Cheering for the Home Team

There were far too many fans in Chicago Blackhawks jerseys yesterday at the Detroit Red Wings game.

Never mind that the game was a pathetic excuse for an athletic contest. Less than five minutes in, Chicago had scored three times on us. Truly unbelievable, and the meatheads sitting two rows below me in their Chicago jerseys were all too happy to beat this long-time foe on our home ice.

That’s fine. I understand team spirit. I understand loyalty to your players, wherever they go. I understand that rivalry between Detroit and Chicago transcends mere sports. 

But did they have to bring it onto my turf?

I thought there was an understood protocol when you represent the opposing team in a foreign arena. A respectful silence or dignified cheering that won’t piss off home team season ticket holders sitting near you.

Sort of like when you enter someone else’s house, you don’t drop garbage on the floor or spill your coffee on the couch.

Yesterday, yes, it was Easter Sunday, and I’ll admit even the most meathead of Chicago fans were respectful when we honored Gordie Howe on his 85th birthday. But there is no excuse to go ape-crazy in Red Wings turf. Joe Louis Arena is a captive setup; were mayhem to break out, there is no escape.

My most memorable Chicago-Detroit game took place in the winter of 1989, when my father, brother and I traveled to Chicago on a Sunday for a fancy dinner and a game at Blackhawk stadium. I can still see the organ pipes and smell the ice.

A heavyset Chicago fan with a blue mohawk cheered and yelled and threw himself against a wall during the game. It was a whirlwind to be able to fly to Chicago for one night and come back late to school the next morning, all for a hockey game.

I don’t even remember if we won; I just remember that the rivalry was fierce, these two industrial Midwest towns squaring off on center ice for so much more than a game.

You know already that sports represent so much more than talented athletes showing their ability, right? I don’t have to write that blog now, do I?

I know the home ice dilemma all too well. When I was a freshman in college, I scored a ticket for the Michigan vs. MSU football game, which was in East Lansing that year. I traveled to the rival college town to stay with a high school friend in her dorm and attend the game with her.

That means I was sitting in the State student section.

I’m going to blame it on eager youthfulness and a bit of 18-year-old stupidity. But yet, I painted my face in blue and yellow and wore all Michigan clothes. To sit in the State student section.

And I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I cheered loud and clear GO BLUE! amid folks who were very eager to shout Go Green. 

It didn’t take long before a couple of guys came up behind me and lifted me up, about to “pass me up” the section. Not something you want to happen. My girlfriend’s boyfriend grabbed my legs and pulled me back to the ground.

“Now keep your mouth shut,” he told me. And, shaking, chagrined, embarrassed, I didn’t even ponder defying his demand.

I got it then and I get it even more clearly now: you don’t piss off the home team fans. Period. You can join them, you can wear your colors, you can even cheer when your guys score, but do it in a way that isn’t in the face of all the loyal fans around you.

It takes a daring fan to travel with their team. That’s the kind of loyalty you don’t find in most places today. I applaud those who identify so strongly with their city’s sports figures. And in the case of Chicago and Detroit, it’s an easy win to score some tickets and make it a day trip.

Our rivalry, as all, is about so much more than sports. It’s a fight to be recognized as a great, bustling city, a place young people and athletes want to come. That’s why our Detroit sports institutions are so cherished: they symbolize what we envision for this long-whipped place, rebirth, redemption, joyfulness at coming out on top.

You can’t take that away by cheering for the other side. But you can muddy the waters a bit. The stands have to be filled with a majority of home team fans, plain and simple. Once you lose your local crowd, you’ve pretty much lost everything.

Even foreign fans must maintain respect for the home team; as much as winning carries other meanings, we lose our very humanity the minute we stop respecting the locals.

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