With the NHL lockout in full swing, I find that I’m watching a lot more European hockey. It’s mostly highlights, plus the occasional streamed game when I can find the time. The Swedish Elite League, in particular, has a great site for highlights. One of the things I’ve noticed more than anything is the atmosphere inside the arenas. European hockey fans are loud, organized, and awesome.
In the background of every highlight package you can hear the fans singing, chanting, and clapping. Not applauding. Clapping. Videos of European hockey fans show them jumping up and down in unison, waving flags, throwing streamers, setting off smoke bombs, and just generally going crazy. Even if it’s only one section of the crowd, that one section is louder, rowdier, and more pumped-up than most arenas in the NHL.
There are certainly some arenas in the NHL that have a better atmosphere than others. The loudest arena I’ve been to has to be the home of the San Jose Sharks, the HP Pavilion, though it helps that I was there for one of the best games of the 2010-11 season, a 6-5 shootout victory for the Vancouver Canucks. It seemed like every time the Sharks got the puck, the building shook. And when something actually happened, it somehow managed to get louder.
Unfortunately, that’s not the norm. In general, North American hockey fans are content to sit and watch the action on the ice, only making noise as a response. As a result, the atmosphere in most arenas feels canned: I feel like I hear the same “Make some noi-oise!” cue in every single arena, whether NHL, AHL, or junior.
It seems like most hockey fans in North America are the type who want to watch the game more than they want to be part of an experience. Chants of “Go Team Go” start and then fizzle and particularly rowdy fans are often seen as more of a nuisance or a distraction. In certain environments, like the playoffs or international competition, North American fans get loud and wave flags (or playoffs towels), but in European hockey it’s the base level.
Personally, I would love to see that kind of fan culture invade NHL arenas, but I know it’s unlikely to happen. There are a number of reasons for the difference in fan behaviour between North America and Europe.
First off, hockey fans in Europe borrow a lot of their behaviour from soccer. The songs, the chants, the jumping in unison: they all originate with soccer fans. Hearing an entire soccer stadium singing the same song in unison is incredible. Soccer fans, or at the very least the diehards, are constantly making some sort of noise. The argument can be made that since soccer is a slower-paced sport that there’s more time to fill in soccer, leading to the need for these kinds of actions to keep things interesting, but when those same actions migrate seamlessly into European hockey arenas, it doesn’t hold up.
North American hockey fans, on the other hand, seem to borrow a lot of their behaviour from baseball. The two sports couldn’t be more dissimilar, but the fans often behave the same way. Plenty of quiet, civilized sitting until something of interest occurs, at which point fans jump up and cheer before sitting back down and getting back to hot dogs and beer. Baseball fans will boo when an opposing player they dislike goes up to bat, just like hockey fans might cheer whenever an opposing player they dislike touches the puck, but, for the most part, noise is for when something of interest takes place like a run (goal), a hit (hit), or a nice defensive play (some hockey fans will cheer a nice defensive play).
The second issue is ticket prices. Not to stereotype, but in general, the louder and more boisterous fans are blue collar types, while the white collar types tend to be more reserved. That isn’t to say that the blue collar fans are more dedicated or excited about their team than the white collar fans, but that they express that in different ways. In most arenas, blue collar fans are priced out of the lower bowl or may only be able to attend a few games per year.
In general, the type of fan traditions – chants, songs, and dances – that are so prevalent in European hockey depend on a core group of fans going to every game. It’s certainly possible for that to happen in North America. You can look at Major League Soccer for examples. For instance, the Vancouver Whitecaps have the Southsiders and the Seattle Sounders have the Emerald City Supporters. Tickets in the Southsiders section in Vancouver range from $20 to $31 for single tickets. Season tickets are under $200 for students and around $350 to $450 for adults. Single game tickets for the Canucks are, at minimum, $50, with little chance of actually getting them at face value. Season tickets start at about $2000.
Obviously, some arenas will be cheaper than that, but it underlines the difficulty in bringing in boisterous hockey fans on a regular basis. When the soccer team next door is bringing in a bunch of rowdy university students at under $200 for season tickets and the hockey team is charging 10x that amount, albeit for more games, it’s difficult to create the same type of atmosphere.
Thirdly, there is the design of the arenas. Many European arenas have sections that are standing room only. Perhaps, when you can’t sit down, you’re more likely to participate in cheering along with whatever crowd you are in. When you have the option of sitting, you take that option. Even if you want to remain standing, when everyone around you and, in particular, behind you sits down, you’ll generally sit down as well, if only to be polite. Remove that option with a section designed explicitly for standing with, perhaps, cheaper tickets and a loud cheering section might fill that area.
This just wouldn’t happen in most NHL arenas, as they’re designed to squeeze in as many seats as possible to wring as much ticket revenue as possible. The one arena where it might work is Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the Islanders will be moving in the near future. The arena isn’t designed for hockey, leading to some odd seating arrangements that will limit attendance to 14,500-15,000.
What if, then, some of those unusable seating areas were converted to low-price stands marketed to diehard Islanders fans to create a European-style cheering section? The Islanders need something to drum up fan excitement and it might be worth a shot. The Islanders already have the Blue and Orange Army aiming for exactly this type of atmosphere, complete with songs and chants. Encouraging that group with a section kitted out explicitly for them would be an interesting experiment.
The question, ultimately, is whether the atmosphere in NHL arenas is a problem. While I’m sure the players would love to play in louder arenas, I’m guessing that not every hockey fan has a problem with a quieter arena experience. There are likely some fans that would much prefer to attend games without a bunch of rowdy young people jumping up and down while chanting and singing around them. It might come down to ticket price again: if you pay $150 to see an NHL game, you likely want to actually focus on the game and not chance someone with a flag in front of you obscuring some of the action.
So what do you think? Would you want this type of atmosphere in the NHL? Do you think it’s even possible?