I have witnessed a strange transition during the past 30 years of cheering for my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The hockey fans that once populated the home games have gradually been replaced with shoppers, eaters and suit wearing, private boxed corporate ladder climbers, many who are too busy networking to bother to pay attention to the team they paid hundreds of dollars to watch.
If that is the case, the blame falls not on the ticket buyers, but the passage of time. It is clear that this night on the town, full of sushi, double digit cocktails and plenty of distraction for the kids, is exactly what the bottom line now commands.
Why should I pay attention to the game?
Isn’t my buying this shirt enough support?
I don’t have to cheer yet. The scoreboard hasn’t told me to.
The transition started years ago.
I trace it to a television timeout in a game in which the good guys, a team coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup championships and looking every bit the part of a three-time winner, were having a rare lackluster night; probably one of those mid-week, mid-winter dog days matches against a non-division foe, the game was all but lost. We were a quiet crowd because nothing the home team had done excited us.
And then, for no reason, the scoreboard told us to make some noise.
It said just that.
“Make Some Noise!”
And a few people did.
The command made no sense. Why, exactly, were we cheering? Were we supposed to be excited by a powerplay that was ineffective? A lineup purged by the flu? A three-goal deficit that showed few signs of being erased in the final period?
Yet, seeing the video command, some of Pavlov’s dogs responded.
On the ride home, rehashing the game in my mid, it was that moment that stood out. I couldn’t wrap my head around why people yelled when a sign told them to do so, even though it made no sense in the context of the game.
It wasn’t long before those types of cartoon prompts and other such scoreboard instruction were accompanied by sound. If you weren’t going to play along, the Pens seemed to be saying, we’ll just sweeten the vibe by adding our own noise. Not hand clapping or yelling, mind, you, but the sound of sirens and heavy metal guitar licks, growing gradually louder and louder until nothing could be heard in the big old Civic Arena but sirens and heavy metal guitar licks.
Pretty soon after that, say, by the late 1990’s, the fans leading the cheers was looked at as a quaint pastime. The scoreboard now served as emotional leader. It decided when the team needed a lift. It decided when we, the fans, would be loud.
In fact, I remember many times that those of us in our seats would begin a cheer, something as simple as a “Let’s Go Pens”, only to be drowned out in our own building by a blaring highlight reel or funny clip from an old movie or TV show.
By the time the 2000’s arrived, the days of the paying customers deciding the emotions of a game in Pittsburgh were gone.
I realize how easy it is for some reading this to categorize me as an old guy who is just blowing off steam about days past. I’m painfully aware. I monitor myself constantly, on the lookout for any “things were better in my day” statements; I attempt to close the gates before they escape my mouth.
The truth is, decades ago, on many nights, the fans alone served as an emotional shot in the arm at just the precise moment of a Penguins’ home game. Late penalty kills were my favorite. In a one-goal game, the Devils or Flyer or Rangers would attempt a man advantage breakout from their own end. As the quarterback gathered the puck behind his own net and readied for the breakout, the noise in the Igloo was sometimes much louder than any faked air raid siren or Slash’s Marshall double stack guitar recording turned up to 11.
I will go to my grave knowing the crowd made a difference in those days.
We did not need prompting.
We understood our role.
And when the Pens brought home a Stanley Cup, it belonged not only to the guys whose names were engraved on the trophy, but to us as well.
You can’t plan emotions. Can you manipulate excitement? Perhaps, but it never rings as true as the real thing.
This week, the crowd-as-energy-boost theory was in full force, as the Pens opened at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs and then went on the road to Winnipeg to play the Jets. For long periods of time during the home opener, the Pittsburgh Penguins played in front of a one-third empty Consol Energy Arena, not because of poor ticket sales, but because people like food and drink and playing games and visiting with friends more than watching and cheering hockey.
As the Penguins lost an early lead and eventually the game, they needed not fear losing the crowd. They were happy with free hotdogs and half-price Sid the Kid baby bibs in the many stores that keep them long after the period has begun.
A few days later, in Winnipeg, the team was reminded of what it’s like to play hockey in front of hockey fans. On a night when the temperatures never reached ten degrees, the MTS Center was hot. The support was incredible, the noise was a din, even when heard from my radio’s speakers.
Were they reacting to a faked noise meter, sweetened with pre-recorded sounds of a train whistle and atomic bomb drop?
They were yelling “Go, Jets, Go!”
All night long.
And as Pittsburgh’s James Neal gathered in the puck behind his own net on a late powerplay in a one-goal game, I literally could not hear Mike Lange and Phil Bourque as they called the action because the home crowd was a roar of sound.
And I smiled.
Because that’s what a hockey crowd does.
Hockey fandom is not dead, after all.
It’s just moved to Winnipeg.