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Building a Better ACC Atmosphere

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Photo: stadiumjourney.com

Among all the things Brian Burke said in his mission statement when he was first named General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, there was one thing that really made fans shake their head in agreement – “we want to justify the price of the ticket.” As the Leafs have continuously gotten better, perhaps fans think Burke’s staff has met that guideline. I’d disagree.

As the new owners of the Leafs were announced, there was no mention of winning the Stanley Cup, and there was also no mention of improving the ACC game experience. It’s pretty ironic that Bell and Rogers are now going to be making a game better to watch on TV than at the arena, considering they now own the Leafs.

That’s a real issue in this market. Other than being able to see the Toronto Maple Leafs live and in person, what, exactly, do the Maple Leafs offer their fans that make going all the way to the ACC worth it? You buy the most expensive ticket in hockey, you pay for what is presumably the most expensive parking in hockey, and you watch the Leafs play with a crowd full of corporate ticket holders and ushers who will actually tell you to be quiet.

Obviously, a win will usually do the trick. Now fans can see two of the highest scoring players in the league – Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul – and a faster, more exciting style of hockey. For the most part, going to see the Leafs play, and how they do, is what’s important and there’s no denying that.

However, beyond the Leafs, the ACC really offers their fans very little. Their goal song, The Whip, is played by at least four other teams in the NHL -Dallas, Columbus, Vancouver, Avalanche – their commercial breaks are hosted by a rather stale on-camera team and intermission breaks are no different than any other team in the league. So again, the most expensive ticket in hockey, for that? And it’s not as if the Leafs have been a great team worth watching for the last couple of years.

Now, some may say this isn’t Brian Burke’s problem because he has a team to run, but that couldn’t be more wrong; this is exactly the kind of thing that is Brian Burke’s problem.

As Sam Pollock once said, “In (general) management, there are 75% of things that are common to all businesses.”

Brian Burke is not only the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he is the President, too. He has a right handed man in Dave Nonis who takes care of the day-to-day operations of an NHL GM and a whole support staff full of guys who are more than capable of running their own teams. So it certainly is his problem that the ACC isn’t exactly a great place for fans to show their love for the Leafs.

With TV deals sure to receive a ton of attention regarding the Leafs and many features sure to follow, why would a fan ever go to a game? They are expensive, the seats probably aren’t nearly as comfortable as your home setup and it’s a lot more time consuming to go to a game than to watch one on TV. Not to mention, again, that there’s nothing particularly special about attending a Leafs game other than seeing the players live.

Instead of trying to patrionize the fans by calling them the “best in professional sports,” there should be a more concerted effort to make home games a much more memorable experience.

So what are some things that the Leafs can do to change that? There’s actually plenty.

The first and most obvious is change the goal song. Toronto has a rich, deep and diverse music history, surely the Leafs can take advantage of that. The goal song might not seem like a big deal to someone, but think of the Chicago Blackhawks. One of the most exciting things about a Hawks game is hearing them blare Chelsea Dagger after a goal. It’s one of the best parts of a game. Your team scores, you want to celebrate with them and you want to hear a song that you enjoy, excites you and takes the goal to the next level, not roll your eyes because a) it’s lame, and b) you know a bunch of other teams also have that song. Fans can’t identify with that.

With the Leafs fanbase, they could literally have a Toronto/Canada/North America/Worldwide competition and something great could be created. It certainly worked for CBC.

Beyond the song, there’s a lot more that can be done and here are some ideas.

For the Leafs first game of the season they ran an official tailgate starting hours before puck drop. Now, it would be a little much to expect that for every Leafs home game, but why not every Saturday home game? It’s nationally televised, most people going to the game on Saturday have the day off and are essentially waiting for it to start all day, and it’s a great way to get the fans excited before the game starts.

During the week, it’s understandable for the fans to be a little more quiet, but Saturday that arena should be rocking. From all accounts, the tailgate was a great success. What’s to stop Toronto from doing that every Saturday, having local bands play for free (young start-up bands would absolutely take that exposure for free) and create a stirring atmosphere – “justify the price of the ticket,” remember?

When you walk into the arena, the first thing you really get a feel for is merchandise. When it comes down to it, you really don’t get the feeling that you’re walking into a hockey arena. Instead, it feels like an event, when it’s really a hockey game.

That sets the tone for what’s to come.

Really, the only semi-unique thing in the ACC halls is “Burkie’s Dog House” which is a cleverly named hot dog store. It would be nice to see a little more memorabilia throughout the halls. How about old Maple Leafs Garden seats that fans can sit on (facing something they can watch, obviously), old jerseys throughout the halls, and so on? Make it something interesting so that seemingly every time you walk through the hallway it’s unique and fascinating and it let’s everyone know they’re at a hockey game and that it’s going to be exciting.

Before the game starts, a single anthem singer would be great too. By that I mean only one anthem singer for the season. It’s someone the fans identify with and it adds charm to the building. Teams like the Boston Bruins (Rene Rancourt) and Vancouver Canucks (Mark Donnelly) do this and it’s great for the fans. There’s a connection built from having one anthem singer – one with personality – and it gets everyone excited before the puck is even dropped rather than the current reaction: “alright, now we unfortunately have to stand up for two anthems.”

Nobody is asking for a Flyers-like “God Bless America” experience, but at least something that makes it a little more endearing to everyone.

Once the play has begun, commercial breaks and intermissions are pretty cookie-cutter.

The Leafs have a ton of players with great personalities and those should be brought to the forefront. Things like Dion Phaneuf’s Muppets theme, Crobovski, Optimus Reim and The Monster. Those are what should be celebrated when there’s time – things that connect the current players (or even past) to the fans. Make it interactive.

Any fan whose been to a Leaf game anytime recently knows that there’s only one stop in play that’s truly great and that’s “Luke’s Troops,” where Luke Schenn brings in a soldier to a game and everyone in the rink gives him a standing ovation. There should be more than that though.

And during whistles it would be nice to hear an organ play rather than CHUM FMs top 40. Frankly, all original six teams should have an organ player.

Finally, and this was something I hesitated to write, but would a dress code be the worst thing in the world? It wouldn’t even be a dress code, just a “no suits” rule allowed at the rink. The business aspect of this city is well understood, but when you go to a hockey game the formalism is already somewhat wiped off the table, so you might as well wear regular clothes or – God forbid – Leaf jerseys. It’s doubtful whether or not you’re wearing a suit would take away from whatever corporate thing you have going on at the time but it would be great to watch a Leafs game without a bunch of suits in the stands, that you can take to the bank.

Is everything listed above realistic and within reach? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s not the point. At the end of the day, if fans are going to pay a premium to attend Leaf games, they should be getting a premium overall experience. You get the feeling that the Air Canada Centre is a place where the Leafs play, not the home of the storied Leafs.

Yeah, it’s the same old story, so what’s the point of this article? It’s not to complain, or to say I have the best ideas in the world, or even to say these are the areas that need improving and it’s non negotiable. Ticket prices aren’t ideal, but it’s what they don’t do to complement that ticket price that’s the most troubling.

It’s hard to change a team – that takes years – but improving some of the things in the building would be nice for the fans to see that they are cared about and appreciated.

The people of Toronto and Leafs fans in general all want a building and atmosphere to be proud of. In his time here Brian Burke has dramatically changed the roster, he has gotten the team new jerseys (a trademark of his) and he changed the center-ice-line, but let’s see some real changes to the ACC now. Things that make the fans excited and stir up pride in the Leafs home rink. It doesn’t have be the biggest, or most expensive thing to make the ACC better, it just has to be the right thing because building a hockey atmosphere is like playing a hockey game – it’s the little things that matter most. Leafs fans deserve nothing less.

Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. Contact him at [email protected]
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