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Unidentified Ottawa Senators fans at a March 3, 2018, Arizona Coyotes game (Photo: JM)
For the last 14 years that I played hockey it was of the “old timers” variety. If you were not at least 60 years old there was no place for you in the system. It was casually organized with the same two teams squaring off against one another at 10:30 Wednesday and Friday mornings. Unless a wife decided to come along for the ride, there was no one to watch the action — not even the rink attendant, who could take in much more interesting contests any night of the week.
I was used to it! There was nothing at stake except having the fun of being part of the greatest game on earth. It hadn’t been that way at first. When our “Midget” sextet met the opposition from another Shunk Junction-sized centre, there were always enough fans present to cheer and boo at the appropriate times.
And so, if at midnight, a recreational match between Sam’s Snack Bar Hotdoggers and Mike’s Small Engine Double-Clutchers gets underway in an empty arena, no one will lose any sleep over it.
But to peek into the Bell Centre, the Air Canada Centre, or the Joe Louis Arena, and see nothing from ice level to the rafters but rows and rows of shiny various-coloured seats is quite another matter. And that was precisely the scenario which prevailed in 2020. With a significant chunk of the regular schedule sabotaged by the fallout of COVID-19, the Stanley Cup Playoffs concluded the season as usual. But every match was played before an empty house. TV was a viable substitute — but something very drastic was missing.
Countless comments radiated from every form of sports media over the last two months — even after Lord Stanley’s ancient chalice was settled in its new trophy case.
“There is an eeriness about the NHL with no fans!”, wrote one scribe.
“With no crowds it causes zero atmosphere!” opined another.
Still another compared it to “playing in a vacuum!”
“There are no drastic swings in momentum” (for instance, the anticipation of someone pulling spectators to their feet with the tying goal on his stick).
Connor McDavid, Edmonton’s dynamic captain, grumbled: “It sucks! The crowd is needed to keep the fire going!”
More comments like that come under the heading of “ad infinitum”.
The incomparable Bobby Hull, “the Golden Jet”, summed it up this way: “Athletes are nothing without their fans. Fans keep the sport alive. We owe them an effort on an off the ice!’
The rule of thumb, maintained over the years, is that the support of the “home” crowd is good for at least one goal! Their cheering and chanting spurs their favourites to put out a little extra — which just may mean the difference between a win or a loss — especially in a close game. Conversely, booing from the stands, or prolonged harassment, can curb the drive of a visiting club. “Hey! Hey! Goodbye!” is hardly number one on any skater’s hit parade.
That both will rain down on the ongoing action, either coincidently, or alternately, is the result of the various kinds of spectators which will be in attendance at every contest. They come in all shapes and sizes, representing a plethora of personalities and temperaments.
Generally speaking there are three different breeds: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
They represent those who are loyal, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and polite, and who possess a reasonable amount of common sense.
Somehow I ended up with a single page tucked away in my “FAN” file, originally printed in a little-known publication called The Daily Stinger. Essentially the journalist describes what we would call the ideal fan: “not noisy or demonstrative… vocally encouraged the players… a most appreciative spectator who got a lift out of the game… regular in attendance… enjoyed every moment of the spectacle out there on the ice…”
But one need not be ideal to be a good fan. Back in the game’s fledgling years, lady spectators used to boldly sport ribbons bearing the colours of their favourite squad. Local bands, for the sheer enjoyment of it struck up music in support of the hometown gang. Some expressions of loyalty bordered on lunacy. In 1896 seats in the Winnipeg Arena for their Stanley Cup matches went for $12.00 — the equivalent of a hired girl’s monthly salary. In many areas, special trains filled with “hockey nuts” followed teams on their way to challenge the opposition.
A century later, the Washington Capitals’ “booster club” kept the struggling sextet alive (with moving elsewhere a very real possibility) by selling season tickets, contacting businesses for support, sending out mailings, and even working in the offices.
But there are also individuals who have demonstrated a remarkable kind of dedication.
For instance, if you happened to visit the Resource Centre of the Hockey Hall of Fame over the last quarter of the 20th Century and into the New Millennium, you would find Tommy Gaston (and his wife Ruth) pouring over old newspapers, magazines, and arena programmes, clipping out (or photocopying) items of interest about the game, and filing them away in this storehouse of the game’s history.
He told me he had attended the very first game at Maple Leaf Gardens when it opened on November 12, 1931, and continued that pattern until he became a season-ticket holder. When the Leafs moved to the Air Canada Centre on February 19, 1999, he literally moved with them — being a part of the parade that moved from one shinny centre to the other. He had a reserved seat there as well, as long as his health allowed. Any way you count it, 70 years is faithfulness personified. He passed away in 2010.
While his Montreal counterpart can’t quite match that record, the October 15, 1947 Hockey News featured the record of Jack Raymond, a telegrapher with Canadian Pacific Railways. Beginning with the opening of the Montreal Forum on November 23, 1924, he had attended every Habs game for 23 years. Unlike Gaston, it was his job which took him to the catwalk in the old arena to tap out details of the action on the ice below him.
He said he had some close calls when he nearly didn’t make it to the match; but at that point, with the beginning of the 1924-25 campaign he had not missed a faceoff. Information about his longevity in this vein is not readily available — but even a quarter century of perfect attendance deserves the highest tribute.
But it’s not just men who have gained the “dyed-in-the-wool” tag when it comes to getting hot and bothered about the game they love. Back in 1948, George Duffy paid tribute to one Lillian “Lolly” Hopkins, who was the AHL Providence Reds’ number one fan. The game which brought her loyalty to the fore was the November 10-1 trouncing of the Philadelphia Rockets — during which, he said, “She nearly went berserk” over the victory. And, because she armed herself with a megaphone there was no anonymity in her bias or how she expressed it.
At that point, she had been tied to the Rhode Island franchise since 1930. She regularly took in games at Springfield and New Haven as well, to lend her support for her favourites. For 25 years, she had also been in attendance at Bruins games.
Almost in passing, Duffy mentions another member of the fair sex who took her hockey very seriously as well. Shirley Jacobson of Chicago approached her fanaticism in a little different manner. She took an annual hockey vacation, travelling to NHL cities, taking in 17 games in 15 days. That one day must be a dilly to squeeze two matches into one 24-hour period.
Talk about busy nights, in 1983, shinny enthusiasts Mike Eisenberg, Julian Kaplan, Joel Bierenbaum and Steven Lefland saw three contests in one evening. This was possible because they lived in the New York area. They took in the Devils’ first period, the Ranger’s second frame, and capped it off with the Islanders’ final twenty minutes. Thanks goodness for long intermissions!
I recently stumbled on some novelty photos in the Hockey News. One of them pinpointed a “Flames Flag Waver”. The Flames were still in Atlanta at the time, and his southern spin was revealed in the subject of the picture. Don Goodwin regularly attended the games all decked out in a Civil War Southern uniform, waving a Confederate Flag in the stands at the Omni. Perhaps that would be considered politically incorrect today. But 40 years ago, it added flair to the atmosphere in the Georgia-based arena.
One of the most unique anecdotes about individual team supporters comes to us from Madison Square Garden in New York. According to the game report between Ottawa and the Rangers, Alexei Yashin had the puck stripped by his Broadway Blueshirt opponent, and took off for greener pastures. The Big Apple forward reached out with his stick and hooked Yashin, and down he went. Up went the referee’s arm, as he shouted “two minutes for hooking”.
In an instant a shrill female voice yelled: “That was a dive! You’re blind, ref!” Ironically, the demonstrative protester was blind — literally. Jane Lang has never enjoyed sight from the day she was born. Growing up in Boston, she attended Bruins games; but now Madison Square Garden is “home”, and the Rangers her team.
She combines the sound of the skate blades on the ice with the play-by-play commentary fed by her ear phones. She confesses to “screaming like a maniac” when the games goes her way. While her husband does not share her love of the game, he admires the way she can follow the action simply by listening.
She says she is able to follow the game based on how the sound bounces back in the Garden. Even without the commentators, “with all the sounds — from pucks clanging posts to players hitting the boards!” Without a doubt, her other senses make up for the loss of sight. The headline for the story was “Blind fan has a feel for the game”.
Methinks she rates as the number one good fan.
Sharpshooting Rick MacLeish was once quoted as saying: “They should put protective glass all the way to the ceiling….” That’s because all fans are NOT good. Next issue will focus and the bad and the ugly!
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