The first pre-season game of the year, that’s the kind of thing that gets my attention. But tonight I’m more than a little interested in something off the ice as well: how the process of getting fans through the newly installed metal detectors work.
I was there last Wednesday when the Oilers hosted the University of Alberta Golden Bears and the results were not good, but that was just the first night, things have to get better as the bugs gets worked out (and also because people will start showing up earlier, more on that in a bit), right? My guess/hope is that it will improve, but the simple fact is getting into Rexall Place last week was a complete mess with lines extending from the doors of Rexall Place, across the bridge over 118 Avenue, and into the Edmonton EXPO Centre parking lot. And the building wasn’t even at capacity, on opening night - and maybe even tonight - they can expect another 2,400 plus fans to come walking through the doors.
After the game last week, the Oilers made a statement about the delays experienced by fans on their way into the building, saying that "Rexall Place will continue the testing and training associated with the operation of the equipment in preparation for the Oilers first pre-season game on Monday, September 21 vs Calgary," which is really all they can do because the metal detectors are mandated by league policy. Based on my experience I would suggest that the training in particular is something they might want to really focus on, since the bag I was carrying (a diaper bag because I’m that cool) was neither scanned nor searched. Which seems like a pretty significant flaw in the security system to me.
Although it completely defeated the purpose of the metal detector, I was a little glad that my bag avoided being searched. Not because I had hidden a six-pack of beer at the bottom, although I might have to consider that in the future if diaper bags are excluded from searches, but because it gave me something to laugh about after standing in a line to get in for 10 minutes. In the future though I’m going to be a lot less patient with this system because it doesn’t provide anywhere near enough value to justify the inconvenience that comes along with it.
I’ve gone to a lot of games over the nine years that I’ve been an Oilers season ticket holder. If I had to guess, I’d put the number somewhere between 175 and 200. Like I said, I’ve been to a lot of games, and in that time I have seen the atmosphere inside the building change, and not for the better, but at no point have I ever felt unsafe. There has always been security at the doors as you enter, checking bags (oh the irony) and patting down those lucky fans who get randomly selected (or me, every time), and there are police officers throughout the building all night long. Increased security like this is nothing more than a solution in search of problem.
For a game in Edmonton the previous amount of security always seemed like more than enough, whether or not that’s sufficient for another market, well, I can’t really say. A few years ago I went to the Grand Ole Opry and I remember a sign out front telling those attending the show that firearms were not permitted, even if you had a permit. Before seeing the sign I had never considered that anyone there might be carrying a gun, that’s not the culture that I’m familiar with, but presumably the people operating the Grand Ole Opry felt that this was necessary and had installed the sign as a result. So maybe in a market like Nashville metal detectors make sense. But that doesn’t mean that the same makes any sense in a market like Edmonton.
I’m rarely a fan of a one size fits all solution to anything because, more often than not, problems are more complicated than that. But rather than consider what each market might need, the NHL has instead decided to adopt a cover your ass policy towards safety without actually worrying about whether or not the measures make sense or what their impact on the fans and their enjoyment of the NHL’s on-ice product might be. Again, there are markets were metals detectors might make sense and markets where they don’t. Just like there are markets where waiting ten minutes to get into the building for a game in January isn’t a big deal and other markets where you could sit outside all day in shorts. Treating every NHL city as if there is no difference between them simply ignores reality.
The argument in favour of the metal detectors, at least in Edmonton, can be boiled down to "better safe than sorry." Which is reasonable to a point I guess, but why doesn’t the same apply to movie theaters, malls, grocery stores, or even Commonwealth Stadium (no shootings or stabbings at AC/DC last night)? Where do we draw the line between those places that need to be secured and those that don’t? Why not let the circumstances dictate what is necessary when it comes to security? Perhaps a proactive approach on the part of the team would work better, maybe even with the NHL’s input, looking at patterns and incidents and coming up with an appropriate plan to address the individual needs of each city and team.
Ultimately, regardless of whether or not metal detectors are necessary, I do believe that things will almost certainly be smoother as the season progresses and everyone gets more used to the system. Knowing what is expected of the fan coming through the door will help improve the system, as will some additional training of the game-day staff, some of whom looked lost on Wednesday night. The biggest impact though will probably come from fans deciding to arrive at the games earlier in order to avoid the lines entirely. And for some that might well be a good solution but it’s not one that I’m particularly interested in.
For my money, attending an NHL game is already a long enough experience, I’m less than thrilled about the idea of adding an extra half an hour to my night for a security measure that makes little or no sense. Will I do it? For a while I will, I now that. But it’ll also be one more thing that goes in the drawback column when I think about attending games. More and more I find myself looking at the cost of attending an Oilers game and I wonder if my couch with cheaper beer and no drunken idiots might be a better alternative. Make attending the games more inconvenient and my couch starts to look even better.
Obviously I’m just one person, if I decide to stay home that has zero effect on the bottom line of the Oilers or the NHL as a whole. But are there others like me? I suspect that there are, and sooner or later the impact will have to be felt somewhere. A league policy mandating metal detectors was likely made with the best of intentions but it’s not a policy that is required at this time, and it’s one that has a real impact on fans of the game.