The Wise and the Not-So-Wise
For my first order of business, I am going to eat a little crow. I am a fan, and sometimes my passion for my team overtakes the better of reason. My heated response to Mike Wise’s article “Beaten to the Punch” was not accurate on all points, and for that I apologize.
I, like many other hocky fans, failed to pick up the ironic note in his opening paragraph. The one in which Wise encouraged Gary Bettman to fix games through officiating. I should have picked up on the absurd element in that idea.
But therein lies the problem with the article. Mr. Wise is a basketball writer who admits he knows little about hockey or its fans. Intellectually, I understand that NHL commissioner Bettman does not order the refs to give special consideration to teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Washington Capitals for the benefit of the NHL marketing agenda. But deep down, I believe that’s exactly what he does. I am not alone on this one. A quick listen to any episode of the NHL Hour with Gary Bettman and Bill Clement will turn up at least one fan phone call complaining that officials appear inclined to side with stars, right or wrong, 99% of the time. Expecting hockey fans to see the absurdity in a Bettman-referee conspiracy theory is tantamount to asking a Roswell devotee to acknowledge Area 51 is a hoax.
I stand by my contention that the 2007-2008 Flyers bear little resemblance to the real Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s. Dave Schultz, an original Bully, said as much when interviewed on NHL Live recently. And which team is dressing their enforcer right now? Enough said.
My remaining grudge with Mr. Wise is far more personal. He attacked the Philadelphia fans outright:
For most of the evening, there was this unmistakable air of testosterone coming from the Flyers’ direction that just reeked of physicality, a way of exerting their mauling style on the Capitals that just sent their denizens into some medieval state of euphoria.
Midway through the third period of this demoralizing 6-3 loss at Wachovia Center, 20,000 people in fluorescent orange howled for their World Extreme Cagefighters, and a crowd in the upper bowl chanted vulgarities at Ovechkin that went beyond the bounds of loutish fan behavior. As the frothing masses left the arena, they felt good about the bull being struck and killed — checking the multi-generational Russian wizards Ovechkin and Sergei Fedorov into humility as much as the boards.
The Capitals didn’t come out as Eastern Conference foes; they entered the playing surface like Russell Crowe entered the Coliseum in “Gladiator.” Flyer fans didn’t want to beat Washington as much as see Ovechkin bludgeoned, his teammates emasculated.
It’s almost impossible to fathom, but the Capitals took the ice in front of a building as loud as Verizon Center last Friday. The fans wore orange instead of the Capitals’ red, and many of the women and children looked as if they could work security for Megadeth.
Putting blatant insults directed at the fans in print is both dishonorable and irresponsible from a professional journalist. I partially attribute Mr. Wise’s comfort level with doing so to Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. I pointed out a few days ago that Mr. Leonsis pulled a “my fans are better than your fans” card in his public blog. Such comments from team administration establish an environment that enables people like Mr. Wise to push the rhetorical envelope too far.
The greatest responsibility here, however, lies with Mr. Wise. I do not retract my opinion that this article was the stuff of shock jocks and the types of blogging heads that give reputable bloggers a bad name. Hockey fans, regardless of their team affiliation, compose a small community in the US. We are far outnumbered by the football and baseball fanatics – scratch that – we’re outnumbered by the casual fans. We have to actively seek out the coverage we can’t find on major TV networks, in sports magazines or even in major newspapers like the Washington Post. Why? Because they often would rather give time and space to baseball or the release of next year’s football schedule in April than playoff hockey.
Mr. Wise wasn’t inspired by knowledge of hockey or its fans to write this article. Instead, he sought attention for himself, achieving it with sensationalized blows below the belt at people who genuinely love their team. Perhaps I took the insults personally because so many others before Mr. Wise have accused the Flyer faithful of classless behavior. But at least most did so from a position of understanding, arguing that Flyer fans act outside the character of other hockey afficionados. (Though the fact that Montreal stationed policemen outside the Bell Centre the other evening, prepared in case a Canadiens win sent the fans into riots, suggests that Philadelphia isn’t the only passionate town in the NHL.) His column merely revived the us-against-them mentality borne by Philadelphia’s hockey fanatics for the past 30 years; it did not capture the truth.
I hope that the attention Mr. Wise’s story has attracted does not leave a lasting impression of a city in which hockey fans surround themselves in brutality, violence, and vulgarity. As in any of the 30 NHL cities, Philly fans proudly demonstrate an informed passion for their team, fueled by past glories and future hopes. Think of the boo birds that erupted when officials failed to call icing on the Capitals during the first overtime periods in Game 4 – even color analyst Bill Clement seemed surprised by their quick perception of the game’s details. We have long-running traditions, young stars, and an owner in Mr. Ed Snider who loves to win as much as his fans do. We deserve the respect of the entire hockey world.
Even from newbies like Mike Wise.