… 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.

Comments (23)

  1. Love it! So true.

    Situation reversed: In TD Garden, Lucic sends a slap shot hitting Subban square in the face. He goes down, blood on the ice. Bullshit if anyone says the Bruins fans aren’t on their feet cheering.

  2. really great stuff

  3. “WE,” huh? OK, now I get it. Seems like a lot of words to say “we Montreal fans are idiots who cheer blood on the ice but call the police when one of our guys gets hurt.”

    • There’s a massive difference between an accidental puck to the face and an intentional attempt to injure. People watching that game, such as myself, thought Pacioretty might have been dead. The best I could hope for with Chara was a broken nose.

      And you’re kidding yourself if you think Boston fans don’t cheer when opposing players are hit from behind, hit to the head, severely pummeled, or even, dare I say it, if an opposing player takes a puck to the face.

  4. Bunk. Sorry but the building always rocked long before the low brow fan came to dominate the seats and cheer for injuries or boo Gomez. Bunk. And classless fans will eventually lead to a classless organization and yet so many are upset with the bumbling PR nightmare moves that have punctuated this past season. Loud and proud has never depended on bloodthirsty, stupid and boorish.

    • Clearly you missed the part of the article where it states that low brow (or middle/working class) people have always been attracted to, played and watch hockey.

  5. If we, as fans, can’t carry ourselves with dignity, respect, and class, then how can we expect the players on the ice to exhibit sportsmanship and integrity?

    The question applies from all levels of hockey, from 5 year old kids on the ice with a dad screaming to “kill the goalie”, up to the NHL.

  6. Two of the above comments rely upon the ‘slippery slope’ justification- that if we tolerate classless behavior in fans, then eventually it’s going to lead to classless players and classless organizations and, essentially, the decline and fall of hockey. A couple of thoughts in response:

    1) Hockey fans are not less classy now than they were in the past. The annals of the game are full of crowds and individual fans who behaved far more viciously, crudely, and horrifically than cheering a puck to the face, and it hasn’t ruined the game yet. If you think the sport needs to become more classy than ever before and reforming fan behavior is part of that, then make that argument. But don’t feed me some kind of ‘decline’ narrative unless you’ve got a lot of evidence to back it up, because I have a lot of evidence says it ain’t so.

    2) Part of being an responsible adult is learning situation-appropriate behavior. I swear all the time in front of my friends; I’m perfectly capable of not doing so in front of young children. I talk about things with my family that I’d never talk about at work. And I do things as part of a crowd at an NHL game that I wouldn’t do in my own hockey or watching a kids’ game. Asserting that people need to behave the exact same way in every situation is both draconian and paternalistic. We contain multitudes already and deploy them at different times; this situation is no different.

    And yes, I say ‘we’ when talking about Habs fans, because I am one. But I would stand by any other fan base’s right to behave the same way, and I find it frankly disappointing that so few do.

    • I would argue that the key thing, though, isn’t allowing our present to reflect our past, but instead that we should expect our future to be better than our present.

      I don’t care if fans 2000 years ago cheered when a lion ate a guy. I just hope that the next time a Canadian gets hurt in Boston, or a Bruin gets hurts in Montreal, that the fans would hold themselves better than they did the last time.

      Thank you for the feedback.

      • I don’t think you got the point of ”the mass” in this article…
        Having a certain behavior when you attend a game is different than having a certain behavior when you actually play the game, so you can’t link both behaviors together in professional hockey.
        Your question certainly applies to 5 year old games, but not the NHL.
        There’s a difference between a 5 year old game, where you might not even be conscious of what hockey is and a NHL hockey game, where all the players are adults, and are completly conscious of what they are doing on the ice.
        In 5 year old games, the fans are the parents, in the NHL, fans are everyone.

        Your question, I’m afraid, doesn’t apply to all level of hockey.

        We can carry ourselves with dignity, class and respect, but sometimes when it gets heated it get heated.

  7. We’re becoming too focused on how “classy” we need to be as sports fans. Just because a person cheers a player getting a puck to the face doesn’t mean that person will cheer if someone on the street gets hit by a rock. Humanity will not devolve based on how fans watch a hockey game.

    All you can control is how you yourself behave during the game, so if you don’t want to cheer when an opponent goes down that’s perfectly fine and admirable. But getting righteous and telling other fans how to behave and watch the game will only frustrate both sides. Trying to fit a multitude of different personalities into one perfect fanbase won’t work and shouldn’t be the focus.

  8. I don’t think you got the point of ”the mass” in this article…
    Having a certain behavior when you attend a game is different than having a certain behavior when you actually play the game, so you can’t link both behaviors together in professional hockey.
    Your question certainly applies to 5 year old games, but not the NHL.
    There’s a difference between a 5 year old game, where you might not even be conscious of what hockey is and a NHL hockey game, where all the players are adults, and are completly conscious of what they are doing on the ice.
    In 5 year old games, the fans are the parents, in the NHL, fans are everyone.

    Your question, I’m afraid, doesn’t apply to all level of hockey.

    We can carry ourselves with dignity, class and respect, but sometimes when it gets heated it get heated.

  9. mouhahahah cry me river Bruins fans!!!!!!

  10. In case some of you don’t know, WE Devils fans have a tradition as part of our goal celebration. Our goal song is Rock & Roll Part 2, and after shouting ‘Hey!’ we follow it with a resounding ‘You Suck!’

    Obviously this is a little different than fans cheering an injury to a reviled opponent, but over at the Devils forum on SBN we had a debate over the ‘classiness’ of this practice and whether or not the fans had an obligation to be a little more respectful of the visiting team. They are, after all, an NHL club.

    I still don’t know, after reading the compelling arguments, what the correct action should be. However I think there’s something to be said for galvanizing a fan base. The teams play the game for the enjoyment of their fans. The fans, in general, want to see their team win hockey games, and the players try their best to fulfill that desire.

    That said, if the fans desire blood, should the players give it to them? Does that make the players barbaric? The fans? Both? Is this really what fans want? I think there are still a lot of interesting questions on ‘Crowd Mentality’ that apply here.

    And just to be clear, I wholly agree that fan behavior at an NHL game is not indicative of someone’s personality outside of that event. If European society was modeled after what goes on at a football match, for example, we would be in a lot of trouble.

  11. Good piece Ellen, and well thought out.

    If anything is regrettable, however, it’s not a lack of class, it’s a lack of nobility. It’s fine to hate your enemy as long as you love them for being an enemy worth having. But there is a difference between hate and contempt. Hating a rival is good for the soul, as long as that hate is founded on respect. Cheering a random puck-to-the-grill, however, smacks of contempt, which is ultimately poisonous, because contempt of one’s enemy quickly becomes contempt of oneself when, for example, you lose in a shootout.

    So, in short, my criticism of Habs fans: learn to hate again and leave the contempt behind. If you cheer for Chara getting hit in the face, cheer harder when he gets up, because at least he is an enemy worth having.

    • If anything, Chara got more boos/cheers because he’s Chara. Random Florida Panther 6th Dman isn’t gonna get that same reaction because the crowd is indifferent to him. With Chara, the habs fans might cheer when he gets hurt but they also recognize that he’s a talented opponent, a major blockage in their attempts to win the game. It’s like that saying, the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. Chara should take it as a bit of a compliment, habs fans cheering when he gets a cut is an indication that he’s worth getting worked up over.

      If they cheer when he goes down and has to go off on a stretcher, that’s one thing, that’s contempt like you said. Cheering because he got a cut in the face is different, it’s part of hockey and it’s happened to most everyone who’s played without a cage. I don’t see that as contempt at all, he’s recovered almost immediately, and he was the same Chara last night as he was before. I don’t know if habs fans respect Chara, but there are few who would argue that he’s not an all-star/top 5 D in the league, at least none worth listening to, but that’s something….

  12. Don’t expect compassion when you broke someone’s neck in the same building.

  13. I’m late to the discussion on this – but I loved this article.

    Minnesota Wild fans got their hands slapped by various blog writers when we cheered after an official got hit with a puck (Feb 14, 2012). Comments on Twitter included things such as “You’re better than than Minnesota.” Apparently we’re not “better than that” and I don’t feel obligated to say we’re sorry about cheering. This was a way that fans could express their frustration with the on ice officials after several missed calls. Some called it karma. Whatever it was – it was satisfying!

  14. E,

    Your piece over at the The Theory entitled “When I Lost My Mind” was one of the first blog posts I ever read. I loved it and followed a bunch of your pieces over there for a while. When I read this, admittedly the first piece of yours on this site that I’ve read past the break, I knew I recognized the tone and style from somewhere but couldn’t place it. It took you getting retweeted by @mlse for me to put the pieces together. Glad to have your thoughtful, well composed writing back.
    -Cheers

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