SUN Hockey Pool

Empty seats at Saddledome

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:29 AM ET

CALGARY - Look up.

Look waaaaaaaaaay up Flames fans and not only will you see 13 other West division teams ahead of your club, you’ll see something else locals aren’t generally accustomed to: Empty seats.

Plenty of ’em.

Yep, a quick peek at the Dome’s typically raucous third level — where the diehards generally camp out for $22 a game — and you’ll find more empty pews than at Saturday evening mass.

The increasing number of unused seats is a relatively new development at the Dome, especially when a star like Steven Stamkos makes a rare appearance. Yet, such was the case Tuesday when the Flames beat the Lightning in front of a less-than capacity crowd.

Despite the fact we’re told the season-ticket waiting list is almost 4,000-strong and the club currently boasts a 228-game sellout streak, the reality is the place ain’t filled to the gills anymore.

It’s one of the first physical signs of the frustration building amongst a fan base that recognizes something ownership and management won’t: This team is going nowhere.

Not surprisingly, the love affair between this city and its team is losing steam. Serious steam.

You see, those running pro sports franchises are in the business of selling hope.

There is little hope for this bunch.

Not this season and not next season given the aging cast and limited ability of the sordid bunch Darryl Sutter has so haphazardly slapped together.

The diehards in the nosebleeds are no longer blindly drinking the Kool-Aid of an organization that refuses to admit this thing is heading in the wrong direction.

Last year’s 10th-place finish demonstrated it’s been coming for a few years now, but this year’s abysmal start and inability to even begin to climb out of the team’s shallow grave has people giving up in scary numbers.

Until there’s change — or at least an acknowledgement that things can’t continue the way they have — the mood in this town is not likely to change until heads roll and a new course is charted.

While everyone has differing views on who should pay for the mess the team is in, everyone agrees it can’t continue this way.

Everyone except the organization, that is.

And that’s what’s likely driving more and more people away.

Anyone with season tickets knows how much tougher it is than it was a few years ago to pass on their ducats. An offer of tickets used to be followed by “of course.” Now the response is generally, “who are they playing?” before a commitment is made.

Vice President of Sales Rollie Cyr said yesterday all 400 of the 300-level Sport Chek seats were in fact sold Tuesday, even if a large number of them didn’t show up to see the unveiling of bigger TV screens for them to see replays on.

“Our sales are still strong and we’re still sold out, but people don’t necessarily show up,” said Cyr, adamant ticket sales are not sagging.

“Some teams just have a better draw than others. Even when Washington is here or Vancouver there are still 500-1,000 people who don’t show up. Same for a playoff game.

“It’s a little misleading to look at empty seats. It could be a function of Christmas and more demand for other things.”

Or, the team could be losing its appeal.

Not just in the eyes of those in the third level, but many sections appear less populated than they were a year or two back.

As for the unprecedented push for the team’s Last-Minute Club, which encourages fans to buy tickets right up until puck drop, Cyr says that evolved from having to sell up to 100 premium tickets previously set aside for the visiting team hours before the game.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an indicator more tickets are available,” said Cyr.

“Some teams only claim two tickets and at 4 p.m. we have to sell the rest.”

Even the opposition is having a hard time finding interest.

eric.francis@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/ericfrancis

Eric Francis appears regularly as a panelist on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada


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