Monday, 3 December 2007

Hockey: It's Fan-Tastic!

While hockey teams will never admit that they overlook the fans, hockey fans rarely get the thanks they deserve for lining the owner's and players' pockets with greenbacks. More often than not, teams will reward season ticket holders with some "exclusive deals" which amount to little more than a few hours of publicity. For the NHL, who relies on ticket sales as the largest component of its income, it's time to start paying attention to the fans a little more, and this blog entry will focus exclusively on the fan.

The image above is from Section 303, a section of fans from Nashville who claim to be the best NHL fans. That's a lofty title, but what other section of fans do you know that has their own website? Section 303 is proud to be the Predators' biggest fans, and every other teams' biggest pests.

However, they do it all in good fun. As their manifesto says, "we are trying to foster camaraderie with these chants. Nothing more than simply an 'us against them' mentality that makes sections like The Dawg Pound in Cleveland, The Bleacher Creatures at Yankee Stadium, The Cameron Crazies at Duke University, The Black Hole in Oakland fun for their fans, and frustrating for the fans of opposing teams."

Fittingly enough, the Nashville Predators have rewarded their loyal fans with some personal attention. "We have gotten a letter of appreciation from David Poile, kind notes/e-mails from Pete Weber, Terry Crisp, VP of Marketing Randy Campbell, Manager of Game Operations Bryan Shaffer, VP of Communications Gerry Helper, PA Announcers Jim Knott and Bill Cody, members of the Puck Patrol, etc. Heck, Craig Leipold has even come and given us the "I'm not worthy" bow a couple of times, and has publicly recognized our contributions when speaking to the crowd and in the media. The front office designed, printed, and hangs the Cellblock 303 banner above us before every game. We are humbled and honored by these gestures."

This is the kind of attention that the loyal fans cherish. It's these kinds of personal touches that make the bond between fan and team feel like something. No longer are you just cheering for an organization, but you're now part of the franchise. This is what makes a casual fan into a true fanatic.

In true fanatical form, Cellblock 303, a name the franchise gave them, decided to include even the most timid of fans: an 82 year-old woman named Eudora Hunter. Miss Hunter attended every game in section 303 with her son, Charles.

Mark Hollingsworth, one of the founding members of Cellblock 303, tells the tale of how Eudora transformed from quiet hockey fan into a media darling.

"'For the first two seasons, I would notice her there sitting like a statue, with this shy little grin in the midst of all our chaos,' recalls Hollingsworth. 'I kept thinking to myself 'what on earth can we do to get her involved'.

"Then it dawned on me that she could become our own Larry 'Bud' Melman. So, I asked Eudora one night if I gave her [sic] a silly sign, would she be willing to hold it up? Then I would have Tom, one of the roving in-house TV cameramen, come over and get a shot of her for the jumbotron.

"The first sign I gave her was Mike Watt Is a Hottie (he was a call-up from Milwaukee who had Tom Cruise-like good looks). When that image was shown on the big screen, the arena erupted into laughter. I knew we had something good going with this. So, every game I would come up with another silly saying for her to hold up stone-faced for the camera. Some of the most hilarious were:

- I let the dogs out.
- Fear the Mullet!
- If it wasn’t for hockey, I’d still be married.
- I be getting all up in yo grille!
- The more you disapprove, the more fun it is for me!
- Puttin’ on the foil, Coach!
- I like the cut of his jib!
- Chaos, panic, and work here is done.
- He looked a lot better in the chat room.'

"'Her popularity grew with each passing game. Kids would come up to get her autograph... it was great,' recalls Hollingsworth.

"Eventually, the Predator management even incorporated her into television spots, having her play the recurring role of a fictional version of Scott Hartnell’s grandma in the 'Smashville' campaign. Sadly, Eudora passed away in the fall of 2003. The section honored her empty seat the remainder of the season with flowers and momentos. Many attended her funeral. Even Predators front office staff paid respects at her internment."

Rest in peace, Miss Hunter. You're a hockey goddess now.

Honestly, this is what makes hockey games fun. Fans who are into the games and provide entertainment can make the most boring 1-0 game into an entertainment spectacle. I thoroughly salute the Nashville fans, particularly Cellblock 303. You guys know what it is to be true fans of your hockey team, and you are a great basis for what other teams' fans should look to when trying to create their own identity.

If you're a season ticket holder to a hockey team right now, make some noise at the next game. You might be surprised how contagious and fun it is.

Still No Takers: According to EPSN's Scott Burnside, Pittsburgh Penguins' GM Ray Shero has told goaltender Curtis Joseph that the Penguins are going to stick with their young tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Dany Sabourin for the time being. However, Pittsburgh currently sits at 22nd in goals against. That kind of goaltending isn't going to get the Penguins in the playoffs, especially in an ultra-competitive Atlantic Division.

Joseph, meanwhile, continues working out north of Toronto in the hopes that his stellar career isn't quite over. Personally, if Joseph was in playing shape, I'd bring him in. Sign him for a pro-rated contract at $800,000. The 39 year-old can't be any worse than either of Pittsburgh's struggling youngsters right now.

Statistically, Fleury is currently 7-8-1 this season with a 3.09 GAA and a .901 save percentage while Sabourin is 4-4-1 with a 2.38 GAA and a .913 save percentage. Joseph's career stats are 446-341-90-5 with a 2.78 GAA and a .907 save percentage. Bringing him in would not only be a boost for the confidence of the team in their goaltender, but possibly for the team's leadership, and may help squash a possible mutiny as well.

Rumblings out of the Pittsburgh dressing room suggest that several of the veteran players on the team are unhappy with head coach Michel Therrien's handling of the Mark Recchi situation. The Penguins are reportedly trying to move him, but several key players seem to think Recchi could still contribute. One of Recchi's biggest supporters is the Penguins unofficial leader, Gary Roberts, who signed an off-season deal based upon the Penguins re-signing Recchi for another year.

Only time will tell how this one plays out. Keep your ear to the ground on this one.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Sage Confucius said...

I will have to see about getting you some pictures of these guys. They are a lot of fun during games. I will go to the Vancouver game Thursday if I feel better. But I will definitely be at the Red Wings game on the 10th come hell or high water.

Bubba said...

Nice story and very interesting! More fans should do this.

Dear Lord Stanley said...

I've been to a few Nashville games, and as the fan of a visiting team (Colorado), I have to say that the people in 303 are easily the most annoying and offensive hockey fans in the league. I've never seen Islanders fans in real life, but I think 303 might just have them beat for sheer knuckle-draggery.

Every chant at a Predators game involves some variation of the phrase "you suck," which gets pretty old after the first time you hear it---during the pre-game warmups. It's just an onslaught of stupidity from then on out.

Granted, the Nashville fans seem to love it, and I highly doubt any of it is meant with any true maliciousness, but it reminds me much more of a southern US football game than a hockey game.

Teebz said...

I hear you, DLS, but it still speaks volumes about keeping fan morale high in a place where they nearly hit rock-bottom.

I've never been there, but I want to experience the Cellblock now. Maybe I'll plan a trip one day. :o)