… And the Madness of Crowds

This undifferentiated mass of people is not classy.

Zdeno Chara is lying on his stomach, face in his gloves, blood dripping down and making little puddles on the ice. It was a clearing attempt, honestly, nothing more. Plekanec was just trying to get the puck down the ice ahead of the buzzer. There was no big hit, no fight, no malice aforethought, just an unfortunate accident that happened to bring down, for a minute, the biggest defenseman in the NHL. Chara is bleeding. Plekanec is apologizing. And all around them, 21,273 people are cheering.

Okay, maybe not all 21,273. There are probably few hundred scattered Bruins fans who aren’t cheering. Maybe a few disinterested dates who don’t care, some lawyers on their BlackBerries who didn’t notice. Maybe even a few gentle-spirited souls who could never, ever applaud the misfortune of another, even if that other is a fearsome Bruin. But when Chara got hit in the face with a puck, the solemnly silent in le Centre Belle were clearly a minority. Listen to the video: that is the sound of many thousands of people wildly, joyfully, shamelessly celebrating an accidental injury.

And, of course, as fast as the broadcast could get up to the satellite and back down to Earth, there came the condemnations. They popped up instantly on Twitter, on the liveblogs, on the message boards, on the game threads: stay classy, Montreal. It happens every season, like clockwork: the crowd at le Centre Belle boos someone venerated or cheers something horrible, and the sanctimonious condemnations flood in. So rude, so moronic, so inappropriate. Why, oh, why, must these awful awful Habs fans be so unclassy?

As the wise and prolific Wyshynski has pointed out, it’s not as if this kind of classless fan behavior is limited to Montreal. Boston itself has been known for the entirety of its hockey history for having loud, nasty, classless fans, and there’s plenty of video of them applauding injuries. Moreover, he observes, because hockey is a contact sport and we generally celebrate contact and contact generally causes injuries, hockey fans are inevitably going to be put in the position of applauding the pain of opponents. Even the commentators lamenting the death of class seem to understand that; Dave Stubbs, of the Montreal Gazette, made a point of noting that in his moral schema, cheering over a big hit is acceptable, while cheering over an accidental puck to the face is not. The former is within the bounds of ‘class’, the latter is beyond.

But why is it important that fans be ‘classy’ in the first place? And moreover, why is hockey so very attached to this notion of ‘class’? It’s a vintage kind of concept, classiness, it has a whiff of the 1930s about it, like it should be used in the sentence, “She’s a real classy dame, she is.” No one ever uses this word outside of sports anymore- I might refer to a friend, coworker, or relation as ‘good’ or ‘cool’ and mean much the same thing, but I’d never describe them as ‘classy’. Classy is an adjective now reserved exclusively for hockey players, hockey franchises, and hockey fans.

Personally, I would hypothesize that our obsession with classy behavior in hockey comes from the sport’s distinctly low-class roots and continuing violent nature. Back in the day when pro hockey first evolved, it was often considered the province of the working classes. Upper classes played hockey too, but as amateurs, in gentlemen’s sporting clubs or universities, and could afford to avoid corrupting the sport with money. Professional hockey, the kind of hockey the NHL is directly descended from, brought in rougher players who really needed the cash, and pro hockey deliberately, from the beginning, cultivated the violent aspects of the game to enhance its marketability. The League fathers sacrificed pretensions to upper-class conventions of sportsmanlike conduct- ‘classy’ behavior- in order to enhance marketability, and it worked, but it also left the game open to the accusation that it’s nothing but thuggery on skates.

That accusation has never entirely gone away, and I think that’s why some people cling so desperately still to the idea that people in hockey should behave in a classy fashion. In a game with so much aggression, so much violence, and so much danger, there’s always the shadow of evil lingering around things, the creeping fear that maybe this game is somehow really morally wrong, that maybe we shouldn’t be doing it. To balance out the moral compromises players and teams have to make on the ice, they overvalue a rigorous standard of good behavior off of it- so that we might all be assured that the bad shit that goes down is only a game, not a crime, not an assault. This is why fighters are often the most scrupulously classy guys off the ice- because it would be genuinely scary if they weren’t. To some extent, hockey people really do need this notion of classy behavior, if only so we can sleep soundly at night.

But it can go too far. Contemporary North American culture is still, in large part, defined by its puritanical roots, and nowhere is this clearer than in its rigorous intolerance for any of the dark, or even sort of dingy, parts of human nature. We are an evangelistic people, a self-help society, and we believe quite stridently that everyone is perfectable if only we can restrict and restrain them enough. There are everywhere movements to forbid, ban, shame, and discipline anything even slightly bad, and for the most part, we embrace these crusades. We accept restrictions on liquor and the prohibition of drugs, the censoring of profanity and sex, full-on bans on nearly every kind of aggressive behavior. We work in the most scrupulously courteous workplaces the world has ever known and go home to the most gentle and egalitarian households yet propagated. We live in an incredibly well-disciplined, well-behaved society. And yet, no matter how good and gentle we become, no matter how much close we get to the best angels of our nature, no matter how classy we all are, there is always someone demanding that it must go further yet, because we are not yet perfect.

Let me suggest something uncomfortable: we need to be bad. People need it individually and society needs it as a whole, and a culture that has no spaces for bad behavior is no culture worth living in. Not evil behavior, mind you, not flat-out immoral and unjustifiable crime, but simple badness. Wrongness, if you will. Inappropriateness. We need places and situations free of any obligation to virtue and the puritanical purification of our souls. We need opportunities for classlessness.

Hockey is one of those spaces, both on and off the ice. That’s its cultural job, the work it does for society as a whole: it’s a place to be bad. In the playing, it’s one of the few places people can still go to, voluntarily and consensually, experience risk, danger, aggression, and pain. In the watching, it’s a place people can go experience the madness of crowds.

The madness of crowds- the tendency of people to behave in exaggerated and wholly uncharacteristic ways when massed in large numbers- is a well-studied and oft-lamented psychological phenomenon. Generally, it’s considered a bad thing, and much of the research focuses on its most destructive elements: people in crowds will often behave more recklessly, aggressively, or cruelly than they would as individuals. Something about the mass of others dilutes responsibility and amps up the drama. The furthest extent of this is the riot, which is not a behavior of individuals, but something that only happens in crowds. And, indeed, many of the condemnations of the insensitive Habs fans invoked the specter of riots, as if to say that a crowd capable of cheering a cut chin is a crowd capable of anything.

Riots are, of course, a legitimate concern whenever a large mass of highly emotional people congregate, but they are certainly not a necessary result of all mass behavior, and to bring them up in this case obscures a different truth: there is a real joy in raucous, unabashedly partisan crowd-madness, when the circumstances are right and the feeling comes. Despite what some of the psych studies say, it’s not exactly an unconscious thing. You don’t choose it, true, but you know it’s happening, and usually you let it happen, because it is a rare and fantastic experience. You’re in a mass of people all feeling the same exact thing at the same exact moment, and that feeling overtakes you, magnified and multiplied a thousand times beyond the sort of feelings your own little heart can muster by itself, and yeah, sometimes it’s a little scary, because that is the point when you realize that you probably are capable of rioting under the right circumstances, but for the most part it’s wonderful. Losing oneself in a mob is as near as most of us will ever get to the sensation of the transcendence of the self. It’s a deep thing, it’s a very important human thing. But it’s not a nice thing.

The best live hockey watching experiences have a little bit of bacchanal in them, only with considerably less sex and considerably more chicken-dancing. People dress up and make signs, drink a lot and do crazy shit, uncharacteristic and embarrassing shit, like The Wave. They get loud, they yell and boo and heckle, and cheer and applaud and sing and scream. Take any one person from the crowd at a good hockey game and plunk them down in the middle of a board meeting or a coffee shop, behaving exactly as they are, and that person would seem at the very least like a total dick and probably like a raving lunatic. But at a game, it’s normal, because a game is the appropriate place for dickishness and lunacy. That’s what it’s there for.

So yeah, up in Montreal, at le Centre Bell, we’re not classy. We’re not laid-back, we’re not nice. We have no sense of perspective or proportion. We boo visiting players, we boo our own players, we boo the refs; hell, we’ll boo icings if we don’t like them. We weep over our own misfortunes and cheer those of our enemies. We scream and bray and heckle, we taunt opponents, we rattle the girders with our joy, our rage, and our endless recursions of ole ole ole. We behave badly, and we should not and will not apologize for it. Because hockey players and opposing fans are not (usually) children who need to have their tender, tender feelings wrapped up in gauze and flattery lest they be wounded by our jeering. Because Zdeno Chara isn’t just a big boy, he’s an enormous All-Star defenseman with more money than God and more ugly actions in his storied past than we’d care to count, and if he can’t take it, then he should stay the hell out of our barn. Because hockey games are for community first and victory second, and class doesn’t even enter into it until we pass out of those doors into the cold February night. Because this is one of the last places in the world we have to be wild and wrong, and we damn well better make the most of it.

We aren’t classy, and because we aren’t classy, our building rocks in October with an intensity most NHL arenas can’t even manage in the playoffs. Screw class. This is better.