You had to feel a little badly for Tom Renney. There was the president of Hockey Canada, sitting there taking bullets for the bad decisions made by other people, decisions he likely wouldn’t have made himself.
Regardless of what happens in tonight’s gold medal game, the 2015 World Junior Championship will go down as an unmitigated disaster when measured against what was expected of it. When Hockey Canada made the decision to have Toronto and Montreal co-host the event in 2015 and 2017, it did so with visions of dollar signs and full arenas in its head.
It could not have imagined in its worst nightmares that the attendance in the two biggest hockey markets in the world would draw fewer fans for the WJC than Ottawa did in 2009 and Calgary-Edmonton did in 2012. It envisioned making profits of between $20 million and $25 million and setting revenue records. Instead, it looks more like it will be between $17 million and $18 million when all the loose change is counted.
And this is huge for Hockey Canada, which gets half the profits from the tournament and plows them back into grassroots programs. So the worse the tournament does, the less money Hockey Canada has in its coffers.
Whether the event moves solely to Toronto in 2017 – something to which the IIHF alluded – or Hockey Canada finds a better way for it to work in Montreal, something has to be done. Renney does not deserve to be judged for the failures of this tournament. But if it’s more of the same or worse in 2017, he’ll be the one who takes the heat.
“First of all, I’m responsible for what happens beyond this point, so I’m good with that,” Renney said. “Taking responsibility for what lies ahead is critical for all of us.”
Renney was very careful with his words. He said Hockey Canada would consult and work with the IIHF next time around, but wouldn’t say what would happen if the international body mandated that Toronto be declared the sole host. He did, however, make it clear that despite the underwhelming numbers – there was an average of 6,000 empty seats for Canada’s games at the Bell Centre – he is committed to the city.
“We’re deeply committed to Montreal,” Renney said. “We feel very strongly about Montreal being an outstanding hockey market in the world, period. And there’s no reason to suggest anything other than that.”
But there is plenty of reason to suggest that hockey fans in Montreal will not stand for being gouged. Even though Renney wouldn’t speculate, it’s pretty clear the ticket prices in Montreal were the factor most responsible for the attendance numbers. Unlike fans in Toronto, those in Montreal were unwilling to pay NHL prices for junior hockey, even if it is to watch the best teenagers in the world.
Chances are, Renney will build consensus and come up with a way to make things work. And the first thing he should do to solve the Montreal problem is to hand the marketing of the event to the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens and their marketing arm, Evenko, know that market better than anyone else and will be able to come up with a price point that both maximizes revenues and fills the building. There was little interest on the part of Hockey Canada to have the Canadiens involved this time around, but nobody knows how to fill that building and put on a grand show more than they do.
This is a problem that is eminently reparable. All it takes is a little humility on the part of Hockey Canada to ask for help from the people who are most qualified to give it. Renney is smart enough to know that and chances are he won’t make the same mistake those before him did.