But is it where the ‘W’ is?
As we all sit around waiting for October to arrive, watching re-runs of Game 7 and listening to ‘Gloria’ ad infinitum, I want you to cast your minds back to October. October 21st to be exact. Three games took place. Three games with two things in common. Each was an East versus West matchup, but more notably, each finished with a win for the road team. And these weren’t just wins. They were comprehensive, regulation time victories for the traveling teams. This wasn’t an isolated incident either. Two nights prior to this, all three games finished in defeat for the home team.
This got me thinking. Just how much of an advantage is ‘home advantage’ in the NHL? A top 16 finish will get you a playoff berth, but a top-eight finish will reward you with a first-round taking place mostly in your own barn. Is it even worth it? I took a closer look.
Does Size Matter?
To start examining the potential benefits of playing at home rather than on the road, we need to take a look at the ‘home’ itself, beginning with size. Let’s begin with the smallest and the largest. The Bell MTS Place -stomping ground of the Winnepeg Jets – has a capacity of just 15,321; significantly fewer plastic seats than the other 30 teams. At the other end of the spectrum is The Bell Centre (not confusing at all), home of course to the Montreal Canadiens.
Starting with Winnepeg, the Central division team had scored a total of 99 points through 2018-19. 54 of which were earned at home and 45 on the road, pointing to a slight but not hugely significant home advantage. A closer look at Montreal shows that they achieved 56.25 % of their 96 points at the Bell, and only 43.75 % elsewhere. So a fairly even split for both teams, but a suggestion perhaps that size can play a part.
Having a large arena to call home is all very well. But it isn’t much use without the fans to fill it. By the end of the 2018-19 season, Chicago topped the table for average attendance (thanks in no small part to the Winter Classic which drew a crowd of nearly 80,000). I think it’s fair to say that Chicago by their standards had a bad year but what are their home and away stats like? Well they did win more at the United Center than on the road but not much more. Like Winnepeg, Chicago scored just over 54% of their points at home.
The New York Islanders are at the opposite of the attendance table, averaging only 12,442 spectators throughout the season. Interestingly, their home stats aren’t great. They were just as good on the road as they were at home with 24 of their 48 wins coming from the Barclays Center and Nassau Coliseum. It could be argued of course that their somewhat unusual situation with home arenas hasn’t helped matters. A situation which is set to change in 2021 with the opening of the Belmont Park Arena (name yet to be confirmed).
Average attendance at the BB&T Center – home of the Flordia Panthers – wasn’t much more impressive, at just 13,000 per game. Despite this, Florida still yielded 56% of their total points for the season on home ice. On the flip side, Minnesota’s attendance was the 7th highest in the NHL. Amazingly however, 53% of their paltry 83 points were gained outside of St. Paul.
It seems then that there is little if any correlation between attendance and success at home.
A Noisy Barn
So if the number of filled seats doesn’t make an impact on results, what about the noise being generated by those fans? There is little disputing the fact that Chicago fans are some of the noisiest in the league. They don’t call it the Madhouse for nothing! But we’ve already looked at their home stats for the past season and they’re nothing to write home about.
The arena that seems to get the worst reviews in terms of atmosphere generated is the Gila River Arena, home of the Arizona Coyotes. Despite this, the Central division team had far from the worst home record last season with a record of 20-17-4.
Too Far from Home?
Can something as simple as geography help a team turn their home into a fortress? When we’re talking geography, we are of course talking about distance. Some distances in the NHL are eye-watering and none more so than that faced by Florida and Vancouver when visiting each other. With a distance of 2,781 miles between the two, that’s a serious road trip. Fortunately, they don’t have to make this trip too often and (barring an incredibly unlikely Stanley Cup playoff final matchup), only face off against each other a maximum of twice per season. Taking the past five seasons into account does show a very slight but in no way significant advantage for the home side with six out of 10 wins.
Other franchises in the league are so close together that you could reach out and touch both arenas at the same time. That’s obviously an exaggeration but only 13 miles separate New Jersey and the New York Rangers. The two met four times last season and three of these finished with home wins. This may however have more to do with New Jersey’s woeful season than anything else.
So how about that coveted top-eight finish and the promise of home advantage in the playoffs? St Louis showed no respect to those who finished higher than them, most notably having the audacity to lift Lord Stanley’s cup at The Garden, whilst their faithful followers lost their minds to Laura Branigan back at Enterprise Center’s one of many ‘watch parties.’
It was a similar story in 2018. Vegas went into the final with ‘home advantage’ only to see Washington get the job done in five games. In fact, the Stanley Cup has only been won four times by a team with this alleged advantage in the last ten years.
So why then do we all go so crazy about the idea of gaining home-ice advantage when there isn’t much of an advantage? One explanation might be that the advantage isn’t the only thing to get excited about. Who wouldn’t want an opportunity to attend a whiteout in their home town? And I’m sure given the choice, any Blues fan would have preferred to see their team lift the cup on home ice.
Taking all of these factors into account I think it’s fair to say that whilst there is an advantage to playing on home ice, it is only a very slight advantage at best. Having said that, no matter what the numbers say, there is always going to be something special about performing in front of your home fans. And lack of success won’t necessarily keep the fans away. You only need to look at Rogers Place to see that.
Feature Image Credit: (Photo by Terrence Lee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)