The exploits of the fan are sadly underrepresented in hockey history. Although there are many more fans than players, although it is their money, their attention, and their presence that keeps the show going, fans are nevertheless the least-studied population in the game. We have hundreds of books devoted to professional players, dozens more on amateurs, coaches, GMs, and owners, but in all of these the fans are seldom anything more than spectators who pay passive tribute to the individuals who really matter. Sportswriting, perhaps by nature, perhaps by choice, is the last subgenre of history where the ‘Great Man’ theory is alive and well, where the study of individual careers is considered more important than the study of movements. This needs to change. True, the fans are not the show, but socially speaking, culturally speaking, they’re more important than the show. They’re the reason for the show.
Moreover, it’s not as though there’s nothing to write about. Hockey fans have a long and storied history of their own. Unfortunately, it’s kind of an awful, ignominious history. Not because fans have never done anything good- we all know intuitively that they do lots of cheering teams and celebrating records and other virtuous things- but because nobody records stories of fans behaving nicely. Like peasants, fans are most interesting when they are most unruly, and so the annals of hockey are full of tales in which fans break the boundaries of good taste and, occasionally, the law.
For purposes of this article, which aims to provide a general history of hockey fan malfeasance, spectator misbehavior may be loosely broken down into three main phases: the Throwing Era, the Age of Fisticuffs, and the Beer Decline. Although there is some overlap between the three (incidents of things thrown in the 60s, the rare fan-player fight in the 2000s), these phases reveal not only of the increasing safety of hockey games over the twentieth century, but also the shifting relationships between cities, franchises, and the League. In other words, by looking at fan behavior, we can see both changes in social mores and changes in power structure, and simultaneously gain a whole new level of respect for/fear of our grandparents, who were some seriously violent spectators in their day.
1910-1955: The Throwing Era
If there is one thing you can say conclusively about early hockey fans, it is that they liked to throw shit. It started out small- Senators fans pitched “oranges and lemons” at Cyclone Taylor during a game in 1910, which seems like a terrible waste of citrus, especially during a Canadian winter when you really need your vitamin C- but rapidly escalated to more dangerous projectiles. Pennies were popular and surprisingly risky, since they could disappear into the dark grey ice until skated into by some hapless player. Being readily at hand, bottles and flasks were also quite common. In 1917, a game in Montreal between the Canadiens and the Toronto Hockey Club had to be canceled because of fans throwing chairs at the visiting team.
However, while Canadian fans may be credited with the invention of throwing-shit-at-hockey-players, it was American fans who really elevated it to an art form. Boston fans, in particular, were known for their especially varied and lethal selection of projectiles, including not just the standard garbage/fruit/bottles, but also pipes, scrap metal, chunks of lead and concrete, and the occasional firecracker. Frank Calder, then-President of the NHL and all-around smart dude, wore a hard hat when attending playoff games at the Boston Garden.
Because glass was not mandatory in arenas until 1965, it was also possible for fans to intervene directly in games. Visiting players battling against the boards were apt to find themselves clutched and grabbed not just by their opponents, but by the spectators as well, who would snatch at jerseys and limbs in the hopes of making some extra space for their guys. Fans were especially fond of stealing sticks and throwing them across the ice, sometimes resulting in goals, often resulting in cross-board fights.
From a modern standpoint, we’re apt to be shocked by how dangerous all of this is, but what is more interesting about this era is how enthusiastically supportive franchises and media were of fan disruptions. Management, tacitly and sometimes even explicitly, encouraged the hometown crowd to pelt visiting teams with garbage and construction debris. Some GMs- Art Ross in Boston, Jack Adams in Detroit- deliberately cultivated a mob mentality at their games, and even the Leafs and Canadiens took a hilariously hands-off approach, as though they could not possibly be expected to control the behavior of their own audiences- fans be crazy, man, what do you expect us to do? Local newspapers, rather than preaching the gospel of classy behavior, would fill their pre-game columns with accounts of the horrible, horrible things the visiting team had done to the hometown boys last away game. The crowd’s aggression wasn’t treated like a danger or an embarrassment so much as an element of gamesmanship, an intimidation tactic on par with stick-swinging and general goonery.
Throughout this era, fan disruptions created trouble for the League. Police intervention in games was almost routine, and it was hardly rare for players, fans, and even management to face the occasional night in jail. However, as with most things in hockey, it took a sequence of strange and disturbing events in quick succession to force a real change in the way franchises approached fan behavior. The 1954-5 season was host to a series of ugly incidents involving spectators. In November, Ted Lindsay and Glen Skov of the Red Wings got into a fistfight with a fan and were nearly arrested; it was only the fan’s refusal to press charges that saved the situation. But only two months later, in January, a fan stole Gordie Howe’s stick and tried to beat him with it, provoking Lindsay into yet another retaliation, more police intervention, and the game being called off. The next month, at a game in Montreal, a fan created minor havoc by climbing up to the Forum rafters and dropping four extra pucks onto the ice. A month after that, also in Montreal, fans were so dissatisfied with defensive play in a 0-0 tie that they covered the ice with garbage. And, finally, exactly one week later, fan dissatisfaction in the same city again erupted in a fit of thrown garbage and tear gas, and this time, rather than remaining confined within the arena, the violence spilled into the streets- the Richard Riot.
1955-1980: The Age of Fisticuffs
I haven’t been able to find out exactly what League policies on arena security were instituted when, but it seems quite clear that after the riot, hockey teams’ attitudes towards fan behavior changed dramatically. Arenas began to employ private security personnel as well as police, stricter policies on outside projectiles were enforced, ejections came swiftly and surely to any disruptive spectator. In 1965, glass was made mandatory in all arenas, ending once and for all the ability of fans to directly intervene in a game. Over the course of the 60s, the established methods of fan antagonism are wholly taken away, and a new sort of conflict emerges.
In the 1970s, the locus of fan/player combat shifts decisively to the visiting team’s bench. In previous years, fans did get into fistfights with players, but these seem to have happened mostly as aftereffects of fans’ attempts to intervene in the game itself- the aforementioned clutching and grabbing. There are few recorded incidents of players leaving the bench to fight fans, or fans entering the bench to fight players before the 60s. And yet, by the 1970s, players are routinely breaking the metaphorical fourth wall to confront hecklers directly. Possibly this reflects a more combative player population, but probably it has more to do with increased security: a fan in 1973 is much less likely to have a length of pipe concealed in his pants than a fan in 1933 was, and therefore the player’s odds of winning a fight are significantly higher- particularly if the team enters the stands in numbers, as seems to have been customary.
Whereas in the Throwing Era, the issue was protecting players from fans, in the Age of Fisticuffs, the concern is protecting fans from players. Games are televised now, and the optics of a fan-player fight in the stands are terrible for the League, because no matter how much of a douche the fan was, players pummeling spectators is an ugly clip that’s sure to make the non-hockey evening news. It’s one thing to market hockey with on-ice violence, which can be packaged as controlled and consensual. It’s much harder to make a brawl in the stands look ‘clean’.
However, yet again, it took a single culminating incident to force League action. In this case, it was a game between the Bruins and the Rangers in New York. A group of fans were able to lean over the glass, hit one of the Bruins with a program and steal a stick from another. Several Bruins climbed into the stands to retaliate, and the philosopher Milbury famously beat a fan with his own shoe. The League subsequently mandated that, by the beginning of the following season, all arenas put higher glass in place, sufficient to constitute an insurmountable barrier between bench and stands.
1980-Present: The Beer Decline
With the institution of the high glass and the yet-again-increased stadium security, the segregation between players and spectators has become almost complete. Since 1980, there have been almost no incidents of direct fan-player contact, except for those involving some kind of Plexiglass malfunction, such as the often-replayed Tie Domi clip of 2001. There have been attempts to climb the glass, but few have been successful, as stadium security is invariably quick to respond to anyone, fan or player, making such an endeavor.
In this climate, there are only two weapons that remain available to the malcontented fan: the boo and the beverage. Deprived of both projectiles and punches, fans resort to dumping their beer, and, if they’re really angry, throwing the cup afterwards. Nearly every incident of fan ‘violence’ since 1980 has been beer-themed: Glen Sather got soaked in 1980, Duane Sutter in ‘84, the Canucks in ’86, the Flames in 96. Beer cups littered the ice in 1993- a rare throwback to the Golden Age of throwing shit- and, in 2004, a beer-cup throwing incident was part of the lead-in to the far more infamous Bertuzzi incident.
The fans can’t really intimidate the players anymore. Most would never even contemplate trying. The worst the modern fan can aspire to, at the highest peak of drunken rage, is to make a hated opponent sad and possibly sticky.
The overwhelming trend, then, in attitude of teams towards their fans, is increasing control, restriction, and pacification, a trajectory that (as mentioned before) is more or less the trajectory of modern North American society in every area. However, the shifting treatment of fan misbehavior also reveals the major shift the power structure of the NHL over the past century. In the early days, franchises’ interests were closely tied to their home city, and as such teams made common cause with the local fanbase and the local media against opponents. If their building was hostile and dangerous for visitors, so much the better- it whipped up attention to and enthusiasm for the team, and every now and then might provide a bit of an edge on the scoreboard. NHL attempts at enforcement of unified security policies and facilities-construction standards in the first half of the twentieth century often met with passive indifference from teams, or even outright rejection. Art Ross couldn’t even be bothered to help Conn Smythe get out of jail, much less try to make the Boston Garden safe for the Leafs to visit.
Over time, though, as more and more of the money in hockey shifts to corporate sponsorships and media distribution deals, as the NHL becomes more and more powerful, franchise allegiances shift away from the locality and towards the central institution. Owners begin to consider their interest as more closely aligned with that of other owners and the League, and are correspondingly more eager to adopt unified policies that favor the comfort of other teams and the consistency of the game-viewing experience across arenas. They become sensitive to bad publicity and wary of any sort of disruption. In 1933, the NHL can’t even compel the Leafs to paint a goal crease on their ice, because the Leafs don’t feel it’s in their interest to make goaltender interference penalties easier to call. By 1980, the NHL can command all its franchises to install new glass in their arenas, and within a single off-season, the thing is done. Team’s desire and ability to control and discipline fan behavior increase in direct proportion to the concentration of power in the central offices.
Sources: The background research for this post was extensive, so I’m going to throw up a chronology of fan misbehavior on my own site, with sourcing for the individual events. Link to be added later today.