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BRENDAN McCARTHY: The grumble and the numbers; does St. John's qualify as a 'sports town?'

Newfoundland Growlers photo/Joe Chase — These young girls seems to be enjoying themselves, cheering on the Newfoundland Growlers during a recent ECHL game at Mile One Centre.
Newfoundland Growlers photo/Joe Chase — These young girls seems to be enjoying themselves, cheering on the Newfoundland Growlers during a recent ECHL game at Mile One Centre. - Contributed

Average attendance for Edge and Growlers compares very well with other cities in Atlantic Canada

They’re two words at the end of a longstanding grumble, one that is probably older than most of the grumblers who utter them.

“Hockey town” or “sports town,” as in “This isn’t a hockey town,” or “It never was a sports town.”

Now, nobody has actually explained what a “hockey town” is to me, at least not to my satisfaction. On more than a few instances, on hearing the grumble and then asking for some evidence, I’ve been handed, “Oh, it just isn’t” as if that subjective statement was sufficient proof, with the suggestion that despite its wispiness, it should be accepted as expert testimony of a sort.

Most often, the finger will be pointed at attendance figures for a team or teams in a particular community, accompanied by words of derision, the implication that some sort of local treason is at play, or at the very least, that there has been a breach of an unwritten mandatory attendance rule that the finger-pointer (but apparently very few others) knows about.

All the while ignoring the fact that there is almost always the question of money that needs to be spent to attend (perhaps the grumbler sees it as the equivalent of a donation to the religion that he or she has come to see as hockey/football/basketball/insert any other sport here).

If I was forced to provide an answer as to what is a “hockey town” is, for example, I think I would say it would probably be a community where a high-level hockey game is among the limited local entertainment options, where that aren’t multi-screen movieplexes, or a multitude of theatres with concerts and plays, or a plethora of clubs with live music, or a wide choice of quiet bars, or a profusion of restaurants appealing to many palates, or shops and stores galore (don’t tell me you don’t know someone who sees shopping as entertainment!), or much in the way of other sporting choices.

Even then, no matter the size of the town or its offerings, there are the at-home attractions of the Internet, gaming consoles, digital TV broadcasting every game in every league or maybe just a comfortable chair and a good book.

And we haven’t mentioned cabins, campers, quads, snowmobiles, motorcycles, Sunday dinner with Mom, excursions around the bay, out-of-country skedaddles to escape winter, trouting rods, or the want to personally engage in some sort of physical activity or athletic competition as opposed to watching someone else at play.

Still, there remains those who appear convinced they can identify a, “hockey town.” Expedia, for instance, lists 22 places in North America it believes deserve the label, and which apparently deserve to be visited because of that status.

We can tell you nowhere in Newfoundland and Labrador made the Expedia roster, but then again, neither did Montreal or Quebec City (but Buffalo did), so I wouldn’t be too concerned.

Now, let’s face it. This business about whether somewhere is a hockey or sports town is, in this particular treatise, all about St. John’s.

St. John’s Edge photo/Jeff Parsons - St. John’s basketball fans have certainly rallied around the Edge, which are in their second year in the National Basketball League and Canada, and drawing the largest average gate in the 10-team league.
St. John’s Edge photo/Jeff Parsons - St. John’s basketball fans have certainly rallied around the Edge, which are in their second year in the National Basketball League and Canada, and drawing the largest average gate in the 10-team league.

And you can toss “basketball town” into the equation, since the success of the St. John’s Edge over a relatively short term has led to some wondering if there is more of a lean towards hoops than hockey in these parts.

So is St. John’s a hockey town, a basketball town, a sports town?

You tell me, and you can keep on telling me like you have for nearly 30 years.

But what I know for sure are numbers.

And here are some.

They are the paid attendance figures for teams in Atlantic Canadian cities that have teams in the National Basketball League of Canada and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, or in St. John’s case, the ECHL.

No, this not scientific. Population numbers vary and yes, you could also cite the factor of collegiate sports teams, but this is a readily available head-to-head comparison of identical products, or in the case of the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers, something that is fairly identical to QMJHL counterparts.

In each case, the basketball and hockey teams in each city play out of the same building, metro population figures are from the 2016 census and attendance figures are for 2018-19 at the beginning of this week:

• Halifax (Metro population, 403,000)

NBL Canada’s Halifax Hurricanes: 1,779

QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads: 8,002

Total of two attendance averages: 9,781

• St. John’s (Metro population, 206,000)

NBL Canada’s St. John’s Edge: 3,559

ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers: 3,829

Total of two attendance averages: 7,381

• Moncton (Metro population, 145,000)

NBL Canada’s Moncton Magic: 1,011

QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats: 4,829

Total of two attendance averages: 5,840

• Saint John, N.B. (Metro population, 126,000)

NBL Canada’s Saint John Riptide: 1,441

QMJHL’s St. John’s Sea Dogs: 3,014

Total of two attendance averages: 4,455

• Charlottetown, P.E.I. (Metro population, 69,000)

NBL Canada’s Island Storm: 1,341

QMJHL’s Charlotteown Islanders: 2,603

Total of two attendance averages: 3,944

• Sydney, N.S. (Metro population, 99,000)

NBL Canada’s Cape Breton Highlanders: 1,256

QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles: 2,365

Total of two attendance averages: 3,621

Worth noting:

— The Edge — who may set a franchise-record single-game attendance figure tonight for their matchup with the visiting London Lightning — have the best attendance in the 10-team NBLC, by a wide margin. The Lightning are at 1,762 at the Budweiser Gardens in London.

— The Growlers are 16th in the 27-team ECHL, but are not far off the league average attendance of 4,124, a figure they would soon surpass if they keep getting anything close to the 5,000 they drew for their last home game.

— St. John’s has one of the lowest metro populations of all the cities in the ECHL. Did you know Boise, Idaho’s was over 700,000, Fort Wayne, Indiana’s comes in around 410,00 or Greenville, S.C., is 895,000? Yes, I know the tradition of hockey is not as strong in those places as it is here, but you get the idea.

— The Edge’s average attendance is well over the reported average of 2,800 for games last season in the G-League, the top developmental league of the NBA.

— If the Growlers were in the QMJHL and drew the same crowds they do as an ECHL team, they would be fourth overall in Q attendance, behind only Quebec City, Halifax and Moncton.

— It’s a little hard to nail down the exact relationship, but the ownership groups of the Edge and the Growlers do have a partnership. How might attendance be improved if there was more than the small amount of cross-promotion that now exists with the two teams?

Make of it what you will, and granted, the real test will probably come if and when the Edge and/or Growlers — which both look like legitimate title contenders this spring— won’t be sporting the records they have these days. But right now, it seems metro St. John’s is doing OK, probably quite a bit more than OK, in terms of support for its clubs.

In other words, if you must grumble, do so about the weather.

That’s a sport in itself.

Brendan McCarthy is a sports reporter at The Telegram. He can be reached at brendan.mccarthy@thetelegram.com Follow him on Twitter @telybrendan

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