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How Important are Playoff Wins for NHL Market Success?

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In a recent debate over at the Business of Hockey Forum at Hockey's Future Boards I made the point that it is difficult to measure Atlanta as a hockey market in part because the team has had so little success. What we can say for certain is that people in Atlanta are not crazy about bad hockey. How they will react to quality hockey is still unknown at this point.

This led me to spend some time thinking about the importance of playoff and regular season success in terms of building a fanbase. For example, Detroit bills itself as "Hockeytown" and it is certainly one of (if not the) best hockey markets in the USA. But back in the early 1980s they had to give away cars to get fans to attend after a stretch of nearly two decades where the club failed to win a single playoff series.

Another example is Alberta. I assume that people in Calgary and Edmonton both like hockey as a sport about equally, however the TV ratings within the province give a significant edge to Edmonton. Why is that? I suspect it can be explained by the great playoff success of the Gretzky era Oilers in the playoffs.

So I decided to take a look at the playoff record in each NHL market since expansion began with the 1967-68 season. Is playoff success strongly correlated with a strong markets? Does success breed fans? My expectation going into this study was "maybe" but I really wasn't sure.

The first thing I looked at was average number of playoff wins for each season a market had a NHL team. Montreal ranks right at the top and by all accounts is a hockey crazy city and that franchise has won more Cups than any other. I would say that generally speaking the cities in the top third have had strong attendance and fan support over the years. Newer markets (Denver, Dallas and Ottawa) have done quite well while Carolina has struggled at times. Of the top 12 cities with the highest playoff win average I would call 10 strong NHL markets with only the Devils and Hurricans drawing poorly at points.

If we look at the middle group of cities with medium level of playoff success I would say most of these markets have had good years and bad years. The chief exceptions would be Toronto which has always sold out, while Calgary and Vancouver have generally been strong markets with a few weak years. Now if we look at the markets with the least amount of playoff wins per year we see a lot of markets that have also struggled to draw fans during the regular season.

Based upon this set of data I'd say that there is fairly strong correlation between playoff success and the strength of NHL markets. It seems that a long playoff run can be very important to building or solidifying the fan base. I suspect that a good long playoff run has a powerful intensifying effect on fan loyalty. It can turn casual fans into more ardent supporters and it may induce occasional attenders to become season ticket holders.

Average Number of Playoff Wins per Season, 1968-2007
Markets with most post-season success
5.7 MON (10 Stanley Cups)
5.6 COL (2 Stanley Cups) (Rockies and Avalanche)
5.4 EDM (5 Stanley Cups)
5.0 DAL (1 Stanley Cup)
4.9 NJD (3 Stanley Cups)
4.6 PHI (2 Stanley Cups)
4.1 BOS (2 Stanley Cups)
3.7 CAR (1 Stanley Cup)
3.6 NYI (4 Stanley Cups)
3.6 OTT
3.5 DET (3 Stanley Cups)
3.5 STL

Markets with some post-season success
3.4 NYR (1 Stanley Cup)
3.4 ANA (1 Stanley Cup)
3.4 CHI
3.3 CGY (1 Stanley Cup)
3.1 BUF
2.9 PIT (2 Stanley Cups)
2.8 TOR
2.8 MIN (North Stars and Wild)
2.3 SJS/OAK (Seals and Sharks)
2.2 WAS
2.0 VAN

Markets with the least post-season success
1.9 QUE
1.9 TBL (1 Stanley Cup)
1.6 LAK
1.0 WIN
1.0 FLA
1.0 PHX
0.9 HAR
0.5 NAS
0.1 ATL (Flames and Thrashers)
0.0 CBJ
0.0 KC
0.0 CLE

Another way to look at this is to count the number of playoff series won. The Blues and Blackhawks have the unfortunate distinction of winning the most post-season series since 1968 without winning the Stanley Cup. At the other extreme Carolina has reached the Finals twice--but has zero playoff wins in the other years of their short history in Carolina.

One interesting question is this: If you are a hockey fan which would your rather have--the St. Louis Blues history of regular season success but post-season frustration or the Tampa/Carolina pattern of very modest regular season success but a Stanley Cup to celebrate?

Playoff Series Won Since 1968 (* Won Cup since 1968)
(Note: I did not count the short wild-card round used during 1975-79)
48 Montreal *
33 Philadelphia *
33 Edmonton *
32 Boston *
27 Detroit *
27 NY Islanders *
25 Chicago
25 NY Rangers *
23 St. Louis
22 NJ Devils *
20 Buffalo
19 Minnesota
18 Pittsburgh *
18 Colorado *
15 Calgary *
14 Toronto
12 Dallas *
11 Vancouver
11 San Jose/Oakland
10 Washington
10 Anaheim *
09 Los Angeles
08 Ottawa
07 Carolina *
06 Quebec
05 Tampa *
03 Florida
02 Winnipeg
01 Hartford
00 Nashville
00 Phoenix
00 Atlanta
00 Columbus
00 Kansas City
00 Cleveland

Of course just counting playoff series wins can be somewhat deceptive since some teams have been around for the full 40 years since 1967-1968 season while other less than 10 years. So I divided the number of playoff series wins by the number of years the NHL has been in that market.

I found it a bit surprising to see Anaheim and Carolina ranked so high but a couple of long playoff runs in their short histories pushed them up the rankings. On the other hand some teams have been around decades but they have given their local fans very little to cheer about in the spring (Kings, Canuks and Capitals).

Average Number of Playoff Series won per year.
1.23 Montreal
1.18 Edmonton
1.13 Denver
.92 NJ Devils
.92 Dallas
.85 Philadelphia
.82 Boston
.79 NY Islanders
.78 Carolina
.77 Anaheim
.69 Detroit
.64 NY Rangers
.64 Chicago

Markets with medium playoff series wins per year
.59 St. Louis
.59 Minnesota
.58 Calgary
.57 Ottawa
.56 Buffalo
.46 San Jose/Oakland
.46 Pittsburgh
.36 Toronto
.36 Tampa

Markets with the least playoff series wins per year
.35 Quebec
.31 Vancouver
.31 Washington
.23 Los Angeles
.23 Florida
.11 Winnipeg
.05 Hartford
.00 Atlanta
.00 Phoenix
.00 Nashville
.00 Columbus
.00 Kansas City
.00 Cleveland

Longest Playoff Series Win Drought 1968-2007
20 years Detroit 1967-1987
18 Pittsburgh 1971-1988
15 Atlanta (Flames 1973-1980 and Thrashers 2000-07)
14 Calgary 1990-2003
13 years Islanders 1994-2007
12 Kings 1970-1981
11 Vancouver 1971-1981
11 Hartford 1987-1997
10 Chicago 1997-2007
10 Tampa 1993-2002
10 Phoenix 1997-2007
10 Florida 1997-2007
10 Toronto 1968-1977