Fan creativity in North American sports—most specifically, in the NHL—is dead. There. I said it. The most creative thing fans have to do is take their one-syllable team name and force it into the above format—hence the abominable existence of the chant, “LET’S GO WY-ULD!” I suppose “GO [team name] GO!” is just as common, and just as mindless. You’d think that would be our chant. Not that I’d prefer shit to crap. Alas… And let’s not forget the most complex, artistic chant ever: “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
How did this happen? How did it come to be that these chants pretty much sum up the creative capacity of North American sports fans? Your typical hockey fan has never thought that there could be any other way to support a team because the NA Sports fan doesn’t have to think. The arena thinks for them… in the most oppressive, Van Halen- and Nickelback-filled manner imaginable.
Why? Who is on the fence about going to the Wild game tonight and then decides to go only because they realize, “Oh yeah! Not only do I get to see the highest level of professional hockey in the world, but I get to hear all my favorite top-40 hits from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and today!” And then they go to the game and get their ears murdered by Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” played at deadly decibel levels.
Who makes money off of this? Not the arena. The Black Eyed Peas do not approach the Wild and Xcel Energy Center overlords, thrust sweaty dollars into their palms, and plead with them to blast “Let’s Get It Started in Here” in the dead of the 2nd period (ya know, to prompt the fans to get it started in here because they hadn’t yet thought to get it started in here).
No, the arena likely has to pay royalties to stay in compliance. I am a nobody musician and even I have had to pay royalties… kinda. My shitty band has been charged by the bar—who paid us to play—because we played a couple cover songs. They charged us because the RIAA charges them to allow bands to play live music, and that live music might be a cover song. There’s nothing more humbling than being at the bar for eight hours (load in a 5pm, sound check at 6pm for four bands, doors at 8pm, first band at 9pm, listen to those MFers and the two other ear nightmares, and then play your set at 12am) and seeing your measly $50 cut down to 44-entire-dollars because you were charged $3 dollars per cover song played. And then you get to take all your shit home and go to work in the morning because those business meetings aren’t going to meet with themselves and obviously you aren’t making enough money gigging to quit your day job.
But I digress… Arenas and therefor teams and therefor the League actually pay to do this.
Pumping music into the stadium stunts any creativity. Hell, it’s so MFn loud that you can’t even have a conversation with your family, friends, nor the patron to your right (sometimes, though, that’s a good thing). Every commercial break it seems people sit there thinking, “Well, since I can’t talk over Motley Crue, I guess I’ll just see if anyone Liked my Facebook check-in at the X. Nope. OK… Maybe @russostrib is letting some rube have it over Twitter…”
There’s no fan engagement other than watching, maybe cheering, maybe booing, and—of course—mindlessly screaming “SHOOOOOT” when their team is on the powerplay.
What would happen if that music was not played? I think taking it away would stimulate creativity and improve fan connection to the game/team/sport. Want proof? Look at soccer. And for those of you still reading after that sentence, I don’t mean that you have to watch soccer; I just mean take it as an example. Fans sing, chant, and are engaged the entire time. Even 0-0 draws. Of soccer, of all sports.
Futbol supporters have a song or chant for every occasion. Why can’t hockey? Taking the ice, goals, hits, fights, powerplays, penalty kills, wins, and losses. All song and/or chant worthy events. Star players—check out Arsenal fans serenading Olivier Giroud with their adaptation, "Hey, Giroud." How about the team captain or fan favorites—like when once in a blue moon Willie Mitchell scored a goal, fans could have sung Sweet's “Little Willy.” Or when Cooke scores (which is a lot so far), fans could be the ones singing “C is for Cookie”—and screw him anyway if he doesn't like it. And speaking of Cooke, how about hated rival teams and players—imagine how much more awkward it would be for Cooke if Wild fans had come up with a jeering song for him back in his Vancouver days?
It’s nice when the guy running the music is clever enough for this sort of stuff, but the fans could be doing it instead to enrich their connection with the game.
The answer to why we currently can’t is because before there’s a chance to even think about it, the second that play ends some horrible song is blaring through the speakers. If it were up to the fans to be the entertainment, instead of shoving entertainment into people ears, we’d think of something. Sure, British FCs are like a million years old, so some of these chants have come to be out of years and years of development. But we’d get there.
We know that’s this is possible in the US. MLS (that's Major League Soccer, you rubes) is a great example of how a lack of music at a sporting event in the US can work. Just like the MLS and most every soccer league in the world, the NHL could designate a specific section as the supporter section where anything goes. Anyone else who doesn’t want to participate in that way or doesn't want their experience be obscured somehow (like by banners, flags, standing fans, etc.) will be perfectly happy with their families in the general admission sections. Let their kids take in the supporters section to allow them to make the decision of what kind of fan to be when they’re old enough, like deciding whether or not to pierce their lip, get a tattoo, or get that gender readjustment like they’ve always wanted. And that’s just it: it should be a decision, a choice. Van Halen is never a choice; if it were, it’d never be heard. If Van Halen’s “Right Now” is ever heard, you know that somewhere a hockey game is in the 3rd period, it’s not going well for the home team, and the time for fans to cheer is not only now—it’s Right Now.
And time—game time—is another major contributing factor to how two different sports' fan experiences have developed. Futbol has running game time, so there’s no pause in the, ahem, action. Like most sports, a stadium can't play music during game play. This certainly has to be one of the reasons why fans began taking it upon themselves to chant and sing their teams towards victory. This must mean that Major League Lacrosse, however, doesn't consider its own sport to be a sport. It allows horrendous, awful music to be played constantly. We cannot allow the NHL to become that lowly.
[Editor’s Note: the author has other strong opinions about how running game time could work for the NHL, but that’s a post for another day.]
Have you ever witnessed Liverpool players taking the pitch at Anfield? Behold:
Liverpool supporters have been singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as the players take the pitch since the 60s. Unfortunately, what has helped cement this song and the phrase into the Liverpool fiber is not just history, but tragedy.
I do think there are some current examples of elevated fan experience in the NHL on which to build.
My first example is my worst because I don’t particularly appreciate the execution, but I dig that it exists. The Nashville Predators fan base seems like one of the most engaged audiences in the league, but I don’t appreciate how juvenile and choreographed the engagement is. It feels forced, because it is. College fan interaction is pretty childish and that’s what the Nashville experience seems to closely mirror. College gets a pass because it’s college. Nashville, though? C’mon… you’re the Perds. Grow up. However, it’s a step in the right direction. To change the culture of the fan, though, some extra help and encouragement like that of Nashville may be necessary.
The Candiens supporters have their “Ole Ole-Ole-Ole” thing, and… well that’s just great for them. But at least it’s something.
The Wild’s “Let’s Play Hockey” is another OK current tradition. They do a good job getting fans to participate—if only the people they select to lead it could get it right for once (ahem, Doc Emrick and any non-hockey athlete ever).
And, IMHO, nothing in the NHL is as stirring from a fan engagement perspective than the jacked up, energized National Anthem at Chicago home games.
As cool as that is, though, I think they could do better by also singing along instead of cheering. I mean, Jim Cornelison can belt but it’s not like 20k more singers at the same time is really going to hurt that Frankenstein of a man's performance.
The Wild have an anthem that could work perfectly, and preferably without the tragedy, like Liverpool—but sometimes their PK is nothing but tragic—amiriiight? I think the Wild organization wants the fans to sing it, but somehow I don’t think people get the message.
Fans need to be led. US soccer stadiums often have hype-men in the rouser sections who lead chants, all game long. It’s quite a sight. What’s sad is that the longevity of the MLS is nothing compared to the NHL. Yet in their short life, the MLS has managed to attain this level of fandom:
The kind of involvement and creativity I envision will not be easy to come by. Frankly, I feel it’ll never happen. But if it were to happen… it would require time. As for the Wild, maybe we’re just too meek as Midwesterners. I’d like to think that with a little more encouragement we could make the fan experience pretty special. But the way arenas have a stranglehold on the entertainment flow of a game, fans just aren't currently wired to get engaged. And that’s what needs to change.
Is a massive rewiring required, though? I wonder, and the more I think about it, maybe not. Hockey can do it because it already has an iconic, unique element that no other sport has: the hockey organ. Many of these fan connections could be led by the organist before the game, between play, and during intermissions. More and more, though, the organ seems to be dying out as an old tradition rather than a prevalent, current tradition. The league can’t let it happen, or we’ll never hear the end of Van Halen.
We need more guys like Frank Pellico, and guys like whoever this "Matt" guy is at 1:47... GTFO, Matt. I see you mousing-over Back in Black. Fn Matt.