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Sorry, Western Conference, But It's Not The Red Wings' Job To Fill Your Arenas

It's common knowledge that when the Red Wings come to town they fill arenas. But it's not Detroit's job to keep other teams afloat.

It's official, the Atlanta Thrashers are about to become the Winnipeg Jets/Moose/Bears/Appropriate Northern-Themed Name. The move has delighted thousands of people in the province of Manitoba and shattered the hopes of a few in Georgia. It's also sparked a debate about where the hell this new team is going to play.

Two weeks ago, I gave you my thoughts on how the NHL should realign itself. Personally, as a Red Wings fan I obviously want the team to move back to the Eastern Conference and rekindle old rivalries with Boston, Montreal and Toronto, burying those god-awful 10:30 p.m. start times forever.

Detroit's case for a move east is just as good as anyone's: they're one of only two teams from the Eastern Time Zone playing in the Western Conference, they have a storied history and rivalries with several Eastern Conference foes. They could also start a few new rivalries, with possible yearly playoff battles with Pittsburgh, Carolina, Philadelphia and Washington, teams they defeated for their most recent Stanley Cup championships.

However, other teams are also knocking on the Eastern Conference's front door.

Nashville and Columbus would both love to move east. Columbus is struggling in the Western Conference and is being rumored as a possible relocation candidate in the future. They, along with Detroit, are the other team operating on Eastern Time that plays the majority of its games out west. Nashville could move into the Southeast where Atlanta currently resides (or resided) and develop rivalries with its southern compatriots.

It's not that the argument for the Predators or Blue Jackets moving east is bad. They both have compelling cases. It's the argument against Detroit moving east that boggles the mind.

The main argument against Detroit moving east is twofold: their popularity nationwide and their rivalry with the Chicago Blackhawks. If the Red Wings were to move east, it would be the only major sport in North America where the two play in separate conferences. Detroit playing Chicago for conference and division titles is just as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July. Or so I'm told.

That is a legitimate concern. The Detroit-Chicago dislike for one another is good for sports and TV ratings. It's the other part that I can't wrap my head around.

Whenever realignment is mentioned, the topic that repeatedly comes up is that the Western Conference governors would never allow the Red Wings to move back to the East because Detroit's road drawing power is so strong. It's for that reason that many believe Detroit will not be getting the call from Gary Bettman that they're rejoining their old friends because attendance in the West would drop significantly.

ESPN's Pierre Lebrun feels that Detroit is the obvious move to the Eastern Conference, but he as well feels the Western Conference's gripe may cost them:

The Red Wings desperately want to move east. They're tired of playing most of their games outside of their time zone, and it's brutal for TV ratings when you're asking your fans to stay up late to watch most of your road games. Having said that, many Western Conference governors will oppose losing Detroit because of the Wings' gate power.

It is indeed true that the Red Wings are a big road draw. In fact, they were the biggest road draw in the league last year, averaging over 18,000 fans a game on the road. The Phoenix Coyotes drew 12,990 fans for their home opener against Boston—whose fan base is not too shabby itself—which is about 75 percent capacity. Six days later when the Red Wings came to town for Phoenix's next home game the place was sold out. And just to clarify, both games were on the weekend. When the Red Wings came back in March, 17,382 fans showed up—252 more than official capacity.

(Note: It has been pointed out to me that the Coyotes game that drew 12,990 people was actually played in Prague, Czech Republic. The Coyotes indeed opened their own arena against the Red Wings to a sold out crowd, then proceeded to draw a mere 6,706 fans their next game against Los Angeles. On their next weekend game, they drew 8,189 people against Carolina. My point about the Wings' drawing power remains.
Note 2: The O2 Arena in Prague where the game was held seats just over 17,300 people, so even the Czechs weren't too impressed).

But one thing you have to keep in mind is that the situation in Phoenix is unique. Several Western Conference teams sold out their arenas on a nightly basis, regardless of who was in town. Chicago, San Jose, Calgary, Vancouver, St. Louis and Edmonton each sold out every home game—and Edmonton was atrocious this year. Los Angeles, Minnesota and Nashville all were at least 94 percent capacity. Three of those teams mentioned (Minnesota, St. Louis and Edmonton) didn't even make the playoffs.

Attendance numbers are all about perception. Of the teams ranked 16-30 in attendance (by average draw), half were Eastern conference teams who supposedly need no help from a home game with Detroit. Not to mention, two of the Western teams in bottom 15 were San Jose and Edmonton, who both sold out all 41 home games (or 40 in San Jose's case because they started the year in Sweden). Of the top 15, seven were from the West. The only Eastern team that sold out all its home games and finished in the bottom 15 for average draw was Boston.

Going by capacity percent (percentage of seats filled), it's about the same conclusion. Six of the top 11 teams in the league were from the West, while seven of the bottom 15 were from the East. Detroit itself was in the bottom 15, filling Joe Louis Arena to 98.1 percent capacity.

It's easy to look at Edmonton's 19th-place finish and say they aren't drawing fans, but the Oilers did in fact sell out all of their home games. If the new team in Winnipeg sells out every single game at the 15,015-seat MTS Centre next year (which they probably will), they will likely finish no better than 24th in the league, which is just behind Dallas' 15,073 average last year. The MTS Centre is easily the smallest in the NHL, sitting a full 1,000 seats behind the Islanders' aging Nassau Coliseum.

If you want a scientific formula that says attendance will drop in the West if Detroit moves East, then good luck because there isn't one. If the team is good—or even bad in the case of Edmonton—fans will show up regardless of who's in town (again, you'll have to discount Phoenix because they're just weird). It depends on how much you love the game and your team, not how much you love seeing Detroit. That's why it's about an even split in attendance at both the top and bottom of the league between East and West—each conference has its good and bad teams.

One way the NHL could offset a Red Wings move if the Western owners gripe about it would be to reduce division meetings from six to four like the NBA, an idea Bettman has already alluded to. In the NBA, division opponents play each other four times and at least every team from the other conference twice, along with three to four games against everyone else in their own conference. That way, each team would get at least one date with the Red Wings on their home schedule.

It's completely bogus to keep Detroit in the West on the assumption they keep other teams afloat. Not only is not the Red Wings' job to draw fans for other teams, it's a terrible, horrible business plan. Detroit comes to town a maximum of two times a year in the regular season for out of division opponents; for the math aficionados out there that's four percent of the total home schedule (seven percent for divisional opponents). If teams are banking on the two Detroit games to boost finances, what the hell do they do the other 96 percent of the time?

It is your job, Western Conference owners and teams, to draw your own fans. It's your job to grow the sport in the area, build a strong and passionate fan base, create fierce rivalries and put a quality product on the ice. It's not "hey the Red Wings are coming on Saturday, please come see us!"

Teams in San Jose, Los Angeles, Carolina and other non-traditional markets have figured this out. It's time others joined the club. If fans are showing up to games only because Detroit is in town, then I think you should seriously reconsider the way you're running your franchise.