Ethnographic Hockey, Part 3: Top Ten Body Slams, Noisemakers, and Cross-Cultural Fan Bases

This is Part 3 of my series of posts detailing my ethnographic study of the March 18th, 2014 Flyers vs Blackhawks game in Philadelphia, PA. You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

I rode up the escalator to the second level. My seats were another floor up, but I lingered for awhile on this level in order to get my first look at the arena itself.

I walked through a short corridor to get to the interior. The outside was a wide hall lined with shops and food stands that reminded me of a shopping mall, but the inside was something else entirely. The first thing I became aware of was the lights The entire stadium was lined with flashing lights and advertisements. I couldn’t look anywhere without seeing electronic screens that were all synced up to display cycling ads and light displays. At the center of it all was the JumboTron, a massive multi-screen stalactite that hung down from the ceiling in the center, right over the rink. It simultaneously showed live videos, advertisements, and listings of sports statistics. The image displayed on the biggest screen shifted continuously throughout the night, but when I first saw it, it was playing a “Top Ten” replay of hockey players body slamming into each other.

“He’s number one,” a stadium attendant said to me. She had dark, wavy hair and wore a black jacket with the words “EVENT STAFF” written across the back.

I looked up at the screen, expecting to see the “number one” scorer or defender displayed on the screen. Instead I saw Flyers #36, Zac Rinaldo, who as of this writing is the Flyer with the most Penalty Minutes on the team for the 2013-2014 season (His 124 minutes spent in the penalty box is more than the combined minutes of all 10 of the “least time in the box” players combined). He is “known by his teammates as the heat seeking missile for his violent hockey hits” and is known as “Rhino Rinaldo.” The “number one body-slammer” has a two-year, $1.5 million contract.

The stadium attendant was busy watching Rinaldo slamming into another player in a video clip from a previous game. I looked around, and noticed something unexpected: a large net was strung from either end of the rink, above and behind the goals. It stretching easily fifty feet high. I asked the attendant if it was there to block pucks and whether they could actually go that high.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “They only put it up in the last ten years. Before that, people were getting slammed.”

Hockey puck injuries can be quite severe, even fatal. A study reported by ABC News said that on average, three or four people are struck by pucks in every NHL hockey game, and of those, one will need stitches or some other kind of major medical help. The pucks can fly at over 100 miles per hour, and there has been one reported fatality. Brittanie Cecil, a thirteen year old girl from West Alexandria, Ohio, was killed by a stray puck during a game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Calgary Flames on March 16, 2002. Brittanie’s death led to the NHL implementing regulations requiring the nets I saw at either end of the rink in the Wells Fargo Center.

The stadium attendant turned away to greet an elderly man who seemed to be a regular spectator. “Welcome back,” she said. They chatted for a moment, and the man asked the attendant about the foldable poster board he had received when he entered the stadium.

“Oh, you can do this,” she told him. She held up the poster and shook it in front of her, though I had no idea why I had been given a poster I could shake at people. “Or you can do this,” she added. Then she folded it up and slapped it repeatedly against her palm.

To use the device, you hold it in one hand, then slap it rhythmically against the opposite palm.
To use the device, you hold it in one hand, then slap it rhythmically against the opposite palm.

The foldable poster, it turned out, was a noisemaker. When I heard the sound, I became aware of it coming from other parts of the stadium. People throughout the stands were slapping the noisemakers against their palms in a clapping rhythm.

I made a mental note of the object’s proper function, then turned back to my examination of the arena while the stadium attendant ask some more spectators if they needed help finding their seats. I looked up, and found another set of decorations lining the ceiling. There were several rows of banners, some in the orange, white, and black of the Flyers, others in the red, white, and blue of the 76ers. They marked various championships and the names and numbers of several different retired players: #16 Bobby Clarke, #7 Bill Barber, #2 Mark Howe, #1 Bernie Parent, and #4 Barry Ashbee. Each of these players, I discovered, had their numbers “retired” (meaning no future Flyer will wear the same number), and were awarded multiple honors such as “Most Valuable Player” or induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. There were more than fifty banners in all, marking quite a few accomplishments for the Philadelphia teams, from important players to championship wins.

I exited back out into the hall that circled around the stadium. There was still some time left before the game started. I watched a few more of the fans passing by. I still mostly saw people wearing orange and black, with only the occasional Blackhawks jersey in sight. Then I spotted a man who seemed to represent a “cross-cultural” fan base. He was wearing a red Philadelphia Phillies jacket, but had on a Blackhawks hat. This was the first sign I’d seen that not all of the fans in attendance would be dedicated to a certain city.

Most of the fans I saw were stopping to buy food and drinks before the game started. I headed to one of the food stands as well, and bought a $4.25 bottle of Aquafina water. Instead of simply handing me the bottle, the cashier opened it, poured it into a clear plastic cup, put a lid on it, then handed me the cup and threw out the bottle.

I watched the rest of the fans passing by while I drank my bottle of water from a cup. I spotted a few more cross-cultural fan interactions. One man in a Blackhawks jersey mingled with two men wearing Flyers jerseys. They seemed to be friends, and I saw no sign of cross-team animosity. Then, after passing by another raffle, this one for an autographed “#40 Lecavalier” Flyers jersey, I came across another individual wearing a mixture of gear. She had a pink Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap with a Blackhawks jersey. Since she was the second person I saw wearing the trappings of two different affiliations, I decided to approach her and learn more.

“You like the Phillies and the Blackhawks?” I asked.

She smiled and nodded. “Yes,” she said.

I told her, “I always root for the home team.”

She pointed to her Blackhawks jersey and said, “This is my husband’s home team.”

I nodded. “So, you have a mix of fan bases,” I said.

She laughed and nodded. “I’m also a Green Bay Packers fan,” she said. “So figure that one out.”

I left with a definite curiosity about what would strive someone to have such a wide spread of teams that they supported. I had observed earlier, as noted in my first post in this series, that there seemed to be a lot of connections between the local Philadelphia team and several historical, national, and patriotic symbols. That connection seemed like it might relate to the extreme display of team support demonstrated by the man with the autographed jersey that I described in the second post. But the idea of one individual being a fan of teams from three different regions seemed to clash with that. While it seemed that cross-cultural fans were a rarity among the spectators I observed, it still seemed clear that there had to be more at work here than the sense of national identity that connected fans to their teams. I kept this in mind as I continued my observations.

It was 30 minutes to game time, and I didn’t want to be late getting to my seat. I headed for Section 222 to prepare for the next stage of my research.

This story will continue in Ethnographic Hockey, Part 4: The Dietz & Watson and Horizon Services Zambonis.

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