<
>

Six ways the NHL can improve the in-arena experience

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Show me someone in the sports media who is criticizing fans, and you're undoubtedly showing me someone who has forgotten what it's like to be one.

I was reminded of this when Indianapolis Colts fans were called "just too stupid to breathe the same air we breathe" for booing their franchise quarterback off the field within hours of finding out that he was removing himself from the franchise.

After hearing Andrew Luck's lament about how injuries and pain have sapped his love for the game, one hopes that these fans wouldn't do that again if given the chance. But in the moment? C'mon, that's the reaction you'd reasonably expect from people paying thousands of dollars to consume pro sports, which are essentially a vessel for emotional expenditure and an outlet for otherwise irrational reactions.

So I get it. Or, at least, I make every effort to get it.

Every NHL season, I make it a point to buy tickets to watch some games from the seats. I think it's important. We're blessed as sportswriters to have free access to the arena with (usually) good seats and free food and (depending on the venue) free parking and an elevator for our exclusive use and a bathroom that doesn't have a line of tipsy patrons out the door between periods. I think it's important to reconnect with your inner fan and consume the game experience without professional obligations -- which, admittedly, creates the opportunity for a more varied selection of beverages -- while experiencing the economic realities of being a fan in 2019.

Attending an NHL game is an expensive proposition. SeatGeek reported in 2018 (via the Seattle Times) that the average NHL ticket on its secondary market platform sold for $91, which was more than that of the NBA ($88) and MLB ($45) but far behind that of the NFL ($166).

Ask a hockey fan what they would change about the game-going experience, and there are two primary responses: lower ticket prices, which won't happen unless there's a downturn for either a team's fortunes or the economy, and lowering the volume of ... everything.

"Everyone I know who attends games thinks the music is too loud. I agree," said (ironically named, in context) Gary Yellen, a Carolina Hurricanes fan. "I know it might be 'a thing' to pump up the music to try to get a high-energy experience. However, we would like to be able to talk to the person we are with, and the music makes that impossible.

Ask fans if they like the music the way it is, whether they would [want] it louder or lower, and most would say lower. I would guess that the overwhelming majority would like the volume turned down."

I'd like to turn up the volume on a few suggestions to make the NHL arena experience better, some submitted by readers and some that have been knocking around my noggin since last season. Here are six ways to transform the in-arena experience in the NHL:


Sensory-sensitive nights

The sensory overload of the arena experience can be exhilarating, such as when the lights are flashing and the music is matching the volume of the fans in a climactic moment. But not for everyone.

"The in-arena sound is entirely too much. A constant wall of noise. It hurts, physically and mentally," said Jen Conway, whom you might know as the indispensable @NHLHistoryGirl on Twitter. "The worst are those that flash lights into the crowd or that strobe. Anyone with any sort of light-related sensory or neurological issue gets to sit through torture. No one wants to go to a hockey game only to flee the pregame or, worse, be trapped and forced to sit through it, affecting them negatively for the rest of the night."

To their credit, some teams are cognizant of this. The Cleveland Cavaliers were trailblazers in providing "sensory inclusive" kits that included headphones, sunglasses, weighted blankets and other items. The Vegas Golden Knights began offering kits at T-Mobile Arena for home games last season.

That's a great start, but the NHL should take a page from the minor leagues for its next step. Last season, the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones held a sensory-friendly night in partnership with Cincinnati Children's Hospital. Some of the changes: no goal horns, decreased volume on music, no strobe lights and sensory kits available.

Dedicating one home game to this audience, in this manner, could be meaningful for fans and families who might not otherwise attend games. It would also be a hit with those fans who wouldn't mind having the volume turned down.

Rethinking ticket plans

As for the other oft-mentioned problem with the arena experience, we like this concept used in the Canadian Football League and suggested by reader Luke Gibbons.

The Ottawa RedBlacks have something called the "Lumber Pass" that retails for $300 and covers all home games. (There are nine in the regular season.) How it works: You have a ticket for the game, but you don't have a seat for the game until game day. Then one is assigned to you based on availability and sent to your email. In theory, you could end up with a seat at a higher price point than the average of your "season-ticket" plan, or you could end up in the cheap seats that cost about what you're paying on average.

Obviously, the price of this ticket plan would be much higher for 41 NHL home games. And it might not work in every market, as 500-1,000 "floating" seats per game wouldn't make sense if you're near capacity every night.

But for those markets in which you buy the back rows of the upper deck just to move down to a seemingly empty row later in the game, this plan would officially grant you those better seats -- and eliminate awkward moments when some late-arriving fans chase you from them.

(In short: Please don't sit in my seats. It ruins my whole night when I arrive and someone's splayed out in my chair who knows they don't belong there. Scram.)

No-stakes 'gambling'

As long as we're lifting ideas from other sports, how about this one from the Los Angeles Rams?

Starting this season, the Super Bowl participation trophy winners have something called the "Rams Pick' Em," in which fans predict things such as the outcome of the game, the kickoff, the opening drive and the like. Successful predictions can net fans prizes such as Rams tickets and autographed footballs, depending how many points they accumulate during the season.

The next generation of this innovation: What about winning points during games that could then be applied as discounts inside the arena? Earn enough points in the first period, get yourself $5 off at the team shop in the intermission?

This sounds like a fun way to keep fans engaged and shave a few dollars from the price of popcorn. Plus, it'll be good training for when sports wagering is legalized and fans are betting on this stuff anyway.

Granted, this assumes that arena Wi-Fi can handle all of this usage, which is an entirely different discussion.

Better fan connectivity

While we're talking about the in-arena mobile experience, many fans we interacted with were asking why there isn't a catch-all app to enhance the game.

With a code on your ticket, you could get access to play-by-play feeds, instant-replay feeds, camera feeds that focus on specific players or parts of the ice and game announcements. Never again will you struggle to hear what the referee mumbled into his mic after a coach's challenge; the explanation will be delivered to your phone!

As a regular patron of Comic-Cons, I can say that the relationship between fans and the venue is greatly enhanced by the dedicated mobile app, which features a constant feed of information throughout the event. Heck, bring a little Disneyland into it: Tell me which concession stands have the longest wait time. Maybe you'll persuade me to buy that dodgy sushi in the upper concourse if I'm impatient enough!

More focus on the players

"Be more like the NBA" is always a tricky proposition for the NHL when it comes to marketing stars. They're inherently different sports. I mean, it's lot easier to have Kawhi Leonard's star shine when he isn't hopping off the court every 55 seconds for a breather.

But there is a way the NHL can put more of an emphasis on star power in an NBA-esque way during games, and that's in the player introductions. Why not have the starters skate out individually? Why not make the starting lineups a bigger deal, with some smoke and pyro and other WWE-adjacent stuff? Why not put the spotlight on the scheduled shooters for each team when the game hits the shootout?

True, this would fly in the face of the "logo on the front, not the name on the back" culture in the NHL, and maybe the players wouldn't be down with this kind of showmanship. Or maybe that's a generational thing and the younger stars in the league would very much accept this kind of hype.

The bottom line is that the arena experience would be enhanced with a little more personality and star power emanating from the ice to the stands.

Finally, police the stands

"Silver" is a young female fan who grew up going to NHL games.

"I've seen ugly," she said. "I have experienced sexual harassment at games."

She's one of many fans who told us they'd like to see more vigilant policing of abusive and repulsive behavior in the stands. There have been incidents that were dealt with swiftly, such as when the Chicago Blackhawks ejected fans who racially taunted then-Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly near the penalty box. The team said, "We are committed to providing an inclusive environment for everyone who attends our games, and these actions will never be tolerated."

Fans we heard from want the same kind of consideration.

"There should be a service to be able to move your seat midgame or remove the person harassing you. Like, basically add some human decency," Silver said.

We heard from a lot of fans who appreciate attempts at inclusiveness (such as Pride Nights) but want to see more action taken on typical game nights to let all fans know that they're welcome.

Because when it comes to all of these suggestions, that's the whole game: giving folks a variety of reasons to attend, and enjoy, an NHL game -- and then come back.


The Week in Gritty

There were a couple of news items about the tangerine Cthulhu worth sharing this week. The first concerned the birth of Gavin James Giroux to Claude and Ryanne, a blessed event commented on by Uncle Gritty:

I mean, his eyes are closed, so it's a bit of an assumption at this point, no?

The other Gritty news is, sadly, about the Philadelphia Flyers mascot taking an 'L' at the annual mascot conference:

Yes, Tommy Hawk, previously seen fighting with a fan on the concourse at the United Center last December, won "mascot of the year" over Gritty, who in the span of said year became the googly-eyed face of the NHL.

Maybe this is some sort of rookie mascot hazing? Or maybe it's just really hard to win an award from your peers when they keep accusing you of lifting their comedy bits.


Wing Bowl

The Stanley Cup is famous as a vessel for all manner and sort of food and beverages (to be consumed by humans, dogs, horses and Tom Wilson). But it's not the only hockey championship trophy to serve as a serving bowl.

Forward Andrew Poturalski won the Calder Cup with the AHL's Charlotte Checkers last spring, and the Buffalo native spent his day with the Cup as a Buffalo native should: with copious amounts of chicken wings, courtesy of Bar Bill Tavern in East Aurora.

Poturalski was also the winner of the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy for playoff MVP. As luck would have it, it was also a bowl-shaped award. Two bowls and a bunch of wings. What's a western New Yorker to do?

Championship Buffalo wings. That's what it's all about, kids.


Jersey Foul

From Mr. Fjormes comes this California confusion:

You may have to click the photo for clarification, but yes, that's a San Jose Sharks logo on a classic jade-and-eggplant Mighty Ducks of Anaheim jersey. Whenever we come across something like this, our default explanation is always "abandoned beer league jersey," but we're also willing to entertain the idea that this is a relic from some misguided Teemu Selanne cosplay. In any case, that's fowl, er, foul.


Listen to ESPN On Ice

The full season archive of our podcast can be found on iTunes. So grab yourself a fresh beverage and listen to two people who have had it up to here with playoff officiating.


Puck headlines

Evander Kane calls out racism on Instagram.

Looking at the Minnesota Wild and whether they have a prayer of getting a wild card.

What about those Dallas Stars and the playoffs?

A Title IX loss for the former University of North Dakota women's hockey team.

When are we going to see the next batch of special game jerseys in the NHL?

Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid aren't exactly lifting the spirits of skeptical Edmonton Oilers fans.

Nick Kypreos, Doug MacLean and John Shannon are out at Sportsnet.

Katie Baker gets some hockey angles into her Andrew Luck coverage.

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)

Some words of caution about stats and player tracking from Justin Bourne. ($)

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

An absolutely fantastic story from Emily Kaplan on how Jacob Trouba balances his career ambitions with those of his fiancée, Kelly Tyson.