- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2015

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - A Bruins fan her entire life, Karen Czifrik has attended many games over the years but has never been there to see her favorite team take on the archrival Montreal Canadiens.

When Czifrik learned the Bruins would face off against the Canadiens in the 2016 NHL Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium, the Salem, New Hampshire, resident knew she wanted to be there.

“I’ve seen (NHL Hall of Famer) Wayne Gretzky play, but I’ve never seen Bruins versus Canadiens,” Czifrik said. “I was so excited when I found out they’d be playing in the Winter Classic. I thought, ‘This would be the perfect opportunity to finally see it happen.’”

But when Czifrik went online to purchase tickets, her dream of seeing the historic matchup went away as a fast as a Zdeno Chara slapshot.

“There was nothing available online (at face value), so I went on some of the other ticket websites and couldn’t believe the prices,” Czifrik said. “I mean, some of the tickets were going for $1,000 a piece. Who can afford that?”

As the anticipation builds for the biggest regular season game in hockey, extremely high ticket prices have left many passionate fans like Czifrik out in the cold.

The first Winter Classic was held in 2008, when the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. The game was the first outdoor professional hockey game in the U.S. Since then, the Winter Classic has been held every Jan. 1 in a different city, except in 2013, when the game was cancelled due to the NHL lockout.

Since its inception, the Winter Classic has become hockey’s version of the Super Bowl, a one-day, once-a-year event featuring two of hockey’s premier teams, fun pre-game activities for fans of all ages and plenty of money for the NHL.

According to Sports Business Daily, the 2014 Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, generated more than $30 million in revenue, well above the game’s $10 million operating cost. An additional $10 million came from advertising and retail sales, with the league record setting sales on team jerseys and knit hats with stitched Winter Classic emblems.

The biggest portion of the 2014 revenue, about two-thirds, came from ticket sales. The NHL partners with ticket distribution company Ticketmaster to sell tickets at face value, and according to Jamey Horan, vice president of communications and player relations for the NHL, a public sale was held the week of Oct. 19 for fans to purchase tickets for this year’s game.

But, face value tickets had already been open to Bruins season ticket holders before last month, according to Jeff Linehan, owner of Diversified Business Systems in Haverhill and a longtime Bruins season ticket holder. Linehan said he and other ticket holders were able to purchase tickets in August, shortly after the league announced the Bruins would host the game.

“We had to go through Ticketmaster and were given a special code to buy them since we’re season tickets holders,” Linehan said. “I think I bought two tickets for around $170 each. I usually pay $135 for my seats at the Garden. So it was a little more expensive.”

Linehan said his seats were “around the 50-yard line” or midfield at Gillette, meaning he’ll have a good view of the game action. But there are plenty of other fans who won’t, many of whom because they simply cannot afford the price of admission.

When the face value tickets sell out, fans are forced to search for tickets on the secondary market, where people who have previously bought tickets can turn around and make a hefty profit. This year, secondary ticket prices - as of this week - for the Winter Classic vary depending on seat location, but any seat would force fans to dig deep into their wallets.

In the upper level section of Gillette, prices range from $199 to $400 per ticket, and the prices get higher the closer fans wants to be to the ice. The most expensive seats are at the club level, where fans would have to pay as much as $4,000 a ticket.

With the exception of 2014, Winter Classic secondary ticket prices has risen each year since 2011. Tickets to the 2015 game, held at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., had an average price of $508, according to the online ticket search engine TiqIQ. The price was a drastic increase from the 2014 game in Michigan, which had an average secondary price of $156.

The extreme price jump could be attributed to venue size, according to Ryan Spalding, assistant professor of sports management at Merrimack College. While Michigan Stadium can hold nearly 110,000 people, Nationals Park has a capacity of just under 42,000, making the demand for tickets even greater.

“The supply is restricted by the stadium capacity, so strictly speaking, the larger the venue, the lower the ticket price (should be),” Spalding said. “But the other thing you have to keep in mind is the demand side. For an event like this, regardless of the supply size, the demand is still going to be high.”

Gillette Stadium has a capacity of 66,829, according to its website, making it the third-largest venue to host a Winter Classic. Yet the ticket prices remain as high as ever, which doesn’t entirely surprise fans who won’t make it into the stadium.

“I think the tickets were always going to be high just because of who (the Bruins) are playing,” Lynne Hajjar Kumm, a Methuen resident, said. “This is the game everyone has been waiting for: Bruins versus Canadiens, outdoors. I just wish I could go.

Kumm, a member of the Methuen School Committee, said she has been a Bruins fan “since I was a little girl.” She and her husband Tim and twin sons Josh and John have made the Bruins part of their family vacation, catching games in Washington, D.C., New York City and Buffalo. When she heard about this year’s Winter Classic, Kumm thought the game would make for another memorable family outing.

“But you look at the prices and for a family of four, it’s just not affordable,” Kumm said. “I applaud the people who can afford it, but if you’re going to hand over that much money for one game … that’s a big decision. I’d rather save that money for another trip to see (the Bruins) play in another city.”

When contacted by The Eagle-Tribune, the Bruins directed all questions about Winter Classic ticket sales directly to the NHL. In an email, Horan wrote the host team, in this case the Bruins, and the venue typically handle the majority of ticket sales for the game and the pricing “is consistent with other Winter Classics.”

Horan would not elaborate on the ticket process, writing “there really isn’t more I can share” in another email. Fans like Czifrik and Kumm wonder why the NHL would make the tickets so expensive that passionate, longtime fans could not afford them.

According to Spalding, the NHL would certainly have an interest in having those fans in attendance, but the league remains a business, and businesses need to make money. With earlier sales to season ticket holders and the October public sale, the league has given “good fans” the opportunity to purchase tickets, many of them at a price relatively comparable to normal regular season games, based on how much Linehan paid for his tickets.

The NHL has no control over the secondary market, Spalding said. He raised the point that many of those people selling on the secondary market could be Bruins fans looking to make money off a marquee event.

“If the NHL had its way, people would probably sell tickets at face value,” Spalding said. “If anything, the NHL is actually leaving money on the table, because the secondary market prices show these tickets have more value than they are being originally sold for.”

The opportunity to watch the team in person may elude many fans due to high prices, but the Bruins’ appearance in the game remains a reason to celebrate. Kumm and her family plan on holding a Winter Classic viewing party at their home, while Czifrik said she was planning on visiting the stadium area for the Winter Classic Alumni Game on Dec. 31, which traditionally features former players of each participating team.

Still, both women said they would do almost anything to sit inside Gillette when the puck drops.

“I told my boyfriend I’d give up a kidney to be able to go. I’m serious about that,” Czifrik said, laughing. “I just think it’s unfair that so many hardcore fans won’t be able to go. Those are the real fans. They deserve to be there.”


Information from: Eagle Tribune (North Andover, Mass.), https://www.eagletribune.com

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