable success (except for on the ice, another loss to Buffalo) – and evenings geared around the Grateful Dead, or the 1980s, or Halloween, or New Year's Eve.
"We're trying to do things that can create an immersive experience and carries throughout the venue over the course of the game, and you're noticing that," Granger said.
The appeal of Little Caesars Arena remains strong, too.
Several fans interviewed for this story were headed to their first game at LCA in the last week, or had been there and enjoyed the venue on previous visits.
Fans continue to grumble about the concession and parking prices, but like the arena and experience within it.
"It's a great arena, it really is," said Luke Wells of Farmington. "No comparison to Joe Louis (Arena)."
Still, it's mostly about the hockey, and the Red Wings. Many of the fans attending these games could be spending their money on any number of things other than the worst team in the NHL. But they’re still coming to the games, perhaps at a better-than-expected rate.
Said Waggoner, hurrying out of the cold and into LCA: "Nowhere else I'd rather be."
Here are the NHL leaders in average attendance, through Tuesday’s games, including attendance as a percentage of capacity.
1. Chicago (25 home games): 21,404 average; 108.6 percent
2. Dallas (23): 21,220 average, 119.7 percent
3. Montreal (24): 21,041 average, 98.9 percent
4. Toronto (23): 19,313 average, 102.6 percent
5. Tampa Bay (24): 18,852 average, 99.9 percent
6. Detroit (24): 18,811 average, 96.4 percent
7. Calgary (23): 18,671 average, 96.8 percent
8. Vancouver (22): 18,639 average, 98.6 percent
9. Washington (23): 18,570 average, 100.3 percent
10. Pittsburgh (25): 18,520 average, 100.7 percent