Can ice hockey actually be a luxury experience? With Hockey Day in America having just been celebrated last Sunday, this query seems timely. We asked our Dandelion Chandelier Boston Bureau Chief to weigh in on this profound issue, as the common understanding of the sport doesn’t generally include the word “luxury.” Turns out, there is such a thing as haute ice.
How much do you know about hockey? If like us, your knowledge is – to put it nicely – rather limited (there’s a puck, we’re pretty sure there are three periods of play, and people seem to crash into each other at high speed, sometimes causing injury), you might be surprised to learn that the sport has a rich history and some fascinating traditions. And it attracts more of the elite than you might have realized.
The NHL television audience is the richest of all professional sports. In 2013, one-third of its viewers earned more than $100k, compared to about 19 percent of the general population. The upscale nature of the hockey fan base was further validated in a more recent survey: according to Statista, last year 17.2 percent of respondents in households with annual income of $200,000+ stated that they’re ice hockey fans, up from 13.3% in 2011 (surprisingly, that puts the sport ahead of golf, soccer and tennis with this cohort, but still well behind baseball, basketball and football. The average ticket price for a pro hockey game grew from $43 in 2006 to $62 in 2015.
What’s the attraction? For starters, hockey is a venerable sport with some superannuated rituals. The National Hockey League is 100 years old this year (in contrast to the NFL, which is only on its 51st Super Bowl). The premier professional hockey trophy – the Stanley Cup – is the only major sports trophy that isn’t newly minted for the championship team every year. There’s only one, it’s huge, and it has the name of every team member who has ever won it etched on its sides, by championship year. As a matter of principle, no player will touch the trophy unless their team has just won it. It’s a historical artifact, and it has a full time, white-gloved staff that minds it and travels with it all year. Each of the players from the winning team are entitled to spend a full day with it wherever in the world they want. This cup has been everywhere, and we’re guessing it has a lot of great stories to tell (we’re envisioning a great novel where the trophy voices what it has observed throughout the years but has never before spoken of).
You’ve heard the phrase “hat trick.” But do you know what it means? Hats cascade onto the ice from fans in the stands whenever a player scores three goals (a hat trick) in a hockey game.
Like many ancient activities, hockey is rife with superstitions that are deeply held and seemingly irrational. They include Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy’s conversations with his goalposts; Eddie “The Eagle” Belfour’s refusal to let anyone touch his goalie equipment, on pain of death; Wayne Gretzky’s insistence on putting baby powder on his hockey stick, refusing to have his hair cut while on the road, donning his equipment in a specific order, and drinking the exact same beverages before the game in the exact same order: Diet Coke, water, Gatorade and another Diet Coke. Joe Nieuwendyk ate two pieces of toast with peanut butter before every game, while Brendan Shanahan wore his junior hockey shoulder pads and listened to Madonna pre-game. We’re guessing “Like a Prayer,” “Lucky Star,” or “Four Minutes (to Save the World)” but who can say?
Actually, this seemingly odd behavior may be a normal human reaction to the high stakes and randomness of victory in this sport. Because more than any other pro sport, hockey is a game of chance. It takes muscle and heart to swarm around on skates with a stick, swatting at a fast moving and hard rubber puck – without a doubt prowess is required. But interestingly, sports scientists and academics who specialize in risk have proven that the element of luck is a bigger part of the final result of a hockey game than it is as a factor in any other major sport. Some say that’s why the Stanley Cup is a best-of-seven series: it takes that many games to get a fair result. So if talking to the goalposts gets your head where it needs to be, then who are we to judge?
Of course, it’s not just pro hockey that has interesting norms. College hockey is equally steeped in tradition. If you attended school in the Northeast, you undoubtedly know someone who regularly attends the Boston Bean Pot hockey tourney (now in its 65thyear). Every February, Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, and Northeastern fight for bragging rights and a bean pot trophy. Harvard won the final this year 6 -3 over heavily favored BU. The intensity of the rivalry equals the classic college football match-ups, with the resulting cheers and tears: Oklahoma-Texas, Michigan-Ohio State and Alabama-Auburn have nothing on this.
College football is a religion in some regions, and college basketball’s Final Four gets massive media coverage and a televised Presidential bracket pick. With much less fanfare, dedicated college hockey fans flock to the NCAA’s “Frozen Four” tournament to crown the NCAA men’s champion. This year it will be held in Chicago on April 6thand 8th, and tickets for the “VIP Experience” will run you $500 per person.
Still, we wondered. Is a hockey game really sufficiently expensive to qualify as a luxury experience? In a word: yes. The Boston Bureau Chief reports that he bought four tickets for himself and three kids to see Game Five of last year’s Stanley Cup Final in Pittsburgh. By the day before the game, the seats behind him were available on StubHub for $4,000 each (he said they laughed about whether to go to the game or buy a car). Tickets were even more expensive for Game Six in San Jose.
Regular season games can become luxury experiences, too, for those willing to invest: you can rent a luxury suite at most hockey stadiums, and they can be surprisingly expensive in some cities for some match-ups. For example, the Montreal Canadiens will provide a suite for you and 11 others to watch a Habs game complete with catered food, concierge services, a private entrance and parking passes for $12,000.
The rising prices have not dampened demand up to this point, and in fact, the NHL continues to expand. This fall Las Vegas will gain its first pro hockey team, the NHL’s Golden Knights. The team will play in a pricey new arena on the Las Vegas Strip; the $375 million facility will house 44 luxury suites and seat more than 17,000.
The continuing growth in the fan base may be due in part to hockey’s global appeal. While our national sport – football – feels deeply American by nature, hockey is far more international and cosmopolitan. The professional Mexican League Elite (LME) was launched in 2010 with the aim of establishing the country as a high-level international competitor in ice hockey. China is investing in a professional hockey league for the first time in preparation for hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics –the Chinese government established a hockey school in Beijing last year, and the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) announced an expansion that will see Beijing host a hockey team. Similarly, the New York Times reported that South Korea has been on a “shopping spree” to assemble men’s and women’s Olympic hockey teams from scratch for the 2018 Winter Games. The government has offered naturalization to a handful of players from the United States and Canada, and the Korea Ice Hockey Association has a four-year, $20 million plan to accelerate the development of its men’s and women’s national teams.
Olympic hockey features the best match-ups in world, now that NHL players having the right to participate. The World Championships and the World Junior Championships (for players 20 and under) are also full of amazing global talent (this year’s junior tourney saw the US defeat Canada – a national disgrace tempered only by the absolute adorableness of the Canadian First Family).
If any of this intrigues you, or if you’re already a super fan looking for new ideas on how to partake of the sport in the most luxurious manner, here are a couple of ideas. Because hockey is played in chic, attractive destinations in North America – Montreal, Toronto, New York, and Vancouver – you can easily take a trip to any of these cities, stay in a luxury hotel (like the Fairmont in Winnipeg) and have a glamorous couple of days filled with hockey. The Hall of Fame is in Toronto. Want warm weather? There are now not one but two teams in Florida.
If you’re up for an overseas adventure, our Boston Bureau Chief (hereafter to also be known as the Ice Man) highly recommends taking in a Swiss professional hockey game or two.
Switzerland, you say? When the NHL locked out its players in 2012-13, many top-ranked pros who wanted to keep playing signed with teams in the twelve-team Swiss A league: Chicago Blackhawks NHL Scoring leader Patrick Kane played for EHC Biel; Boston Bruins Captain Patrice Bergeron played for Lugano; the NY Islanders Mark Streit and team captain John Tavares played together for Bern. This prompted our Bureau Chief to start following Swiss hockey. Last year, the current NHL Rookie sensation Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs played for Zurich and wowed the league for a developmental year prior to joining the NHL. Ever since the NHL players showed up, the tempo, pace and quality of the Swiss league has been world class. Even after the first group of pros went back to the NHL, the level of competition remained quite strong. For Matthews, his tune-up in Switzerland for the NHL worked perfectly: he’s killing it now. The Boston Bureau Chief has attended games in 11 of the 12 Swiss stadiums, and they each have their own personality. There are, not surprisingly, storied rivalries among them. And they’ve been clubs in some cases for 100 years – Lausanne and Davos are of that vintage. The stadiums seat around 7,000 and the games and fan interaction have the spirit of European football. The home and visiting fans sing throughout (presumably not Madonna songs). And the hockey is really good. The Ice Man’s favorite venues are Davos, Bern, and Lausanne. So on your next trip to Europe, consider working in a weekend trip around a hockey game in one of those spots. You won’t be sorry. Just don’t cut your hair while you’re on the road – you don’t want to jinx this.