Senators attendance took surprising turn, but onus on management to keep fans coming back

By Wayne Scanlan, Sportsnet

OTTAWA — When Ottawa Senators captain Brady Tkachuk was turning the penultimate home game of the season into his personal greatest-hits parade, a packed house of 19,146 roared its approval. 

This was Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre on April 6. A very meh sort of rival, the New Jersey Devils, as the opponent (admittedly, fans cared about them during those three playoff series in 1998, 2003 and 2007).

It was Fan Appreciation Night and Tim Stützle Bobblehead Night. With only one home game remaining, a tough ticket with the Montreal Canadiens here on April 13, it was for many the last chance to see an NHL game in the nation’s capital this season. 

But, let’s be honest. This was not a night most fans had circled on calendars, a game between two of the league’s most disappointing teams in 2023-24. 

Two things conspired to make it unique. The bobblehead feature (ironically, with  Stützle injured and out of the lineup) and captain Tkachuk eager to atone for that 6-0 embarrassment at the hands of his brother Matthew and the Florida Panthers on Thursday. 

With the Panthers mauling still on his mind, and now with fans in the rink for their “appreciation,” small wonder Tkachuk was running around like a maniac trying to fuel a comeback for these loyal fans after Ottawa fell behind the Devils, 4-1. With a franchise-record 16 hits over the course of the game, Tkachuk could have filled one of Don Cherry’s old Rock’Em Sock’Em videos all by himself. It was more than that, though. Tkachuk had seven shots on goal and scored the goal that brought the Sens back to within one in the third period, Tkachuk’s team-leading 34th of the season. 

Though a furious third-period surge fell short by the breadth of a goalpost struck late in the third period of a 4-3 Devils win, Senators fans appreciated the effort. 

Better late than never, as far as showing fans they matter.

Tkachuk spoke about the fan response, including the “Bra-dy! Bra-dy!” chants in the next-to-last home game. 

“It’s been a disappointing season and for the fans to do that, it’s really amazing and it speaks volumes about the people we have in this city and the support we have through thick and thin,” Tkachuk said. 

“I know it’s been disappointing for everybody, but speaking on behalf of everyone in this organization, we’re very grateful. Lots of love, and appreciate all the support.”

Support in spades.  

Beyond fan appreciation evening, Ottawa has quietly spun a pretty remarkable turnstile story all season long. 

Given the expectations versus the delivery on this 2023-24 home calendar, with the Senators long since out of the playoff picture, did you really expect that Ottawa would be fourth in the NHL in terms of attendance increase?

For a team that is 12 points behind the last wild-card team and has not resembled a contender throughout, the Senators have played to 95 per cent capacity on home ice this season, with an average gate of 17,536. Last season’s average was 16,757, and that was up significantly from the year before, when Ottawa was deep into the rebuild and still dealing with pandemic-impacted attendance. 

This year’s home numbers are skewed a bit because of the two “home” dates in Sweden in the fall. 

The average attendance for the 38 games played at the CTC is actually higher, at 17,785, when you take Sweden out of the equation. 

That means a gain of more than 1,000 fans per home game this season. 

If you have not already, Sens fan, take a bow. 

Fan appreciation night marked the 18th sellout of the season (18,500 or better is a sellout). 

Incredibly, five of those sellouts have come since Feb. 24, by which point the Sens had no shot at a playoff spot. 

According to the media relations department, the Senators have drawn 700,000-plus fans for the first time since 2015-16. 

At this point, we feel compelled to add a word of caution. 

It would be in the club’s best interest not to take this show of goodwill for granted. 

As Senators president Cyril Leeder said in an interview in mid-February, the team benefitted from the pre-season excitement about the talent on the roster as well as the changes in ownership and management. Most of that goodwill has been spent, even if it is easy to blame previous management for a lot of today’s shortcomings.

Leeder told me that town hall meetings with groups of season ticket holders had gone well and the expectation is that 90 per cent of season ticket holders will renew. 

That is, however, a low bar. Without citing the actual season ticket base, Leeder says he believes it will take another year or two to reach the league average of 11,000. 

A higher season ticket base gives a franchise a lot more security, leaving it less susceptible to game-by-game fluctuations. Fewer game-day seats available means fans have to hustle to get them earlier, a win-win for the club. 

For now, sales are strong but this is not time to be lax for an ownership that promised “best in class.” There is work to be done to earn trust and faith, two of the pillars for a strong fan base. 

Clearly, the franchise under new management is still in the honeymoon phase with owner Michael Andlauer and general manager Steve Staios. 

As many readers may attest, honeymoons don’t last long. 

Unlike the new operators, fans have been waiting for a playoff team since Dion Phaneuf was rocking Ottawa’s blueline and Kyle Turris was scoring big goals in big games. 

And still they turn out in big numbers, the faithful in Ottawa. 

Upcoming: Saturday’s final home date of the season, with a 19th sellout about as sure a bet as Monday’s solar eclipse. According to the ticket office, only a few hundred seats remain for the game with the archrival Habs. 

The bottom line: Down to the final date of this curious regular season, the Ottawa Senators are not packing it in, but they are packing them in. At the CTC. 

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