Winning and losing

RYAN PYETTE, Sun Media

, Last Updated: 3:08 PM ET

DETROIT -- There's a strange vibe in Motown.

The 2008 North American International Auto Show is in full gear.

A plane carrying a banner in support of Republican U.S. presidential hopeful Ron Paul swoops over Joe Louis Arena on the day of the Michigan primary.

But talk of dreamy concept cars and politics fails to gloss over why the Detroit Red Wings -- the best team in the NHL -- is playing the Atlanta Thrashers on this night in a rink barely two-thirds full.

Hockeytown is down.

The Red Wings, used to drawing crowds at or near capacity for the past two decades, are suddenly averaging about 2,000 paid tickets below their norm -- one of the most staggering and worrisome dips in the NHL.

No one in Detroit likes to hear it. There are plenty of theories for it. Many point to the struggling economy in the city and Michigan as a whole.

"It's the state of the state," said Brandon Rotz, a manager at Wings' defenceman Chris Chelios' downtown restaurant Cheli's Chili. "There are a lot of people here who are worried and don't know if they're going to have their job next week. So you have to make a choice -- do I buy groceries for my family or go to a Wings game?"

It's not much of a choice.

But it can't just be all about the economy.

Baseball's Tigers, now World Series favourites, are talking about capping season tickets because they're moving so well. The Pistons, who beat the Toronto Raptors at home the same night the Wings and Thrashers played, have no problem drawing sellout crowds to Auburn Hills.

The Ilitch family, which owns the Wings and Tigers, hired Michigan native Steve Violetta this season as the puck team's vice-president of business affairs. Before this, he sold hockey tickets in Nashville. Before that, he worked in Pittsburgh during the Mario Lemieux Stanley Cup years and he has also worked in Senators-crazy Ottawa.

This could be Violetta's biggest challenge.

"There's several factors to deal with here -- the economy is certainly one of the biggest -- but we're taking a real short-term approach to this," he said. "We're targeting church groups and schools to sell tickets for the second half of the year. We're marketing a lunch pail with all seven defencemen on it. Every market is different. Here in Detroit, it's an Original Six team and there's a lot of tradition. People know hockey. We have a very strong season-ticket basis to work with and that helps. We're working with our season-ticket holders to find out what makes them happy."

Building a hockey team hasn't been a problem. Ken Holland is regarded as one of the best GMs in the NHL. Scotty Bowman and Steve Yzerman are still close at hand.

Across from the rink, near a street named after Yzerman, Metro Detroit police officer Artez Baker leans back in his chair at Cobo Joe's bar and grill, sips his Coke and breaks down the local sports scene. He sincerely believes the Wings' current plight is cyclical.

"The Tigers are hot right now, the Lions just finished playing, the Pistons always have their following, but there are only so many entertainment options," Baker said. "People know how good the Red Wings are. Best team in the National Hockey League. They follow the team (TV numbers for Wings games are up 50%). But it's a transition period right now.

"There's two guys who are the heart and soul of the Red Wings. One is Gordie Howe. The other is Yzerman. After that, the top guys they have now, there aren't many (North) American-born and a lot are European players (such as Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, Nicklas Lidstrom). "It just takes a little more time for people to get used to that."

The ancient Chelios has blamed a bad national TV deal in the United States for a lack of exposure.

Atlanta native Corey Christopher, for one, can't believe the shrinking crowds. Dressed in a Zetterberg jersey, he caught hockey fever as a youngster living in Detroit and celebrated his 21st birthday by coming back with his dad, brother and friend this week to watch the Wings play.

His brother Tyler and buddy Rocky Russell are die-hard Thrashers fans -- the exact new hockey people the NHL has taken pains to attract. But a league that expands into the southern United States only to see its bread-and-butter franchises start to struggle isn't much better off.

"The Red Wings are the top team in the NHL right now and if I lived here, I would go to every game," Corey Christopher said while lunching at the city's downtown Hockeytown Cafe. "I can't believe Joe Louis (Arena) isn't sold out anymore. I was born in Alabama where there wasn't any hockey. My family moved to Detroit, I lived here for three years (during elementary school) and became a huge fan of hockey and the Wings.

"It used to be nearly impossible to get a ticket here."

That isn't the case this year. For anyone who left town with memories of the Wings playing to constant sellouts, noticeable empty red seats and an announced crowd of 17,408 would register as an unsettling sight.

Inside the rink concourse, nothing much has changed. Gordie Howe is sitting at a table signing copies of his new book with crowds of people flocking to see Mr. Hockey.

Program sellers and merchandise hawkers still bark out to potential customers, but admit it's been a tougher go this season. Ushers are at every aisle leading patrons to their seats, where even the tickets furthest from the ice -- slashed to $9 (U.S.) this year -- afford some of the best views in the NHL. Determined scalpers are outside the building trying to unload tickets -- even after the first period has ended.

"There's a lot of tradition here," said 23-year-old fan Raymond Bennett, wearing a Brett Lebda jersey. "But there are still some things people would like to see changed. For one, get us out of the Western Conference. We belong in the East. If Toronto was playing here tonight, it would be a zoo. It's no surprise the first sellout here this year (on Jan. 6) was against Chicago -- another Original Six team.

"We don't need to be playing Columbus eight times a year. That's too much -- not even the people in Columbus want to see Columbus eight times.

"Maybe if we go back to the Stanley Cup, people will get excited about that. I'll always be here. But now, we pick and choose what games we want to see. It cost $132 for me, my mom and dad to come to the game. That's a lot and that doesn't include getting a hotdog or a pop."

Violetta has heard the laundry list of concerns. It's been six years since the last Cup. Lately, the Red Wings have experienced a touch of the Atlanta Braves syndrome -- win in the regular season and struggle in the playoffs -- so fans are wary of getting too emotionally attached.

RECOGNIZABLE FACES

"There might be a bit of a hangover with Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan gone," Violetta said. "Those were recognizable faces for everyone. We're trying to build that back up."

One of the smartest moves the Wings are making is getting aggressive about bringing in more fans from southwestern Ontario, including Windsor right across the border.

With the spike in the Canadian dollar, luring fans across the border is a necessity.

"We just purchased a list with 5,400 businesses (in Ontario) that we're going to go after," Violetta said. "We've already built up the connection with Windsor and we're going to go deeper into (southwestern) Ontario. We're going to be in the minor hockey rinks there with our marketing."

After a mid-day visit to downtown Detroit in the winter, it smacks of necessity. There's a desolute feeling to the core in the winter, one that isn't there when the Tigers are in town at open-aired Comerica Park or the Lions are gearing up at Ford Field.

It's a stark contrast from Toronto. No hotdog stands. No cabs waiting.

For a few blocks of what should be a busy strip, the only noticeable action is worker Frederick Gouthro changing the marquee for the upcoming attractions at The Fillmore.

"People are hopeful that we will get a glimpse of the past and things will return to the way they were in the 1950s when Detroit was the hub of the United States," Rotz said. "There are plans to build more high-rise buildings and bring people to live downtown. That's what we need right now."

Meanwhile, the hockey season rolls on. The Wings are still winning but, for a lot of different reasons, that's simply not enough anymore in Hockeytown.


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