EDMONTON - As the puck drops in earnest this week on the National Hockey League's regular season, travel operators have already hopped over the boards with packages that make up one of the fastest growing segments of the travel market - sports tourism.
Football, basketball, hockey, baseball, horse racing, soccer, Olympics - all are on the scorecard in this multibillion-dollar industry for those looking for a tour operator to guarantee tickets and rooms and get them to and from the game.
"We're selling the experience," said Janice Labossiere of Winnipeg-based sports tour provider Roadtrips.
"There are so few who get a chance to be in the crowd, all the things that go on in the actual rink. That's more of a selling point than the destination."
Canadian hockey fans are led by Toronto Maple Leafs fans, who like to travel to Phoenix to catch the Buds play the hometown Coyotes or head to New York to see the sights of the Big Apple and watch the Leafs face off against the Rangers.
"Our Canadian clients are our most passionate hockey fans," said Anbritt Stengele of Chicago-based tour provider Sports Traveler.
"We have a number of clients in Canada who want to see their teams play in the States."
Unfortunately, the trend does not necessarily go the other way. The NHL has been hurt by falling TV ratings and reduced exposure in the United States, and that effect is being felt in the tourism industry, said Labossiere.
"Americans, unfortunately, just don't seem to be taking to the NHL the way the NHL is taking to some of those small-market American cities," she said, adding she expects to sell more packages to the Kentucky Derby than to the NHL all-star game in Atlanta this year.
"The northern U.S. loves hockey, but the South not so much," said Labossiere, who said they don't even bother to market shinny in Dixie: "They're not interested."
So what does sell? Right now it's packages for the 2008 Beijing Olympics - swimming, diving and the opening ceremonies are the most sought-after deals - but otherwise the undisputed king is football, specifically NFL football.
"I don't know any other sport that has such a passionate following," said Stengele.
Fans, she said, sign up across the continent to see their hometown favourites play far and wide, highlighted by a group of 100 Philadelphia Eagles fans who go on the road en masse once a year to another city to catch a game.
This year, the topselling team in America is America's team, the Dallas Cowboys, given that their fabled home field of Texas Stadium is closing down next year.
"There's kind of a pilgrimage going on with Dallas fans to get to Texas Stadium before the last game is played there," said Stengele.
Baseball has also become big business with sold-out multi-city tours wrapped around trips to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. to go with mid-west tours, eastern tours and California tours.
And while Labossiere says their future growth area is international sports across the pond - Euro 2008 and the FIFA World Cup in 2010 - there's no doubt there's still lots of business coming the other way.
In Banff, the 56-seater luxury coach run by Banff Adventures Unlimited runs full throughout the hockey season, mainly with United Kingdom fans looking to augment their ski holiday with a Calgary Flames hockey game.
"A lot of them have never seen a hockey game," says Tanya Semos, general manager of Banff Adventures.
"They all are fascinated by the idea the players can fight. They love that. They all want to see a fight. You have to kind of re-educate them on that," said Semos, referring to the new NHL rules that have cut down on the fistic byplay.
She said the tour gets the tickets, picks fans up from their hotels and drops them off at the Saddledome. En route, to give them a head start, there's a guide at the front of the coach who gives fans a chalk talk on the basic rules of the sport and, for good measure, plays a Don Cherry "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em" video.
Fans, said Semos, go in ski jackets and winter coats, but on the trip home are clad in red jerseys with the flaming black C.
"They always come back with something - jersey, cap flag."
"Fans for life."
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