The Characterization of NHL Fans: Revisited for 2017
Hockey fans are a unique (if not clinically insane) bunch. They are quirkier than fans of other sports. Only soccer/association football hooligans are more rabid and delusional. And that’s arguable. Every hockey fan/fanbase has a modicum of delusion. It’s part of the game. For all the skill and structure that exists at the highest levels of hockey, there is a component of randomness to the game which lends itself to not only delusion, but bipolar tendencies from individual and collective fanbases.
Don’t believe me? Watch the next NHL Stanley Cup Playoff game on Tuesday, then pick about 8-10 people on Twitter and watch their tweets during the game. One minute you’d think they’re pushing for a player/coach or their team to be anointed for sainthood. Within 10 minutes, that same fan could be cursing the same player, coach or team to eternal damnation. This is not an exaggeration. Mark my words, someone on Twitter will do this on Tuesday, May 2, 2017.
That said, each fanbase among the 30 existing (Las Vegas doesn’t have a fanbase or a characterization yet obviously; but with some of the players who will comprise the team — which includes players, in some instances, that some fans wanted gone for ages, and get the benefit of the expansion draft to finally make it happen) has certain traits that are noticeable to the fans within that same fanbase, as well as a certain perception from fans of other teams. This is not a foolproof test, but absolutely true for a good number of fans within each fanbase. Try it out. Use Twitter. Use Instagram. Use Facebook (and dodge the PC police, unless you are a snitch for them) if you must.
I’m gonna break down NHL fandom them this way:
You get the drift.
Delusional and borderline reprobate.
“B’s” fans aren’t quite as bad as Montreal fans, but they’re not far behind. They’re more animalistic. Where Habs fans are passive-aggressive with their antics, B’s fans are rabid animals. Whether it is throwing beverages and God knows what else onto the ice when things don’t go Boston’s way, or hurling racial slurs at a Black player who is kicking their team’s ass (see: Pernell Karl Subban, Joel Ward, etc.) while throwing banana peels at the former, to chanting “bullshit… refs you suck!” when replays confirm good calls are made that they agree with, they are like howling monkeys. They overrate most of their players, and trash those who actually turn out to be good elsewhere (and former GM Peter Chiarelli did a great job of making that happen with Tyler Seguin, Blake Wheeler, etc.) They hate everyone and think Henrik Lundqvist is a massive whiner, even though their goalie is universally known to be the whiniest goalie in the NHL today.
This fanbase has a massive inferiority complex. It is understood. They are basically a reincarnation of the old Senators from 100 years ago. This incarnation of the team is currently celebrating 25 years of existence. That lags behind Montreal, Toronto, Boston and other teams by a century in that department. They love their team, no doubt — although you wouldn’t know it with all the empty seats in the stands when they make their twice-every-eight-years playoff appearances. You’d think they’d sell out and actually have butts in the seats every home playoff game.
They think Erik Karlsson is the greatest thing since sliced bread. They’re not far off, but if he were an average player, they’d think the same.
Toronto Maple Leafs.
The way many Leafs fans talk on social media, you’d think their team had won something in the past, I dunno, three generations. The fact is, they haven’t won anything since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F, Kennedy were still alive and giving inspiring speeches across the country.
You can imagine for yourself how interactions with that fanbase go, even if you are not a hockey fan. If you are an NFL fan, just think about Philadelphia Eagles fans.
You get the gist.
This guy has zero intention of every marrying her. At least in this lifetime.
New York Islanders.
Despite winning four Stanley Cups in a row from 1980-1983, including beating the seemingly unbeatable Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky, Grant Fuhr, Jarri Kurri and Mark Messier, the Isles haven’t come close to winning anything ever since. It has developed within them a serious complex, especially when it comes to the fact that they are a “B” team in the region (i.e. Islanders, Nets, Mets, Jets; the teams that came into existence after the original area teams were founded.
Side Note: If you did not watch championships won with your own live eyes, you do not get to use title talk as a trump card in sports discussions. This goes not just for hockey, but for all sports.
A team without a home. No one wants them. People who live on Long Island want them back at the old Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, but won’t pony up the tax dollars to potentially make it happen. Having lived in Nassau County and knowing that the tax rates are 4th highest of any county in the entire nation, I cannot blame them. But that’s beside the point. That barn is obsolete and ugly, but it is Isles fans’ ugly and obsolete barn.
Brooklyn has effectively given them a tenant’s eviction notice, and the Isles will have to find another home soon, because Barclay’s Center has had enough. Truth be told, no one likes hockey there, because in typical Isles fashion (mirroring their fans) they chose to move into an arena with poor sight lines for hockey, and ice so choppy that the shaved ice man on 5th Avenue on a summer day is jealous. So many injuries because of the bad ice conditions.
Are they going to Hartford when they move out of Brooklyn? Back to Uniondale? Kansas City? Into orbit? No one cares, really. Seemingly not even Isles fans. John Tavares is better than Sidney Crosby, some will tell you, though.
New York Rangers.
Rangers fans, as fans of an “Original Six” team, are some of the longest-tenured and most knowledgeable fans. This works two ways, though. The older sect knows the game inside and out and exhibits it when discussing games. But with that knowledge comes arrogance, bipolar tendencies, and a paranoia that the league is out to get their team. Some of it may have legs, while some of it is Chuck McGill (“Better Call Saul”) level shit.
Rangers fans tend to be fatalistic more often than other fans. In the lives of most Rangers fans, everything that could go wrong at the worst time has gone wrong. That would explain, for some, why the team went 54 years between Stanley Cup wins, and are 23 years (about to cement that in about a week) and counting between the last one in 1994. This leads to extremely warped criticism of players, coaches, general managers, training staff, beat writers, anyone they can blame, really.
Every loss must have a goat. Sometimes that goat is floating. Sometimes it is the same player. It has been that way with this fanbase for many years, not just with the advent of social media. Not so bad. The issue is this is where the bipolar-ness kicks in. One minute the “goat” gets lambasted to Kingdom Come, the next, he is lauded as the savior of the team by the same exact fans. And, of course, with social media, God forbid any of the players have social media accounts, they are bound to have run-ins with these same fans.
It’s no wonder the team plays schizophrenic hockey at home, while better on the road.
New Jersey Devils.
Much like the Isles, they had a nice run of success in the 1990s and early 2000s. They won three Stanley Cup titles. Much like the Isles, they don’t sell out unless the Rangers or another rival team is in town. Much like the Isles, they are developing a long run of futility (save for the 2012 Cup Finals loss). If you read some of their fans’ social media posts, they’ve already given up on NEXT SEASON before it even begins. That’s how much of a dearth of talent the team possesses.
Don’t mention to them Henrik Lundqvist’s record against the Devils or utter the phrase “Uncle Daddy” around them. You could begin a riot.
Depending on who you ask, you either believe the Pens experienced serendipity by landing much-coveted centre Sidney Crosby ahead of the 2005-2006 NHL season in the special draft, or that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman surreptitiously steered Crosby to Pittsburgh to save a team that was hemorrhaging losses and was on the verge of needing to leave the city altogether. You’ll never be able to prove the latter, and even the former will always draw derisive comments such as “there were three other teams who could have won that draft, it’s not like he (commissioner) wouldn’t want a superstar in his league’s biggest market, so why would he rig it?” and what not.
I am not here to speak about conspiracy theories, but the point is that Pens fans are two separate entities: there exists a massive bandwagon who cannot name anyone on the team other than Crosby (and maybe Evgeni Malkin and Kris(topher) Letang) and only ever talk about the Pens when the playoffs arrive, and then you have the sect of true Pens fans who are as defensive about anything related to their team as Floyd Mayweather was in the boxing ring.
If a player on their team commits a dirty play on the ice, they tell everyone else (literally fans of all the other 29 teams in the league at times) to “suck it up, get over it.” But let the exact same play happen to a player on their team and they want Salem Witch Trials and congressional hearings in tandem with lifetime bans of the offending player. To go further, four of their former players (who shall remain nameless in this article — diehard hockey fans know all four, and if you don’t, ask off the record) who each possessed well-earned reputations as dirty players have all injured players on the Penguins when they played on other teams, before or after playing with Pittsburgh. Those same fans who looked the other way when those players earned their reputations in Pittsburgh now verbally assail those same players when they continue to cement their reputations elsewhere.
We all know people like this in every area of life; not just with hockey. Arguably the worst fans in the league.
Philadelphia is generally a sports town bereft of winning anything of consequence in most of our lives. Championship droughts can breed hostility. Just as you see with Eagles, and to a lesser extent, Phillies and Sixers fans, Flyers fans are no different. They cheer when opposing players get noticeably injured. They applaud the player on their team who maimed the injured player. Not all fans, of course. We should be learn-ed enough to know that generalizations do not apply to the whole, but this is a rampant occurrence when dealing with this fanbase.
When you don’t win a title since eight-tracks were the chief method of listening to music, that type of thing tends to occur. They’re only really that bad when the team is good. And that has been rare in recent years.
Like other Buffalo-area teams, Sabres fans are sensible and pretty easy to get along with. They’ve never won anything, so the feeling of going years without a Cup doesn’t rile them up the same way as fans of teams that have won Cups, but haven’t come close in many years (see: Flyers, Maple Leafs, Islanders). They’re more concerned about why, no matter who owns the team, the franchise always appears to be in total disarray and lacking direction, despite oftentimes having large amounts of talent.
The Caps have had some all-world players in their 43-year history: Peter Bondra, Dale Hunter, Dino Ciccarelli, Mike Gartner, Sergei Gonchar, Kevin Hatcher, Olie “The Goalie” Kolzig, Adam Oates, and on down to Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin today. They’ve never won a Stanley Cup. The closest they’ve come to winning one was in 1998 when they were swept in four games in the Cup Finals by the Detroit Red Wings. They’ve developed a “playoff choker” label not only by outside fans, but fans within the team’s fanbase. That is a damning fate. They hope for the best and expect the worst. They’ve been let down year after year, especially of late; despite having the best record on multiple occasions, and, for all intents and purposes, the best team in the league.
Once the playoffs arrive, something weird always seems to happen to the team, regardless of the personnel or the man behind the bench. Consistent choking breeds cynicism. Cynicism breeds paranoia. That paranoia somehow makes it over to the players, who grip their sticks tighter in playoff games and series that most think they should win with relative ease (relative to what little “ease” there exists in winning an NHL playoff series, which is very little most of the time). It’s like watching someone spiral out of control due to drug use, and that person knows that it’s going to eventually kill them, but they do it anyway.
The former Hartford Whalers, the team relocated from Connecticut to Greensboro, North Carolina 20 years ago. Ever since, there has been a steady stream of losing. Oh, they’ve had a couple of peaks on the radar in that time, including a 2006 Stanley Cup championship, but ever since that time, they’ve been on the downswing. They haven’t made the playoffs this decade. They’re getting close again, as the team has been remade, but the consistent thing with this fanbase is that it generally doesn’t exist. That tends to happen with relocating teams, versus an expansion franchise which engenders a fanbase from scratch. If you don’t win, people do not show up. Even when you show that you are improving, they don’t show up.
Carolina has lagged behind the league in attendance for years now, constantly last or second to last. North Carolina is a basketball-first state, and football second. Hockey only matters when people are bored and the Canes are good.
If this new core of players turns out to perform well, watch how many people will come out of the woodworks with a refrain similar to a number of Chicago Blackhawks “fans” in recent years: “I’ve always been a Canes fan, just couldn’t make it to games.”
Sure, pal. Chicago bandwagoners can make that excuse. It is Chicago. The Canes play on the ass end of the Raleigh city limits in an arena that practically has to beg people to attend games. Big difference.
Columbus Blue Jackets.
What is there to say about this team? They don’t have much of a persona. Oh, they hate Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, but everyone does. So what else is there? The attention turns to the team whenever the Ohio State football season ends, for one. If the team is good, they are as loud and as loyal as anyone. But they have not managed much playoff success: only three playoff game won in their somewhat brief history (17 years).
They don’t even hate Rick Nash for pushing for a trade to what became the New York Rangers (allegedly, albeit dubious, given the GM was quick to volunteer the infomation that Nash “privately” asked for a trade). Some fanbases would never forgive such a thing, regardless of whose idea it was to trade the team’s best player in the midst of a contract.
They worry more about their team leaving town than anything else.
There’s not much else to be said. After the complete (negative) 180 the team did from 2015-2016 to 2016-2017, can you blame them?
Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Bolts have exciting players and have cultivated a boisterous and increasingly-knowledgeable fanbase. Oh, we know about their shameful (but within their rights) ticket operations for playoff games, (which they have since claimed to discontinue) but that’s kind of how you have to operate in a smaller market. They rankled two Original Six fanbases in 2015 (Montreal, New York Rangers) on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals and have developed an intense rivalry with division foe Detroit Red Wings, but outside of that, you cannot be upset if you love the game of hockey and wish to see it spread to areas below the 38th parallel. For southern teams to have growing fanbases is good for the league, regardless of whether you feel like your team’s Cup Finals hopes were dashed because Tampa’s team “got in the way” LOL.
Detroit Red Wings.
Their fans used to be far more obnoxious when they were a running All-Star team top to bottom. Even though their 25-year playoff appearances streak was ended in 2017, they had been sliding for years prior. Winning breeds a sometimes overconfidence and arrogant fanbase. In one of the biggest oddities out there, most die hard Red Wings fans do not even live in Detroit. You cannot say that about the other Original Six teams’ fanbases (Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, Boston, New York Rangers).
Another expansion team from 1998, the Predators are a younger fanbase. Despite no conference finals appearances (which may change this year); much less a Stanley Cup Finals visit, they have a rabid fanbase. Bridgestone Arena is consistently sold out and loud. David Poile, the team’s general manager may be the best in all of sports. Including Theo Epstein, who can splurge, whereas Poile has to work within both a small, hard cap (pause), and a small market. There isn’t much negative you can say about the Preds’ fanbase.
Nothing that a long playoff series can’t change, but these younger teams tend to just be full of fans who have come to embrace the game, which is obviously good for the growth of the sport.
We’re not going to use this space to bash bandwagon fans (and they, along with Pittsburgh, have the two biggest bandwagons out there; infiltrating the real fans). We will give them this: their diehard fans were there when the team was being mismanaged into the ground. That mismanagement put them into position to draft Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and others 10 years ago. Those two were part of the spearheading of the team’s run of three championships in six years — something the bandwagon fans are quick to use as a trump card, regardless of the discussion; thereby easily delineating themselves apart from the real, longtime fans who know better. It is like Yankee Fans Lite.
As a major city, the arena is always packed, and loud. They feel as though they are right on top of the visiting team — albeit not as much as the old Chicago Stadium — and they know their hockey. Once you learn how to separate the real fans from the bandwagoners, you know who to talk hockey with and who to leave to their practice of living vicariously through the successes of the team to distract from the fact that they are losers and erstwhile miserable people in life.
Evander Kane claimed the fans were racist, but Dustin Byfuglien — to my knowledge — has never done so. Evander Kane has been a knucklehead his entire career, eventually leading to his jettisoning out of town a couple of years ago. Say what you want, but when you are the only game in town, fans will be rabid. That has its good and bad traits. We know the Jets have never been extremely successful in the NHL, despite boasting some great players (Teemu Selanne and others atop the list, along with one in the making, Patrik Laine). But these people know their hockey and love their Jets. You don’t see them squabbling too often on social media. One must wonder how they will handle it if the Jets ever win a Stanley Cup. They haven’t come close.
The State of Hockey. No question.
The State of Minnesota Wild Hockey? Another story.
They’ve had good teams, and the fans love them dearly. But like their predecessors, the North Stars, who moved to Dallas and became the Stars, they still never won a Cup. It’s somewhat startling, both because Minnesota really is the state of hockey in the United States, and the great players they’ve had over their history. Maybe it happens soon. A state where the fans deserve a title. There are no bandwagons here.
But after yet another disappointing playoff exit, they’re like this nowadays:
St. Louis Blues.
Another team with no titles, but you wouldn’t know it with their fanbase. And it is still growing, that fanbase. Who can forget this guy from 2016? (although I personally believed he was bullshitting and it was all a staged act).
Sandwiched midway between the former and current incarnations of the Minnesota hockey teams, they have cultivated a heartland fanbase separate (and I do mean separate) from that of Chicago, their biggest rivals.
When the team scores goals, the fans join in with a chant while the organ plays the team’s fight song and celebrates the goal count with bells (one per each goal; i.e. if the team scores 5 goals, there are five bells following the fight song). It can be annoying and grating on the nerves, but it is a signature piece of pride for Blues fans. If you aren’t a fan of a Western Conference team, this generally does not bother you. But Blackhawks and Blues fans do not get along.
Another newer fanbase, they became the Stars in 1993, after the Minnesota North Stars unceremoniously left their previous home in Bloomington, Minnesota. Dallas experience success in relative short order. They won the Stanley Cup in 1999, which may feel like eons ago to Stars fans today. In hopes of recapturing that magic, they have re-hired then-head coach Ken Hitchcock in advance of the 2017-2018 season.
As for the fans, they are difficult to gauge. The natives are often Dallas Cowboys fans, and gravitated to the NBA’s Mavericks as they had two NBA Finals appearances (winning one). The Stars are not even tertiary in the region (Rangers), and it sometimes shows with attendance and local TV ratings. They have exciting players and the hardcore fans that they do possess have shown that they know hockey in a state that is about as antithetical to hockey as seeing a used car salesman at a Catholic confessional booth. You don’t really have beefs with Stars fans unless you’re a fan of a rival, and even now, the closest thing to a rivalry (relative to some of the east coast rivalries) is with the Blues.
Denver is a good sports town, and the Avs have had support, since they immediately won multiple Stanley Cups upon their arrival from Quebec City (former Nordiques). The team hasn’t been good in a while, but the fans are okay. They’re kind of like New York Rangers West, in that they are almost too critical of players, coaches and front office members to the point of being fatalistic about the team’s fortunes. You hope Joe Sakic can turn around that team before they begin to lose the fans they’ve spent 20 years engaging since leaving Quebec.
The former Atlanta franchise (notice how teams rarely live long in Atlanta? Two different hockey teams have left there — the Flames and the Thrashers-turned-reincarnated-Jets), the Flames are a niche fanbase. They compete in the Battle of Alberta, the Canadian province where the former and maybe now-again powerhouse Edmonton Oilers also reside.
Calgary is five times larger than Edmonton, however. Calgary is more of a cosmopolitan town, but the Flames are still the only game in town. When you have these only game in town situations, the fans tend to be very knowledgeable, vociferous and overall intense. The Flames are no different. They haven’t won anything since the week before the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, but their fans have been there since day one upon arrival from Atlanta in 1980.
The Oilers were almost unfairly dominant for most of the 1980s. They boasted three of the greatest players of all time (Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri) along with a hall of fame goalie (Grant Fuhr). Another “only game in town” market, Edmonton boasts a city-wide fanbase that really gets loud in support of their team. Oh, they go at it with Flames and Vancouver Canucks fans, along with others, as to be expected. But you kind of have to admire fans who only have one major professional sports franchise in town. It is starkly different from how fans in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, and Montreal — all of whom certainly support their teams with great fervor, despite numerous entertainment outlets — in that they seem to be LOUDER in these arenas.
Don’t believe me? Ask fans who have attended games in the new Rogers Place. They can’t even hear themselves think. It’s a different type of loud than places like Madison Square Garden (before the real fans were priced out in favor of empty, soulless Wall Street suits). Don’t underestimate the effect this has had on the current incarnation of the Oilers, as they push to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 11 years, and win for the first time in 27.
The Coyotes were the former first incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets. After 20 years in the desert, they probably wish they had stayed in Manitoba the first time, even though we know the Canadian Dollar versus the United States dollar was the reason for the fold.
As it is, down in Arizona, hockey has little chance to thrive in this state, despite the NHL insisting on forcing it to work. Surefire 2017 Calder Trophy winner Auston Matthews is from Arizona, but he is going to be forever synonymous with Toronto (if he plays out his career there) before long, not Arizona. His origin may inspire more kids form the state to pick up hockey, but it hasn’t made a difference where it matters for the Coyotes: at the gate.
New GM John Chayka has an unorthodox approach to the development of a team and is in the midst of completely remaking the team in his analytical image. He has gathered a plethora of draft picks and has used a good number on them on players who he believes will contribute to the future of the team. For all parties involved, let’s hope the plan comes to fruition as conceived. For if the current regime’s plan doesn’t work out, the franchise may not survive any more sustained periods of lack of success. They have been plagued by bankruptcy to the point where the NHL was paying the team’s bills. This is a direct reflection of a lack of fan engagement to the point of consistent support both within the arena and outside. Arizona is a weird sports state. They support their teams, but the overall vibe of their fanbases in each sport is “blase” most of the time. Not even Wayne Gretzky’s presence as part-owner and head coach could spark consistent interest.
The ‘yotes haven’t even been relevant in any way since their 2012 Western Conference Finals loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings. Throughout all the jersey changes, ownership and front office shifts, the constant has been lack of interest. Maybe it is just not meant to be. There are many people who don’t even know a Coyotes fan.
San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks fanbase is unique, in that San Jose is relatively close to San Francisco, but San Jose is a distinct (and rather largely populated) region unto itself. It creates a niche market with regards to hockey, but it is a more intimate one, as a result. Ever since the Sharks came into existence in 1991, they have been relevant. For the first few years, it was due to their aggressive color schemes and Sharks logo, which were all the rage in hip hop and other genres who favored sports team jerseys in the 1990s. Once they drafted longtime and still-playing “Mr. Shark” Patrick Marleau in 1997, the Sharks have been consistently good — albeit saddled with a label as being a perennial Playoff Choker. Despite this, their fans are right there supporting them every year, with the hopes that the choke jobs of years past are in the past. In 2017, following a Stanley Cup Finals run in 2016, those hopes were dashed yet again. Nevertheless, Sharks fans are a good bunch. Outside of the California teams (more on them shortly), there isn’t much of a strong hatred for them. Some of the western Canadian teams’ fans may disagree, but it is nothing like the hatred back east, which has festered for several decades.
Los Angeles Kings.
The Kings play in Los Angeles. You know what that means.
Late-arriving, fair-weather fans. And until 2012, that is precisely what comprised the Kings’ fanbase; which many accused of being bandwagon fans. It was not an entirely improper accusation in many cases, but the Kings have indeed had many longtime fans in their 50-year history in the NHL.
Before 2012, however, the franchise’s fans weren’t all that noticeable on a national level; unlike the Original Six teams’ fans and the east coast-based teams. For those of us who grew up in the 80s, you knew more about the shocking Wayne Gretzky trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles mere weeks after the Oilers won their fourth Stanley Cup in 1988, and the trials and tribulations of former owner Bruce McNall than you did any of their fans.
With the burgeoning social media era, armed with a notoriously witty Twitter account, Kings fans have become more noticeable and vocal; particularly after winning the Stanley Cup in both 2012 and 2014.
They’re not too fond of their next-county-over rivals, the Ducks, however.
If you grew up in the 80s and into the 90s, you remember the sports comedy, “The Mighty Ducks” from 1992. The team was founded by the Walt Disney Company in 1993, and has experienced good success since its inception. Unlike some of the teams listed here, while they have become playoff chokers in recent years, they’ve actually won a Stanley Cup (in 2007). As such, they haven’t changed their goal song ever since that year. On one hand, can you blame them? On the other, the massive playoff failures ever since might lead the superstitious among them to want to go for a change.
Not to suggest that the goal song is the reason for those failures (we know how random hockey can be), but… just saying.
The Ducks (overall) have good fans, and they are knowledgeable. They are realists about their team these days. In the year or two after their Cup victory, they had become insufferable (as many can recall, even before Twitter became large), but that is understandable. Now they’re just a good, solid bunch.
Even if Kings…
and Sharks fans vociferously object.