Can Canucks business rebound with a winning season?

Consumer confidence, Seattle competition stumbling blocks for team’s return to normalcy

Canucks’ ownership and business operations banking on fans returning to Rogers Arena to spark turnaround in the NHL team’s fortunes  | Chung Chow

The Vancouver Canucks’ 2021-22 business operations are shaping up to be as dynamic, uncertain and challenging as they have been during the team’s unprecedented 2020-21 season.

The National Hockey League club is staying mum until early August, when officials say the business cycle will give the team a better sense of how things will shape up next season. But for those covering the Canucks over the last decade (or more), the No. 1 one question will be consumer confidence: Can a management team that oversaw just two playoff appearances over seven years right the ship in the wake of the damage it suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic?

“Most emphatically, the worst part of last season for most Canucks fans was the losing,” said veteran Vancouver-area sportscaster Blake Price, now co-host of the Sekeres & Price Show at sekeresandprice.com. “If they were winning, fans would have overlooked the fact they couldn’t attend last season.

“You can see people’s excitement for wanting to return to some level of normalcy, and [the Canucks] will want to sell some tickets now, but because of the losing, is that ability there for the Canucks to sell a bunch of tickets? It’s going to be a challenge.… That’s why the next month [NHL draft and free agency] will determine a lot of how that works.”

How the public perceives the Canucks’ front office moves in the next month is especially crucial given that some fans may already be leery about attending games due to non-hockey reasons. Scott Rintoul, co-host of Sportsnet 650’s Rintoul & Surman in Vancouver, said there is already uncertainty facing all Canadian sports teams about whether the pandemic will have a psychological effect on fans choosing whether to attend live events.

When the provincial regulators open up attendance to indoor events, how many fans show up will be a major hurdle for the Canucks to stickhandle.

“It’s tough to handicap,” Rintoul said. “I don’t know how comfortable the average person is about attending large-scale events with COVID still around. There are fans that you know the second they can go to a game, they’re going. But there are also people who’d like to go, but would rather wait and see how things go.”

The Canucks will also be facing new non-COVID-related challenges this year, Rintoul noted. For the first time in the club’s history, there will be another NHL franchise within driving distance for Metro Vancouver fans to attend games.

The presence of the Seattle Kraken next season will give local fans a direct comparison of game experiences from one team to the other – potentially drawing some loyalties – and ticket revenue – south of the border.

“That puts pressure on the Canucks to not just be hockey-relevant, but entertainment-relevant,” Rintoul said. “We saw when the Kraken got their initial season ticket list that some of those people were on our side of the border. While I don’t think most fans in the Lower Mainland will be making that trip down the I-5 on a game-in, game-out basis, there is a big new shiny toy – and people will want to go see a game there. So I do think you do have a create a bit of a buzz in the market here, because our neighbours are going to be the talk of the league coming in next season.”

But Price believes that the Kraken is too far and too new to seriously dent Canucks’ ticket sales within the Lower Mainland. He called suggestions of fans switching loyalties an “empty threat,” given the likely scarcity of tickets for the Seattle team for the next few years.

What will make the biggest difference, he said, will be what makes the difference normally for a sports franchise’s business success: the team’s win-loss performance.

As an example, Price referenced the 2019-20 “bubble” season, where an unexpected playoff run to within a game of the Western Conference finals almost immediately re-energized the Canucks’ fan base after three straight years of missed playoffs.

“That was a flash in the pan, but it does give you that little sense of what a little winning can do,” he said. “Winning cures a lot of ills.”

There are other trends and developments that favour the Canucks. For one, the team was able to move its American Hockey League (AHL) farm team from Utica, New York, to Abbotsford, and the new Abbotsford Canucks give the team a valuable opportunity to extend its brand further into the Fraser Valley while giving fans who otherwise can’t attend Canucks games an alternative to consume Canucks-related hockey products and content.

Abbotsford did host another AHL team from 2009 to 2014. But the Heat, which was an affiliate to Canucks rival Calgary Flames, suffered from poor attendance.

Both Rintoul and Price said that the attendance and gate receipts will almost certainly be better with a Canucks affiliate.

“In terms of the financial boost, it’s huge,” Price said. “It’s the ability to market to a new, large segment of the population … to market a new logo and a new jersey – and make fans want the brand and the merchandise. In effect, you are broadening our own brand. It’s a huge cash opportunity for them.”

But as with everything else, the elephant in the room economically remains the long shadow of COVID-19. While vaccination rates are high and new cases are dropping in B.C., professional sports teams like the Canucks must prepare for the potential outbreak of a variant-driven new wave of the pandemic.

“They have to be extremely flexible,” Rintoul said. “Many businesses had to learn that the hard way for the past year and a half. If you are optimistic, you look at a full Wembley Stadium [in London for the UEFA Euro 2020 soccer final] and say things can be controlled, but that’s also more of a one-off. I would think the Canucks would have to have a contingency built in.”

For Price, that also means that the Canucks – who are on a small hiring spree to ramp up operational capacity needed for a “normal” 2021-22 season in both Vancouver and Abbotsford – need to be cautious on that front.

“They have to be careful,” Price said.

“There are no guarantees in a pandemic. We are doing well in vaccinations, but Israel is very vaccinated, and they are now seeing an uptick, too. I think you don’t want to add 100 people onto the payroll and then have to furlough them in two months’ time. You will want to increase at the right pace, and you have to believe that they know what they are doing.” •