PHILADELPHIA – To understand the Philadelphia sports fan’s tormented soul, it’s good to know Cheese.
Not the dairy product so wonderfully paired with steak at Geno’s. No, Cheese the barber. He works in Chester, cutting and buzzing at Supreme Hairstyles when he’s not listening to all the local laments about Philly teams. And as anyone who’s been to this city knows, the laments never cease. On the Eagles: “We’re tired of the playoffs,” Cheese says. “We can’t keep on having ‘Almost.’” On the Sixers: “We need a big man, another point guard, a slasher.” On the Phillies: “They ain’t consistent enough.”
But the Flyers? “They’re down 2-0,” Cheese says, “but they might be able to pull something off.”
Philly fans are notoriously grumpy, frustrated, angry, even sociopathic – Cheese laughs when asked about the booing of Santa Claus at the Vet – but the hockey team’s stunning comeback from down three-oh against the Boston Bruins in Round 2 has temporarily doused the town’s burning inferno of doubt. Cheese can’t name a single Flyer – “I can’t even pronounce their names,” he says – but he’s given them something very rare in Philadelphia: a free pass.
This faith goes against every shred of the Philly fan’s being. “We’re such an emotional town,” says Derreck Michaels, 30, as he slumps over a drink at Public House in Logan Square. “We’ve been losing for 30 years.” The city’s been stabbed in the heart so many times that it fails to realize it’s actually more blessed than almost any other American region. Think about it: the Phillies won a World Series and then a pennant; the Eagles are perennial contenders; even the MLS team is selling out its new stadium. No, this isn’t nouveau riche Boston, but it ain’t Cleveland. And yet fans here grouse like they’re Kansas City Royals fans.
So the Flyers’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals has shattered the cosmos, forcing the curmudgeons here to come to terms with a team that has wildly surpassed expectations instead of coming up short. The scene at the Fox & Hound pub on Spruce Street during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, in which the Flyers came back from a 3-0 deficit against the Bruins to win, was “breathtaking,” according to server Jenna Fisher. “Everyone was off the floor,” she says. “Everyone was friends that night. I couldn’t stop smiling for an hour. It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.”
The same is true for Tim Ducharme, 42, who sits at the bar Tuesday night wearing an orange (and ironic) t-shirt proclaiming “We Believe!” He’s actually from Calgary, but he’s been a Flyers fan since the team won its last Cup in 1975. He can talk about the 35-game win streak in 1980 like Eagles fans can talk about the Fog Bowl. Ducharme ranks his top Flyers memories this way: 1) When the Russians left the ice in the Spectrum in ’76; 2) His first trip to the city, in 2007; and 3) Game 7 of this year’s Eastern semis. “There was (stuff) flying all over my house,” he says. The series against the Bruins, and particularly the last game, ranks as the most exhilarating NHL win of his fan life. Ducharme budgeted $1,400 to fly by himself to Game 3. (His breakdown: Frequent flyer miles for the airfare; $425 for the ticket to the game; $300 for the hotel; and the rest in beer.)
So now, with the team down 2-0 against Chicago, Flyers fans are embroiled in a battle between their negative instincts and their newfound faith. They start to say something childlike in their enthusiasm, then revert into bitterness. Example: “I can’t believe they got that far,” says beer wholesaler Fritzi Bennett. “How can you not be happy?” Is she happy? “No! I got a parking ticket today and then fell on my ass.”
But two words are notably absent from this week’s local talk: “must win.” The Flyers have earned the city’s respect, and its patience. If they go down 3-0, well, they battled back before. “I’m not worried,” says Marc Tumolo, bartender at Ladder 15. “Just gotta relax and take it easy.” (Yeah, right!)
Even in the home of Parking Wars, the Philadelphia-based show about drivers losing their tempers (and minds), there’s a subtle serenity this week. A burly cop named Todd is willing to conduct an interview in the middle of the intersection of 16th and JFK as cars whiz by. “I’ve never been this excited about the Flyers,” he says. “I see neighborhoods coming together.”
The truth is, Philadelphia fans aren’t that hard-hearted. Quite the opposite, really. They’re just raw. They bruise easily. But that means hope and happiness erupt quickly – under the right circumstances. The Flyers, by playing as resiliently as the city they call home, have provided the right circumstances. You’ll hear jaded fans talk about how putting a tiny statue of William Penn on top of the new Comcast Building has broken the curse on this sports town. These people, grouchy as they may be, are dying to believe. Some fans go so far as to say they’ll be happy if the team gets swept by the Hawks. “I’ll be so proud,” says Hilary Cohen, a local teacher, “even if they lose, I’ll forgive them.”
Really? She can do that? “Yes,” Cohen says, “Definitely.”
Can the whole city do that?