The Game as a Narrative


Following a team, a player, a league, a division can be a long soap opera. Whenever the fan steps in and gets into the game, that’s when the story starts.

There’s thousands of storylines to follow as a fan. A team’s quest for a championship. A player’s development from a junior player to a professional. A league wide battle for top spot. Each game, each play, each season is made of stories. Each game story consists of the same things. Characters, settings, time period, problems, resolutions.

Fans follow these storylines but have always been able to create their own.

For instance, they can follow a local player who goes from the neighborhood rink to the Hall of Fame. Mainstream media outlets, newspapers and blogs can also create a story for such a player, but a fan can have a different take on them. Perhaps they knew them personally or had more knowledge than what made it to the papers.

As commenter’s on blogs, message boards and social media sites, fans can give input on the story and perhaps sway the perspectives of others. In this case, fans not only follow storylines, but they also become part of it as well.

Spengler Cup and World Junior Hockey Championship

Two hockey tournaments going on right now. The Spengler Cup is an annual tournament in Switzerland for individuals playing in Europe. A lot of former players head overseas for various reasons. Could be the end of their career, maybe they couldn’t cut it in the NHL or perhaps they just enjoy the less rigorous schedule to balance hockey and family life. The tournament itself is pretty entertaining with some tight games. It hasn’t caught on in North America but is very popular in Europe.

The World Juniors Hockey Championships (WJHC) on the other hand, is a tournament for players under 21, who for the most part, are highly touted draft picks with a lot of potential. Ten teams compete for gold, with Canada and US being heavy favorites this year. This tournament is broadcasted by TSN so it gets tons of hype and coverage. It’s a big ratings draw in North America…not so much anywhere else.

So why is the WJHC a bigger draw than the Spengler Cup?

The Spengler Cup has mostly players in the European leagues, so we don’t know much about them. The ones we do recognize are former NHL players past their prime. On the flip side, the WJHC players are all unknowns as well since junior league games aren’t huge draws. Both tournaments have a Team Canada, so national pride can’t be the factor either.

The media machine known as TSN does a pretty good job boosting the WJHC. Player profiles, game analysis, commentators, and expanded coverage on TV and their website all contribute.

The big difference between the two tournaments is the linking and alignment of fans to the product.

The potential of young players is heavily emphasized as most of them are already drafted or will be eligible next summer. The player will always have a familiar NHL team attached to them at all times. Working with the familiar constructs in a viewers mind builds that attachment right away. Spengler Cup broadcasts have less to work with when trying to connect with the familiar. Former players are long forgotten and have established themselves in the European leagues.

Second, since there’s potential in the WJHC, fans have something to take away from the broadcast and work with. The player has time to become a professional, so a fan can watch them develop, follow their stats and make their own judgments over time. It’s also easier and more interesting to discuss potential players with other fans. Guesses can be made about how good/bad this player can be and then eventually be verified. Former players are is less relevant to fans with no real future and thus, less interesting to work with.

It’s easy to blame a mega sports network like TSN for over-hyping an event, but really its collective fan behaviour that dictates what gets coverage and what doesn’t.

Hockey Pundits and Experts

During episode two of HBO’s “24/7 Penguins/Capitals“, Washington general manager George McPhee had this to say in regards to outside critics of their losing streak:

When you’re having a tough stretch, this is when there are too many reactionaries out there. All the experts come out, all the pundits come out with their opinions and the truth of the matter is that if they knew anything about the game, they’d be in it. I don’t usually comment on job status and that nonsense because people, whatever you say, will read between the lines and parse words.

I found this interesting simply because there is a great deal of knowledge and information that ‘outsiders’ have. Unfortunately, if this attitude persists throughout the NHL, a lot will be overlooked.

Hat tip to Adam Vingan of Half Smokes for the quote.

Fake fans

Wall Street Journal has a story about an Italian soccer team using printed sheets of vinyl to fill up their stadium. Since fans weren’t showing up to their games, management decided to employ fake fans.

The club itself makes a majority of its revenue from television contracts, which makes one wonder if ‘real’ fans are even needed.

A few things come out from this story.

First is the actual images on the vinyl and how the fans are depicted. The image really reflects how owners and management see their fans or at least what behaviour they expect from their fans. Every ‘fan’ is out of their seats and doing something. Not very authentic, but makes the team look good on TV.

Second, this brings to light what fan behaviour is at the physical stadium, with thousands of other fans, versus what fan behaviour is like at home, alone. What exactly do fans like about being at the actual game? What do they hate? Could attending an actual game be a thing of the past?

This also ties back to my posting about goal horns and how they’re and example of inauthentic fan expression.

Image from Wall Street Journal.

Video and Fan Experience

HBO’s four-part series “24/7 Penguins/Capitals” kicked off last night. Cameras went behind the scenes during current regular season games to gives viewers an inside look into the two teams that will play in the Winter Classic this year.

Viewers got to see stuff that never gets captured by game productions. Show highlights include coaches talking to their teams, players spending time with their families and just raw emotion coming out of player to player interaction.

Best scene for me was the fight between a couple players. After the crowd cheering and commentary commending both fighters, it cuts to a quiet medical room where the Penguins players is getting stitched up (in HD, mind you) and getting checked by the doctors. You know guys get stitched, but to actually see it done and the doctors presence in the room captured more than a game production.

I think these types of shows do a great job showing more than what we’re used to. We know, or have a general idea of what stuff happens behind the scenes but to actually see it through video enhances the fan experience. From watching the game, talking about it afterwards, engaging online with fans, we can piece together the stuff. We can assume coaches rip into their players. We know players get injured all the time. But to actually confirm what we assume really makes the show worth watching.

More responses from around web:

National Post

Nordiques Fans to Demonstrate

Fans of the defunct Quebec Nordiques will be making a trip down to Long Island to attend a game between the Atlanta Thrashers and the New York Islanders. A group of 1,100 Nordiques fans will be there to show support for a team to relocate back to Quebec City.

The city lost its franchise back in 1995 as the team moved to Colorado. Ever since, fans have wanted a team back. Recently, the Government of Canada and the Province of Quebec has talked about supporting the development of a new arena to possibly bring a team back.

The plan for the 1,100 demonstrators is to cheer at the 15 minute mark of each period, marking the 15 years they’ve gone without a club in Quebec City. Both the Islanders and Thrashers have been struggling at the gates, drawing fans well below the league average.

The interesting thing here is how adamant cities like Winnipeg and Quebec City have been on getting the next NHL team that happens to relocate. They really do have a tonne of fan support, but professional sports is a business. Without stable sponsorship and support from the business community in those cities, a professional hockey team can’t fly.

Derek Zona took a look at a number of markets that don’t have an NHL team and the various factors needed to support one. Arguments can go either way, but looking at these numbers, it’s hard to justify relocating a team to Winnipeg and Quebec City.

The whole debate, all of the actions and the findings has been left to fans. Not the league, not a research company and not a University of College. The actions, as planned by the 1,100 Nordiques supporters, is fan driven. That’s what makes this whole story and debate so interesting.

It remains to be seen what the final results will be. But what is clear is how hockey fans are the ones taking action here. Both online through blogs and social media, and the real world by driving eight hours to Long Island to show support for a defunct team.


Here’s the third period demonstration by Nordiques nation. Beauty. Montreal Gazette story here.

Goal horns in professional hockey

Since fans as a collective group has been a major focus of this project, I’ve been dissecting their experiences in relation to the game. One experience that I’ve begun to question and loathe is the goal horn in every professional hockey arena.

These tend to go off after every goal the home team scores and also after a win. But these annoying sounds didn’t always exist. There used to be a time when it was the fans in attendance that would rock the building.

I personally don’t understand the purpose. My guess it’s a way for a team to make up for the lack of noise in their buildings (ahem, Phoenix, Florida, Long Island) and make the arena seem like a wild place to be to attract new fans.

To me, these goals horns are a way for professional hockey teams to control their fans. Cheering/supporting/heckling are a few of the ways for group of fans to interact with the game. A goal horn just replaces the fans with a cheering squad hired by the team.

This really limits what a fan community can do. We’ve seen from Premier League soccer chants, goalie taunts and blogs the kind of stuff fans can come up with. When fans as a group are unrestricted, the possibilities are endless. The goal horn is just a phoney representation of what professional leagues want their fans to be. It’s an attempt to enhance an image and takes away from the genuine expression of fans.

Here’s a great goal celebration from a high school game: