March 28, 2011
(This is, by no means, meant as an indictment of Flyers fans.)
For someone that didn't grow up with the sport, the NHL can be intimidating. The rules are different. The standings look like a calculator threw up in the sports section. There's a century of legends, records and suspensions to catch up with. And that's before you even get to the fans.
We're a suspicious lot when it comes to our fellow fan, poking and prodding during conversations to establish a baseline of shared knowledge. Trying to root out the casuals in die-hard clothing. Seeing if the individual is "long suffering" or recently located the bandwagon.
Once we've established that this person is new to the game, we either embrace them a brother or sister in puck or we silently scorn them for not having been part of the cult to begin with. Which isn't something exclusive to hockey, mind you; try telling a Radiohead fan you just recently discovered "The Bends."
Blogger Doug McKenzie (awesome) of The Elsinore All-Stars (awesomer) blog doesn't feel this protectionist elitism does the game any good. In an open letter to hockey fans today, he writes:
If NFL & NBA disputes last into the fall, perhaps we'll have many more new fans at NHL arenas in October. While it can wreck havoc with ticket availability, it is not a bad thing to have more fans. An explosion in the popularity of football made the NFL far more accessible to fans. While the NHL will likely never compete with the NFL in the American market, hockey fans should look at that as a perfect reason to be welcoming of new fans. In closing, as new fans are introduced to the sport, don't be so snobby.
Too often hockey fans try to outdo one another, competing over who is a "better" fan or who has been watching/following hockey longer. That sort of attitude won't help the sport grow. Certainly there's nothing wrong with some playful banter and trash-talking done in the spirit of fun, but there's no point in looking down on someone for being new to the sport. Remember, everyone was new to the game at some point - even you. We follow the greatest sport in the world and there is no harm in sharing it with others.
Look, there's no question that hockey fans get on the defensive more than other fan bases. It's a natural reflex, developed through generations of being demeaned by the mainstream media and pop culture. We also pull rank more than a Army disciplinarian, wearing the years and decades we cheered for our teams like badges of honor and humility.
The venerable Mr. McKenzie is arguing two things: First, that we shouldn't pull elitist crap with newbies trying to share the tent, with which we agree. Second, that a fan, even one that's lived and died with his or her team for years, is hurting the sport's popularity by acting like they're "better" than someone who recently discovered the sport. That's a tougher call, because it speaks to long-term dedication vs. wariness of bandwagonism; are you going to be here after two straight seasons without the playoffs, or will you be back buying NBA tickets instead?
But to ask McKeznie's question to you, dear readers: Is part of the problem in creating more hockey fans the attitude and behavior of, well, hockey fans?