Of all the ways in which the Montreal Canadiens gouge their fans, from charging a third more for tickets to "premium" games, to adding a per-ticket service charge, to selling ten-dollar beer at the Bell Centre, one of the worst is charging regular prices to see preseason hockey games.
The hockey in these games is rarely great, with a mishmash of cautious veterns, hopeful rookies and a bunch of guys who'll never play in the NHL, but will serve as convenient cannon fodder to fill out the watered-down split squads that are par for the preseason.
The Canadiens in this case are thinking about the money, not about the fans. Imagine the Habs fans in Halifax last night, who paid $94 for a ticket in the lower bowl at the Metro Centre in the hope of seeing Carey Price or P.K. Subban. Maybe they were hoping for a glimpse of Michael Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec or Brian Gionta. Instead, the best they got was Scott Gomez and Hal Gill. Not exactly the guys you have in mind when you spend a hundred bucks to see the Habs.
Of course, it's understandable that a team should want to get a close look at its prospects in action against NHL competition. It's also reasonable that NHL veterans should want to gradually work up to full speed without risking too much in the way of injury. The problem isn't the games themselves. It's that the NHL team, in this case, the Canadiens, charges through the nose for fans to see them.
The preseason is a great PR opportunity for teams like the Habs. When the regular season is so expensive, with its premium games and seat prices that go up every year, these meaningless September contests would be a good chance to slash prices and make it affordable for a whole family to go see at least some of their heroes. If tickets were $20 a pop, nobody would be too upset about seeing Gomez instead of Subban or Budaj instead of Price. Nobody would go away bitter after watching the Bruins destroy a half-hearted Canadiens split-squad. Disappointed, maybe, but not feeling bitterly ripped off.
The Canadiens can't do that, though. The chance to drag in every possible dollar is too tempting to think about the sensibilities of the fans who attend these games. Why not, they rationalize, when fans are only too willing to pay whatever the team asks?
That's where these philosophies start to become dangerous for teams, though. For some fans, there's a limit to how much they're actually willing to pay. When the games, including the crappy preseason ones, are shown on RDS in glorious HD, it's awfully tough to justify the rising cost of going to a live game. Sure, there's nothing as uplifting as the roar in the Bell Centre when the Habs are doing well, but there's also nothing as demoralizing as the grumbling quiet when they're not.
Last spring, I paid scalper's rates to see a "premium" game against the Capitals. The Canadiens played the most listless, uninspired 60 minutes of hockey I'd ever had the misfortune to sit through in person. They got shut out 2-0, and I couldn't help thinking the money to fly to Montreal, stay in a hotel, and get to the game could have been better used. Now friends are going to see the Habs and Bruins on October 29. Again, it's a "premium" game. This time, though, the thought of spending $150 for a nosebleed seat is distinctly unappealing. (Not that the scalpers' prices are the Habs fault directly, but when you start off with high prices, the re-sellers are going to add their pound of flesh on top of them.) I've reached the limit of what I'm willing to pay to see a hockey game. Maybe if the Habs had decided to make their meaningless, understaffed preseason games accessible to the average Joe, it would be a little easier to stomach the wallet drain of the regular season. The Canadiens would be showing a little goodwill toward the fans; a sort of apology for the unforgiving costs or running a pro hockey team. Instead, they continue to squeeze fans for every dollar they can get.
I'm sure Habs management could care less that I won't be going to see a game at the Bell Centre this year. It should, however, care about the fans like those in Halifax, who rarely get a chance to see big-league hockey. To send such a dismal team to play there, with such dismal results, yet charge full price for it, was shameful. The least the Canadiens could have done was send a Price or a Subban to entertain that crowd. That they didn't shows a lack of respect for the fans who still are willing to shell out and treat themselves to a hockey game. Sooner or later, that kind of gouging comes back to haunt even the most arrogant of teams.