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The Lackluster NHL Crowds

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The NHL is often regarded as the greatest hockey league in the world and for good reason. The players and show are beyond anything else and it’s spectacular to watch. However as good as the NHL is, it has some major problems when it comes to catering for the fans and making the NHL even better. Some of the issues come from the team itself, while others come from the league and its stubborn nature towards progressive changes for the betterment of the product. And in some cases, the solution can be found by looking at the European hockey scene.

Before I start going into detail with this article, I’m going to stress and disclaim that I’m not taking a shot at North American hockey fans. I’m neither questioning your passion for the game since I know how great it is and how much you guys care for the game. For me, hockey fans from the US and Canada have some of the craziest and passionate fans on the planet. However, what I’m questioning is the lack of life from the crowds in games during NHL games when compared to the European scene. Its observations and guesses as to how the NHL potentially could end up with more European-like crowds during their games.

The Atmosphere

While the NHL is the greatest league in hockey in terms of its product on the ice, it’s far from the best in one key area. The atmosphere at the games. It’s far from the standards in Europe, where the word supporter really makes sense. It’s loud, rowdy, and filled with chants in most of the European Leagues.

Photo by Dinur Blum

Especially in Sweden and Germany, it’s a special feeling to go to a game. The supporters have banners (tifos), flags, and drums to direct the chants to make it happen in loud and powerful unison during games. Home-ice advantage truly becomes a factor with fans doing all to affect the calls from the refs and scare the opponent to make mistakes.

In the NHL it’s far more passive and quieter. It’s a library compared to Europe, and it seems to be fans watching rather than supports. You’re lucky if you hear more than the odd “Let’s go “Insert team name” Let’s go” or the sometimes very valid “Ref you suck” on NHL nights. The closest this season was the New York Islanders fans in the playoff, and even that pales when compared to the European fans.

Swedish Journalist Jonathan Ekeliw from Sportsbladet in Sweden has described the difference between the SHL and NHL the following way: “(At an NHL game), you eat, you talk, you watch a little bit, and then you get a beer, you come back. (In Sweden), you have whole sections where people stand up and they have cheers. It can be a thousand people, and everyone knows the chants.” The difference is massive and it’s one point where the NHL truly could learn a lot from the European leagues.

The Fan Section:

As mentioned by Ekeliw in his statement in the previous part, the supporters in European hockey tend to be in a specific section of the arena. Usually, behind the net, they are attacking twice during the game, to apply the most pressure on the other team’s netminder. Even away fans bunch together to support their team on the other side of the reason and use the same means as the home side to create an astonishing atmosphere.

This gives scenes with flags and banners, with songs in unison are happing from both sides of the ice, and it gives absolutely world-class setting for a hockey game. This only happens because of the supporter sections where it’s for those who are able and willing to sing, yell and jump throughout the game. These sections also tend to be cheaper since the visibility of the game can be disrupted due to flags or people standing.

The argument against the support sections, especially in North America has always been that it’s going to be frustrating to not be able to see the game properly and that it takes away from those who want to enjoy the sport in full, without being interrupted. People who come for the sport itself could miss out if fans were allowed to do this.

These arguments are very valid and make a ton of sense, however, they do have a few flaws and are problems that are very easy to solve. The first thing is making sure that it’s only a small part of the arena where these support sections can be found. One for home fans and one for away fans. The rest would be for the fans who might want to enjoy the game while mostly seated. Something that should be fully respected.

Another argument against is that it could encourage something similar to hooliganism which has especially been seen in European sport back in the 80s and 90s especially. While it is true that having active support groups like in Europe can mean that people will create fighting the current NHL system of mixing the fans and away fans also creates issues and fights between individuals.

In the Eastern Conference Final game seven, an Islanders fan and Lightning fan had a fight in the middle of the stands around kids and families, which isn’t ideal either. By putting them as far away from each other in different ends of the ice, in a home and away section, you at least keep them apart.

No solution can fully prevent fighting, but the benefits from making 10% of the arena a home support section and 5% an away end create magic for the European games and really brings the noise and overall feel of the games to another level. Even for those who mostly come to watch the action on the ice.

Chanting

What fan sections also give is far more creativity from the fans. The New York Saints chant from the Islanders win against Boston, made headlines in America and was quite brilliant and creative. However, it’s rare to see chants like that in North America and it’s a shame because creative chants make a game and series more memorable.

Remember Gloria and the St. Louis Blues during their cup run? It was great, but it sadly was just a karaoke song. The idea of that turn into more than just a song is something that could be great and give it a renewed life. The chorus works brilliantly as a chant for a player or for the Blues itself. However because of the lack of a section for the fans who are able and willing to come up with and sing those chants it never really happens.

It’s the same old repetitive melody for chants for every chant in North America. Always the three-note song for chants in North America and if you don’t believe me, just try and go through the more noticeable ones: New York Saints, Ref, You Suck!, Let’s Go Wild/Jets/Pens, or whatever other team in question. It’s all the same and it becomes very samey fast. A new melody like Gloria for a chant would be great but its something that hard without the fan sections

In Europe chants of very different melody and pace happen every game, for both the team, players, and against the other teams. There are some that will always be sung in games, usually, the team supporting songs and a few that more limited in use due to it involving a certain rival team. However, it brings life to games and those chants make the fans become a part of the games more so since they consistently are showing the players that they care and are cheering them on.

These chants tend to vary a lot in flow and pace, while having vastly different melodies, and to be able to make sure the fans are on the same wavelength in the fan section two people are needed. A Capo or conductor who is dictating which songs are being sung and when and a drummer who controls the tempo and makes it easier to follow the rhythm for the fans. In the NHL you cant bring a drummer or Capo, so it has to happen spontaneously and that is a lot hard than when it’s being conducted by a larger group of fans.

Conclusion:

To end it all the solution for how to bring some more European-like into NHL games would be to make a minor fan section for both home and away fans, where drums, flags, standing, and singing are allowed. This would greatly improve the quality for the viewers and drastically bring more of a feeling to having home-ice advantage. This only needs to be a small percentage of the arena, since you also still want to give the fans who come to watch the game for the hockey on the ice should be able to do so.

Having a fan section would allow for a better atmosphere during games and chants of higher quality and give a chance for fans to feel more involved in the game. It also would give each team a chance to bring some more uniqueness to the team via the fans, which could eventually bring in free agents who wish to try and play for a certain set of fans due to their support during games from the fan section.

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