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Etiquette for Hockey Fans

Friday, April 25, 2008

Pittsburgh’s boo birds know when Jaromir Jagr comes to town.  Their counterparts in Washington’s Verizon Center raise an equally loud heckle, which isn’t easy considering that the Mellon Arena sells out every game and until recently the Caps rarely met that level of attendance.  In Philadelphia, the hometown crowd combines boos with suggestive whistles and cat calls, referencing the mullet period prior to the current disaster Jagr considers facial hair.

Vintage Jaromir Jagr mullet

Jagr isn’t alone among players who receive rapt fan attention in the opposition’s buildings.  Danny Briere may never be forgiven by fans of Les Glorieux for choosing Philadelphia in free agency.  Martin Brodeur is the target of choice at Madison Square Garden.  And I’m told that Kings fans have been sorely tempted to go after one of their own on numerous occasions: Rob Blake.

So where is the line between a healthy animosity and ill-natured chaos?  Is it wrong to heckle the great players of the game?  Are there boundaries other than the glass that fans should never cross?

I would say the line is marked by two incidents I have witnessed involving Flyer fans.  This past season, fans seated behind the visitor’s bench engaged in a heated discussion with Rangers pest Sean Avery.  Who started it is up for grabs, but it was a purely verbal engagement. 

Several years ago, a Flyers fan seated behind the penalty box fell into the box.  This sparked the iconic fist fight between Tie Domi of the Maple Leafs and a drunken Philly fan – you can guess who won that one.

Heckling, verbal sparring, yapping, chirping – these are all valid elements of the in-game atmosphere.  The players on the ice engage in the sparring throughout the game.  Likewise, fans come to support their team in any way possible, including using their voices to distract the opposition.  I see nothing wrong with booing or taunting a player, whether it’s a star like Sidney Crosby or an above average pest like Darcy Tucker. 

Foul language should be used sparingly because people should feel free to bring their children to games.  Prior to this most recent series against Washington, the only profane language in common usage throughout the Wachovia Center was the a**hole chant, reserved for referees who make poor calls (aka calls against the Flyers).  The recitation of an expletive and Ovechkin’s name was truly classless, and I hope those who started and those joined in the chant realize how inapproriate it was.  Boos express dissatisfaction or team loyalty in the face of a rival.  Expletives, however, demonstrate poor gamesmanship and a lack of respect for the sport and its players.

But as awful as words may be, they are nothing compared to endangering the players with physical assaults of any kind.  That includes Flyer fans jumping in penalty boxes to fight opposing players.  Or the Washington Capitals fans launching pizza boxes and bottles at Jeff Carter and Joffrey Lupul, who were being interviewed on the Verizon Center ice. 

Or the Montreal Canadiens fans who dumped beer on Mike Richards while he was in the penalty box at the Bell Centre.  These men earn their livelihood entertaining us with their sport.  They risk life and limb with the various bodily contact they sustain during normal plays; we have no right to ask them to guard against physical danger originating outside the glass as well.  And it’s not just players.  In Washington, the cameramen, sound technicians, and journalists who work long, hard hours to bring us the hockey coverage we crave could have been hurt for simply doing their jobs.

I’m not asking hockey fans to stop demonstrating passion for their team or hatred for the opposition.  Let’s be honest – I’m a Flyers fan.  I love the battles.  And I love it when fans from other cities become riled up for their own teams.  That’s what makes a live hockey game special, exciting, and fun.

That isn’t a license to do whatever you want.  Just as we ask the players to respect physical boundaries on the ice for their own safety, we as fans need to respect physical boundaries off the ice for the safety of our players.  If it goes over the glass, it should be either a hat in celebration of a hat trick or the sounds of word wars.  Otherwise, it’s off-limits.

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