"If there's no fans, there's no game, right?"
That quote came from Louis Leblanc during a recent interview, and made me think about the relationship between the clubs, players, and fans on an international level.
In Europe in general, and Germany in particular, a loud audience is instrumental to the whole fan experience. No matter the sport. German teams have the best fans (as many scouts, friends, and visiting clubs have attested), even though the quality of the hockey doesn't merit such passion.
On a trip through Europe in December, I started to pay more attention to the different fans in the stands and the relationship they have with the clubs, players, and opposing fans.
There have been issues with clashes in the crowd in the past, especially in Sweden, believe it or not. The rivalry between Djurgården and AIK in Stockholm is nothing but fierce, and if there is one game that the football fans tail (the troublemakers are called "tail" in Sweden) would attend, it would have been that one. The teams have worked hard to eliminate the hostility, and things have calmed down enormously. It helps that those two teams are no longer in the same tier, and therefore not in direct competition with one another.
In other rivalry games, like Leksand versus either Mora or Brynäs, Frölunda versus Färjestad, and Rögle versus Malmö, you can go to the game without any problems at all. Unfortunately, one of the closest rivalries in Sweden has been on hold for a number of years as Björklöven is in a constant rebuild while Skellefteå sits on top of the Swedish hockey throne.
In Czech Republic, the potential fan problems occur in lower-tier leagues, relating more to a socio-economic factors with fans objecting to being priced out in the Extraliga. The KHL has strict rules in regards to both home and away fans, but it has kept the atmosphere of the old within the newly minted league.
The European sports audience obviously has its roots in football, and many football clubs are paired with a hockey team under the same brand. More often than not in today's world, the two clubs are split entities, but the fanbase for both is the same.
As mentioned, this was a contributing factor when AIK and Djurgården fans created problems in the top hockey tier (then called Elitserien, now the SHL). There used to be an intense rivalry between Djurgården and Färjestad as they met in countless finals in a row, with Håkan Loob in Färjestad (and a former Calgary Flame) getting called a lot of derogatory terms from the Djurgården fans. Clubs, and fans themselves, have righted this situation, and hockey in Stockholm on a rivalry night is one of the best experiences you can have (and I say that as a fan from Gothenburg).
How has the situation improved in a closed arena, with little to no police presence? It's a a compliment to the fans, clubs and the limited but critical work by the police that makes it all work. The experience for casual fans is improved, while the sound level is usually high and the intensity on the ice is amplified via the reaction of the crowd, benefitting fans and players, though probably aging the coaches as it becomes a skate, hit and chase game as the players try to elicit a response from the audience.
Many arenas in Europe also provide an away section, fueling the rivalry more and creating an even more intense setting for the game. One of the best away sections in the SHL is the one at Växjö, situated down behind the goal. It's a small but extremely good section where fans are close to the ice, feeding off the play, and inspiring the visitors. Interestingly enough, the away-fan tickets are cheaper than those for the home sections — 100 SEK for away fans versus the 175 SEK for Växjö fans — as the ownership group believes the heightened experience offered by the visiting crowd is worth the loss of a few kronor.
Section "P" for the away fans at Växjö Lakers' arena. The away fans has a clearly defined section in Jönköping (HV71), also section "P"
Frölunda, as an example, uses spotlights in the last five minutes before the game to highlight the two fan sections and have them build up the excitement of the crowd, as seen from this picture I took in Scandinavium.
In the premiership, many of the local football fans have been priced out from the arena in order to make more money for the owners. Stadiums like the Emirates (Arsenal), Stamford Bridge (Chelsea) and Old Trafford (Manchester United) have gone quiet compared to the in-house atmosphere of the 90s. This is something that many hockey clubs look at in trepidation, weary of losing that home-field advantage.
In Germany, fans stand and chant throughout the game (fueled in no short amount by the steady flow of beer at the arena). The visitors' section is usually without seats in order to create a close-knit standing crowd (and doubtless to pack a few more people in to make up for the cheaper ticket price).
Mr. Milan Vajda of the KHL's Slovan Bratislava told me that the fans and club had negotiated to move their standing fan section to behind the home goal, as the stage for other events is located at that end, and they wouldn't have to mount and dismount the seats for every hockey game. While the fans weren't happy about this, they did see the logic behind the suggestion, and accepted it.
The cheaper price of the tickets for football matches usually means that the troublesome fans end up there, as a ticket for a hockey game is usually is at least twice the money. The fact that hockey is played inside an arena makes it more difficult to hide behind a scarf or a balaclava to avoid being recognized, and that seems to have stopped the ultras from getting into the hockey arenas regularly.
I have limited experience of the fan experience at an NHL game: a mid-season contest in the Bell Centre against a struggling Florida Panthers team a few years ago. While the game went to overtime, with a game-winner from Alex Galchenyuk, I felt the arena was silent.
In the same way I can barely hear and see the fans in the television coverage on an NHL game, it is my experience that the loudest non-goal celebration in an NHL rink is during the national anthem. Many cities have their own spin on the anthem, changing a word to suit the city in question: Dallas with "star", Winnipeg with "True North," Florida and Washington both shouting "red!," etc. Visiting fan sections do not exist. Fandom seems to be more of an individualistic exercise in North American sports, especially with personal signs, something we don't have on this side of the Atlantic.
The only time you really read about fans in North America is when teams try to block fans of the visiting team from getting into the building. The Tampa Bay Lightning limited internet sales of tickets to Florida residents on a zip-code basis. This setup was able to be circumvented by calling the ticket office directly, as Achariya explains, but wouldn't it make it easier for the club to say "tickets in these specific sections are for away fans only," a system that has worked in Europe for years. By doing that, you can avoid the situation that happened in Montreal with the Ottawa Senators in town for last season's playoff series, when a female Ottawa fan was accosted in the Bell Centre stands (the stupidity of the home fan in this case is inexcusable).
The NHL and the other major sports have had a more controlled effort to try to fill up the empty space when play is dead, like organ music, kiss cams, etc., and some of those things are slowly making their way over to Europe. It seems to a foreign observer that the North American clubs try to entertain the crowd, whereas the clubs in Europe work by having the crowd doing the entertaining to draw everyone in and give the team some extra energy.
Could visitors' sections be something that the NHL would be interested in exploring? Getting more people involved in the game would probably lead to more ticket sales, as it would make an arena a more fun place to go.
One of the big ideas to increase interest in the NHL from the last couple of years is the "Rivalry Night" on NBC. It is artificial at best, and some rivalries are not really good rivalries but rather artificial stories based on a single confrontation, contrary to rivalries from the Original Six and heated meetings that have sprung from close, intense playoff series — like Colorado vs. Detroit in the late 90s — and what seems to be happening with Montreal vs. Ottawa now (even if most Canadiens fans don't like to admit it).
Part of the atmosphere in a rivalry is the away fans; crowd members that are the things that the home side doesn't appreciate creates an atmosphere that gets the casual fans in the home crowd going. In Europe, the away fans are embraced, partly for the atmosphere they bring, partly because most teams have a home fan section that would be much larger and more often than not drown out the sounds from the away fans when necessary. Wouldn't the NHL teams be better off embracing the away fans?
I realize the distances of the league is crazy compared to a league in a smaller European country. In that respect, most NHL games are similar to an away game in the Champions Hockey League or the KHL; a continental league. It becomes something of once-a-year trip to a new place for a fan to enjoy, but that should make it even easier to control from a ticket standpoint.
In the last three games I have attended in Europe — a Swiss NLA game between Zurich and Fribourg-Gottéron, a KHL contest featuring Bratislava vs Yaroslavl, and some SHL action between Frölunda and Malmö — all three had a section for away fans.
Those visiting fans are appreciated by the players, as Magnus Nygren points out repeatedly in his Twitter feed, crediting the traveling fan support whenever he can and telling them to have a safe journey home. Francis Paré and Louis Leblanc mentioned it as well. "You skate over after a game to thank the fans for coming, without them there would be no jobs for us."
With a dedicated away-fan section, you wouldn't have to create any "no dressing in these colours" rules to please your VIP guests, as seems to be the main argument for NHL owners and clubs to prevent away fans from seeing the game in person. The club could just seat the proletariat in a section away from the VIP clients.
The Ottawa Senators project
It came to my knowledge sometime in 2014 that the Senators had gone over to Djurgården in Stockholm "to learn from the best fans in the world" to explore how to cultivate a European type of fandom. It is clear that the Senators were ready to embrace a new culture in the stands. There are two official "supporter sections" at the Canadian Tire Centre that require fans to wear team colours, and encourage passionate fans to cheer on the team at a reduced ticket price.
I reached out to Adnan (@sens_adnan) at the Ottawa blog, Silver Seven, for his take on the new environment. He said that it looks like a fun environment, and while it might look a bit weird at first for a North American fan not used to the constant chanting, the support they get from the club is good. The unfortunate thing is that the section is rarely filled to capacity, and that's where things can improve, according to Adnan.
I also reached out to both fan clubs, and got a response from Joanne (@juzjojo), co-founder of The REDS, who helped out by answering my questions with a lot of patience. She told me that her section is "very much a work in progress, but the response during intermissions is positive; people ask how to get seats, how to join the group etc." The group is promoting its existence heavily, printing up 10,000 free copies of the 'chant book' to get the main sections in the arena to join in the chants and to be included no matter where they sit. The response has been overwhelmingly positive on social media, and the few negative incidents have been down to misunderstandings of the section in general, rather than fans in particular.
Those incidents have mostly been experienced via people who didn't know about the fan section's purpose, and were relocated to other seats in the arena. There has been a few complaints from older people about the drum, but that's the only negative thing they have heard. "The feedback from the Sens organization has been great, and we do feel their support." Joanne would not be opposed to a group of away fans in another section of the arena, but also points to the difficulty for such an event to actually happen in the NHL today, citing the size of other fan groups and the extensive travel that would be necessary. She points to the fans of Europe as an inspiration, and the group now try to win over one section of fans at a time and to have them join in on the chants from time to time.
Media in Ottawa, the US and Sweden have all noticed the project and written about it in different ways, noticing that other clubs are looking to the project with interest to see how it fares, specifically Nashville and Arizona, who were highlighted in the linked New York Times article.
Unfortunately, some articles I have found focus more on "the drum" rather than the fan experience, but the question going forward is still the same: Will this be a way forward for the NHL? With soccer getting more attention in the North American media, whether that be the rapidly expanding MLS or increased interest in the national teams, the best parts of fan culture are something that Europe can export to North America.