At the Wild's 8-1 embarrassment at the hands of the Canadiens last night, Adam Abrams' customary attendance announcement sounded more than a little pathetic. Now, no question he had a tough job that night—he was essentially reminding us out in the crowd that 18,595 of us pathetic saps paid (on average) upwards of $60 to watch the team give up and bend over. But the fact of the matter is, "the greatest hockey fans in the world" were in attendance that night. They just weren't wearing Forest Green or Iron Range Red. They were wearing the good ol' Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge.
Yeah, it's hard to get enthusiastic about your team when they give up a goal thirty-some seconds into the game. Or when they're losing by an astonishing, franchise-worst seven goals. Or when they're on the wrong end of a six-game losing streak. But the sounds coming out of the pond on Kellogg were just pathetic. I don't fault the thousands of Canadians and Canadiens gleefully Oléing, screaming "Go Habs Go," and (this one stung the most) singing "Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye," as if we needed more reminders of the fact that our season ended this week. What got to me was that us fans, much like our team, didn't even try and answer. The Habs fan next to me remarked that "the Canadiens are the only team who plays 82 home games a year," and, really, apart from one rather weak "Let's Go Wild" early in the first, it sure didn't sound like the Xcel Center I remember. The one that was always "tough to play in," that sounded like a playoff game every night, that cheered along and stayed in the game even in the midst of a pathetic 25-win inaugural season.
But it wasn't just a deflated crowd that didn't really have a lot of cheering in them. It wasn't just a crowd that felt like they couldn't make a difference in the game. It wasn't even just the usual dull Wild fans who, apparently, never learned any chants other than the one the scoreboard taught them: "Let's Go Wi-ld." It seems like we've now fostered an atmosphere actively hostile to getting loud and supporting our team. The stoic man sitting to my left sat through the entire game, arms folded, without booing, cheering, or even clapping once. When I'd start applauding a decent rush or booing after one of the many Habs goals or power plays, not only would they not join in my single-handed attempt to drown out the road fans; several of them actually turned around and glared at me in Minnesota's trademark, passive-aggressive way. One of them seemed upset at the noise I was making near her infant. Sorry, but a hockey game is not the place to go for an evening of peace and quiet with the family. For goodness' sakes, they watched two grown men punch each other in the face—and didn't seem to have a problem cheering along with that.
So why are the fans so uninvolved? Ultimately, I think it’s because after we lost our real team and got an expansion franchise back, we established an entirely different fan culture—and not a better one. Losing our history and our rivalries doesn’t help; all hell used to break loose when the Blackhawks came to town. Trying to position Vancouver, some 1,400 miles away, as our big bad rival does not and will not ever bring about that sort of excitement. A team whose greatest historic moment is a big goal in the first round of the playoffs doesn’t exactly carry the same emotional attachment as a franchise on which generations were raised.
But as much as I’d like to blame Norm Green for everything (and I do love blaming Norm), I can’t just pin this one on him alone. Team management has established the Wild as a very different kind of team: for their fanbase they’ve targeted, frankly, a bunch of boring yuppies.
I understand that running an NHL team and spending up to the cap takes a lot of money. But ticket prices are prohibitively expensive for a lot of the kinds of working class families who actually care about the game. When the cheapest––and, I might add, most in-demand––seats in the arena go for upwards of $30 after all the fees are included, and when the seats that are actually available on a nightly basis are more in the $80+ range, it’s hard not to see this coming. The natural consequence of obscenely expensive tickets and private clubs with guarded elevators is a crop of “fans” who show up to about half of the games they paid for and care more about schmoozing with their guests than the product on the ice. I know season ticket holders provide stability to the franchise, but between the prices and membership fees, the Wild have filled half their arena with fans more interested in chatting about the weather and how the kids are doing than pumping up the decibel meter and coming in to work with a hoarse voice the next morning.
This is not to say that high-priced seats aren’t an important part of maintaining a team, or that wealthier fans looking to shout and cheer and boo and yell a fast-paced, hard-hitting game aren’t absolutely welcome at our pond. But look at the history of those very same Canadiens fans who made the Xcel Center their own. The Habs are one of the most financially profitable teams in the league, and yet their fanbase is also the product of a tradition dating back to the Old Forum where the “poor people” were not only able to afford tickets, but were so rowdy that they had to be fenced off in a chicken wire cage from the wealthier patrons. Not to generalize too much, but I sort of doubt it’s the people in the expensive seats who gave Montreal its reputations (good and bad).
The greatest hockey fans in the world don’t get quiet just because the team’s struggling; they get vocal in their disappointment and even louder in their support for a turnaround. They don’t quit cheering just because of an early goal. They don’t ask fans around them to keep it down because they’re trying to have a conversation; they join in. They don’t miss a game because the weather was kind of bad. They shout and yell because they want the team to win, not because the scoreboard tells them to get up out of their seats. They clap like mad because the team put in a good shift, not half-heartedly because the organ prompted them.
I’ve been to high school and college games in this state. There are bars in St. Paul full of really enthusiastic fans who care about this team and this state enough to watch every game even if they can’t afford to get into the arena. I know Minnesotans know how to cheer at a hockey game. We need to get those fans excited about our team. From the play on the ice it was clear that the team needs to turn around in a big way, bring in key pieces for the future, and replace a whole lot of underperforming players. Maybe the Team of 18,000 needs to do the same thing.