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Hockey Hall still stands tall

The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is housed in an old bank building, and it’s worth its weight in gold to Canadians. The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is housed in an old bank building, and it’s worth its weight in gold to Canadians. (Sharon matthew-stevens)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / November 6, 2011

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TORONTO - Canada is such a cool place, and part of that is because it’s all about hockey. No sport in America is as embedded in our culture, such an integral part of us, so intricately woven into what we do and how we think, as hockey is in Canada.

Sure, if we went back in time to the pre- and post-World War II era, baseball was our national pastime and the American sporting culture was centered on the grand old game and to a lesser degree on boxing.

In Boston, our scope was slightly bigger. Many of us shaped our sporting psyche through the 1940s and ’50s around two ball teams, the Red Sox and Braves, as well as the Bruins and the other fight game that played out on a canvas mat rather than a sheet of ice.

The old Boston Garden, built in 1928 with the Bruins as its anchor tenant, engineered its steep sightlines in large part to accommodate the boxing crowd. New arenas of the last 20 years, both in the US and Canada, have shaped their sightlines primarily around luxury suites and various dining/drinking experiences. The menus, the bar tabs, and the game clock are all delicately, expertly interconnected.

The Hockey Hall of Fame, located downtown here at the corner of Front and Yonge Streets, truly has an unfair advantage on the entire sports Hall of Fame/museum business. In a country of some 33 million - roughly one-tenth of the US populace - all but maybe, oh, 80-100 Canadians are hockey fans. No surprise, really, that things are fairly prosperous at the Hockey Hall, which is smack-dab in the center of a metropolitan area of approximately 5 million people.

Jeff Denomme, the Hall’s president and COO, said business is strong, but conceded that the Hall, like many similar museums in the US, has faced its economic challenges in recent years. The Hockey Hall, which is registered as both a nonprofit and charitable institution, boosted its adult admission ticket from $15 to $17.50 (Canadian) this summer, in part to compensate for about a 10 percent dropoff in foot traffic over the last 2-3 years.

So, there you go: Not even hockey in Canada, right here in the thriving metropolis of Toronto, is completely protected from the challenges of our economic times.

“But the largest challenge of the industry has never really changed,’’ said Denomme, who started working at the Hall as an intern 25 years ago. “The true, hardcore hockey fan will always come, and I suspect that’s true throughout the industry, whatever the sport. And what I’d say is also hard for all of us in this business is to get the average or casual fan through the doors.’’

USA Today reporter Mike Todd authored an intriguing story last week about the financial struggles and vagaries faced by various sports halls of fame and museums in the US. A great many of them, including the Springfield-based Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, have struggled financially in recent years.

The most acute case of hall-of-fame futility detailed by USA Today was the grandiose failure that was the Sports Museum of America, constructed in Lower Manhattan about four years ago at a cost of $93 million. It closed 2 1/2 years ago when attendance projections proved to be outrageously miscalculated. According to Todd’s report, the annual target was set for upward of 1 million customers per year. Actual attendance was on pace for about 125,000 when the doors were locked for good after a mere nine months.

Much like the famed Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. - the granddaddy of sports halls - the Hockey Hall these days attracts about 270,000 paying customers per year. Cooperstown, according to USA Today, will pull in about 275,000 this year, the third year in a row it has attracted fewer than 300,000 customers.

Prior to the recent dip, attendance in Cooperstown exceeded 300,000 for 12 straight years. Denomme said HHOF attendance peaked around that number in the middle of the last decade.

“Some of these halls of fame aren’t exactly on the beaten track,’’ said Dick Johnson, curator of The Sports Museum of New England, housed inside the Garden on Causeway Street. “Actually, for some, you have to beat the track to get there.

“Maybe it’s OK for the big ones, like Cooperstown and Canton [Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame], but others have to be hurting.

“It’s because of the recession, the increased cost of gas, drop in tourism. We’re OK here in Boston. In fact, we shattered attendance records this summer. But I think if you’re outside a city, not surrounded by other options and attractions, you’re going to struggle.’’

Case in point: The US Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum in Eveleth, Minn., about three hours outside Minneapolis. It is open for regular business hours from Memorial Day until Labor Day, but only for a total of 18 hours for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday the remainder of the year. It’s a hike to Hat Trick Avenue. Lack of support forced the Hall to close its doors after 30-plus years in May 2006, only to open a year later when it added “museum’’ to its title.

Here in Ontario, the Hockey Hall of Fame originally opened in Kingston in 1943, and then shifted to Toronto in 1961. It has been at its present location since 1993.

Housed in a former Bank of Montreal building, the HHOF’s centerpiece is its majestic Great Hall, where it conducts the induction ceremony each November and the likenesses of inductees are imprinted on thick glass plaques, to remain on display in perpetuity.

First-time visitors routinely gasp and momentarily fall silent as they enter the Great Hall, not unlike first-timers at Fenway Park when they set eyes on The Wall.

The HHOF’s No. 1 attraction, by far, is the original bowl donated by Lord Stanley of Preston in 1892, which remains on permanent display inside the bank’s old vault. It is what the Stanley Cup is fashioned after, and just as there is no equivalent in North America to what hockey means to Canada, there is no trophy the equal of the Stanley Cup.

America’s sporting passions have evolved greatly since the end of WWII. Our sporting culture is defined now not solely by bleached horsehide and taut red stitches, but most of all by the overwhelming diversity and variety of pro sports, baseball just one of them, and perhaps the NFL above all.

Here in Canada, hockey endures, it defines, it dictates, it provides the culture a vulcanized touchstone and talisman. In Canada, it’s Game On! . . . and on . . . and on . . . and on . . .

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.

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