• The Star Staff

Toronto tones down its postseason party

Thousands of Raptors fans packed the plaza outside Scotiabank Arena during the N.B.A. finals last season.

By Morgan Campbell

On Bremner Boulevard just west of Scotiabank Arena, a few TV news crews gathered outside the temporary fence surrounding the building, hoping to see NHL teams leaving or entering the perimeter.

In the past, barricades bounded the wide cul-de-sac, barely pinning in the crowded street party that drew thousands of fans to the Toronto Raptors’ run to the 2019 NBA championship. But in the hours before the start of the 2020 NHL playoffs Saturday afternoon, the area featured security, police and a solitary hot dog vendor waiting next to his cart.

In an indoor retail space across the street, a Sport Chek apparel store with plenty of Toronto Maple Leafs gear on display was open but empty of shoppers. Farther down the concourse, a liquor store had customers lined up out the door, spaced 6 feet apart.

Toronto is one of two sites hosting the NHL’s postseason — the other is Edmonton — in a restart that came after a 140-day pause in play because of the coronavirus pandemic. The culminating tournament did not compel many locals to rearrange their priorities during the Simcoe Day holiday weekend, but the league has put down a symbolic footprint, if not an economically significant one. Blocks of rooms at two downtown hotels house the teams, and signage on busy sidewalks near the arena remind pedestrians the NHL has arrived.

Norm O’Reilly, director of the International Institute for Sport Business and Leadership at the University of Guelph, said Canadians recognized the significance of holding the games in the country’s largest city, “even though there’s very little economic impact because nobody’s traveling to watch the games.” He added, “For the hard-core hockey fan, it’s a no-brainer.”

Inside the empty arena, stakes remained high not only for the league, which is looking to salvage a season upended by the pandemic, but also for the players, who are competing for the Stanley Cup, after all. But arena light shows and piped-in crowd noise could not make playoff hockey without spectators feel normal.

“There’s no crowd, obviously,” New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said Saturday after his team’s 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. “That intensity that you feed off of playing in the playoffs, it’s not there.”

Before restarting play, the NHL published a 28-page manual outlining how it would operate a playoff schedule while limiting player and staff exposure to the public during the pandemic. Players and staff undergo daily COVID-19 screenings, and stay at their hotels when not playing or training, or at NHL-designated recreational areas, including movie theaters, patios and lounges.

The setup helps ensure that all teams feel like visitors, including the hometown Maple Leafs, who, like every other team in the hub, are staying in a downtown hotel.

“There will be some familiarity for us” being in the home arena, Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said Sunday before Toronto’s series-opening loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. “Things are going to be different, even when we do get to use our own facilities.”

But in a league where gate revenue still matters, teams also need to adjust to a postseason without live spectators.

The Maple Leafs, for example, ranked fourth in the NHL in home attendance this season, averaging 19,301 fans per home game. Revenue lost from those fans’ ticket purchases, parking, seat licensing and concessions adds up. The absence of fans heightens the importance of TV ratings, even as the NHL competes for North American viewers against other leagues, like Major League Baseball and the NBA, that have resumed competition this summer.

According to Sports Media Watch, the series opener between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Montreal Canadiens averaged 1.54 million viewers on NBC, a markedly smaller audience than the NBA and MLB restarts drew earlier in July.

Four years ago, all seven Canadian NHL teams missed the playoffs and TV ratings cratered. That year, the first week of playoff broadcasts averaged a reported 513,000 viewers in Canada, down 61 percent from the previous season.

Canadian viewership numbers weren’t yet available at press time, but last week, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported that 4.3 million people total tuned in across the company’s various networks during an NHL exhibition doubleheader July 28.

But even in hockey-mad Canada, where, in 2013, Rogers Communications, which owns Sportsnet, agreed to pay $5.2 billion for 12 years of NHL TV rights, deep fan engagement and big audiences are not guaranteed for this postseason. The only two Canadian teams at the Toronto playoff hub are the eighth-seeded Maple Leafs and the 12th-seeded Canadiens. An early exit for either team would eliminate two of Sportsnet’s biggest TV attractions.

O’Reilly said that outside Canada the summer restart was an opportunity for the NHL to grow its audience beyond its current fan base, but the league won’t know if it has succeeded until later in the postseason.

“Can they get that share of the market that’s just a general sports fan?” O’Reilly said. “If the NHL can get them interested in hockey, that’s a win.”

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