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NHL, NBA preseason games a big draw … in neutral sites

There is a very good reason why the NHL and NBA are playing preseason games in cities that may be hard to find on a map — they draw good crowds.
Of the 30 National Hockey League teams that opened training camps last week, perhaps none did it with less fanfare than the Boston Bruins. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. After all, when you start practice for the upcoming season at the same time the local major league baseball team is in the final week of its struggle to wrestle the American League East from the upstart Tampa Bay Rays and the local NFL team is adjusting to life for the rest of the season without their most popular player, what did you expect?

Under those circumstances, it going to be very hard to draw attention to your team, even if it did finish last year on an up note, taking highly favored Montreal to seven games in a first round playoff series.

So, although most NHL teams staying as close to home as possible, the Bruins put 45 players on a plane and sent them 700 miles away from home … to a place many Americans couldn’t find on a map.

Which suits the Bruins … and the locals in Halifax, Nova Scotia … just fine.

The Bruins are spending the week in the Maritimes. In Halifax, they will play a pair of games, hosting Montreal on Monday and the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings on Thursday. In between, they will make aside trip to Moncton, New Brunswick for a game with the New York Islanders.

While most NHL (and, to be fair NBA games) are met with semi-interest in the regular home ports, cities like Halifax are thrilled beyond words to get up and close personal with players most only see on television. The 10,000 seat Metro Centre arena is expected to come close to a sellout for the game with Montreal and Detroit. NHL expansion occurred 41 years ago but the concept of two of the Original Six teams coming to town is still a big draw. Packages ranging from $120 -$160 per ticket sold easily. "I think the rivalry or any of those Original Six teams carries some cache and I think they will for some time," said Scott Ferguson, who is overseeing the ticket sales. "And there’ll always be a strong audience for it."

Years ago, it was very common for NFL, NHL and NBA teams to play several preseason games in various small locales around North America. Some teams didn’t play any preseason games at home. Although they tend to open their training camps away from home, the NFL plays just about all their preseason games in their regular stadiums.

Most NHL and NBA teams run their training camps close to home, making it easier to play preseason games there as well. These games are usually included in season ticket packages. However, attendance is frequently sparse. As a result, the leagues understand there is still a market for taking their show on the road occasionally.

Not counting games being played in Europe, the NHL has 10 scheduled in non-regular locales. Many are in places that have hosted games before (the LA Kings play an annual game in Las Vegas for several years. A few years ago, the Coyotes started to do the same thing in Winnipeg, a former NHL burg.) Every year, however, teams try out new places for various reasons. The Blues are playing in Kansas City, a former NHL city that would like another chance if a failing franchise would like to relocate. In addition to their annual jaunt to Las Vegas, the Kings are heading to Salt Lake City for a night. Should they draw a big crowd there, it never hurts to remind the locals what they could end up missing some day.

As it develops, some NHL guys are just sentimentalists. Claude Julien, the current Bruin coach, once played minor league in Halifax. He wasn’t hard to convince to come to town for a few days. In addition to the games, the team will hold public practices.

The Florida Panthers are heading to Summerside, Prince Edward Island for a preseason game with the New York Islanders. Why go to a town of 14,500 in the middle of nowhere? The Islanders, who are training in Moncton for a week, have two assistants who are Summerside natives. When the game was originally scheduled, Doug McLean, also a Summerside native, was expected to put together a group to buy the Panthers. That didn’t happen but the first NHL preseason game ever to be played in Prince Edward Island is still a very big deal.

But all of that interest pales to the mayhem going on in Roberval, Quebec. This is the small town that won the annual Hockeyville competition run by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Kraft. As part of the win, the city of 11,000 gets to host a NHL preseason game. The local arena only holds around 1,200 people but another 8,000 or so are expected to be outside watching the Canadiens-Buffalo game on television. In addition, the league brought in the Stanley Cup for a visit and arranged for old Quebec heroes like Guy Lafleur to attend.

Imagine the NFL doing something like that.

The NBA preseason schedule, which starts in early October, also has some interesting locales. The league has an established relationship overseas and may want to expand there someday. So it is teams will again be traveling to London, Barcelona and Beijing for games.

Thanks to their relationship with their D-League teams, however, the NBA is also playing games in smaller markets. Some of the sites read like places presidential candidates might visit on a whistle stop tour: Billings, MT; Fort Wayne, IN; LaCrosse, WI; Manchester, NH; Bismarck, ND and Mobile, AL wouldn’t seem like NBA markets. But if you can draw 10,000 folks for a game with Atlanta when you would have less than that at home, why not hop on a plane and go?

It’s not the rapture that is baseball’s spring training. It’s not the big business that marks NFL games. But the NHL and NBA have discovered that visits to other markest can sometimes pay off handsomely. If nothing else, a future expansion option (or a place for an owner seeking to move) may be on the table.

Nobody is suggesting the NHL is going to be moving to Halifax or Roberval or the NBA will be decamping in Billings and Bismarck in the near future. In today’s economy, however, it is wise to keep all your options open. Home may be the heart resides. But the money – at least in preseason games – may be found in smaller locales.

(Dave Wright is a senior editor at August Publications.)