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Ebner: For first time in more than a decade, Canucks face possibility of empty seats Add to ...

The streak stretches back more than a decade, to Nov. 14, 2002, when the Vancouver Canucks defeated the Los Angeles Kings 3-2 on a Thursday evening. The arena was full, a sellout, as it would be every single game thereafter, a run now at nearly 470 games, the longest in hockey and the second-longest in North American pro sports.

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But the business of selling Canucks tickets in Vancouver is no longer as easy as it once was and the team, struggling on the ice and a soap opera off of it, has had to offer a flurry of promotions this season to keep Rogers Arena full at 18,910.

It’s about to get tougher. With the Canucks set to miss the playoffs for the first time in six years, the team on Saturday sent out renewals for season ticket holders, leaving prices unchanged from this year. Among the images in the package was that of owner Francesco Aquilini, on the ice looking like a coach.

Demand is mixed, in stark contrast to previous seasons.

Keith Roy, a local realtor who was born and grew up in the city, has a package of a half-season worth of games, the result of patience, sitting nearly a decade on the team’s waiting list through the long sellout streak. His pair is in section 306 and has a face value of about $90 per – but he’s considering downgrading to a smaller package, half the tickets.

“It’s expensive,” Roy said. He plans to hang on to at least a toehold, for the first shot at future playoff tickets. “Sometimes you’ve just got to ride it out in the bad years.”

The run of success in the past decade on and off the ice has made the Canucks one of the richest and most valuable teams in hockey but now the box office is a challenge just as costs are climbing, the salary cap rising and the Canadian dollar falling. There are cracks elsewhere, too: Regional television ratings are slipping, down about 10 per cent.

At last week’s home game against Nashville, upwards of a thousand tickets in the lower bowl of Rogers Arena were empty, as ticket holders either couldn’t or didn’t bother to sell their tickets, or give them away. In the secondary resale market, prices have fallen by half and fewer tickets are being sold, according to Mario Livich, president of ShowTime Tickets. Prime tickets behind the players benches can be had for $100 for some games, he said.

“There are all kinds of crazy deals,” Livich said.

Season tickets and packages account for most of the seats each night, about 17,000, and there is an estimated 5,000-plus who are on a waiting list.

During the sellout streak, the Canucks have had most customers stay on, with an average season ticket renewal of about 96 per cent. For 2014-15, they will have to be “smart and lucky” to get 90 per cent of customers to renew, said Tom Mayenknecht, a sports business analyst and host of The Sport Market on TSN Radio.

“The disappointment and fan fatigue is palpable,” said Mayenknecht, himself a season-ticket holder. “For the first time in more than a decade a lot of season ticket holders are not sure what they’re going to do.”

The Canucks are hardly a lost cause. According to StubHub, the online ticket broker, the median price of a ticket for the team is $115, among the highest in hockey.

But the sellout streak is in jeopardy. It stood at 466 games ahead of Sunday night’s home contest against woeful Buffalo, and other franchises have been in similar spots. The Boston Red Sox set a North American pro sports record with 820 consecutive sellouts but the string was snapped at the start of last season. The Dallas Mavericks now hold the No. 1 spot for active streaks, with more than 500, but the team is not as strong as it was, and chatter about their streak ending has gone on all winter.

Earl Gordon, a management consultant who has split a pair of Canucks season tickets with a friend since 2003-04, plans to renew. He said he would have been upset if the team had increased prices again.

For Roy, and others, the downward spiral began three years ago, when the Canucks almost won it all.

“We have been shell-shocked since Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final,” Roy said. “And now we don’t have a real starting goalie all of a sudden.”

Follow on Twitter: @davidebner

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