Southeast tough on ice but still soft at gate



November 30, 2003|By Michael Russo | Michael Russo,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - On the ice, the Southeast Division has a bright future. But make no mistake, the NHL had better be concerned about other aspects of the division's future.

All five teams - the Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals - are in nontraditional markets. Except for the Lightning, all are in the bottom third in average home attendance, with Carolina and Atlanta in the bottom five.

To try to create rivalries and add more meaning to divisional games, each NHL team plays divisional opponents six times (one more than previous years) - three at home and on the road.

Even though each Southeast team has its share of exciting players, and even though Tampa Bay and Atlanta are in the playoff race, with the Panthers on the verge, hockey fans in these cities don't seem to be finding Southeast Division matchups sexy.

The Lightning, with the 15th-best attendance in the NHL at 16,367 a game, has shown a drop to 15,250 for Southeast opponents. The Panthers, averaging 14,373 a game (22nd in the NHL), have had a marginal increase (241 fans). Carolina, last in the league at 11,646 a game, has averaged 9,777 for four Southeast matchups.

On Nov. 9, 9,821 arrived to watch the Hurricanes play Tampa Bay, at the time the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference. On Nov. 13, Atlanta came to Raleigh and played in front of 8,674.

Tampa Bay has stars like Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis and Nikolai Khabibulin, and Atlanta has perhaps the most dynamic scorer in the game, Ilya Kovalchuk.

The Panthers have loads of talent, led by Olli Jokinen, Valeri Bure, Jay Bouwmeester and Roberto Luongo.

Whenever the Panthers play Atlanta, it seems to be an exciting, end-to-end game. There's still hatred between Florida and Tampa on the ice, and it's even filtered off the ice. Panthers general manager Rick Dudley, Tampa Bay's former GM, and Jay Feaster, Tampa's current GM, make no secret of their disdain for each other.

If you're a hockey fan, who wouldn't want to see the Panthers and Washington, which brings stars like Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar and Robert Lang into Office Depot Center three times a year?

Since the divisional matchups don't seem to be selling themselves, what needs to happen to make fans come?

"In our parts of untraditional hockey, you have to win," Dudley says bluntly. "And our division as a whole has not been very successful for a while, but I think it's starting to turn.

"There's going to be some very good teams. Atlanta is going to be a great team. Tampa Bay is already a great team. We have the ability. So does Washington and Carolina."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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