When I was in Grade Ten, my homeroom teacher was a huge Toronto fan. He'd wear his jersey to school whenever the leafs played the Habs. He'd construct math problems based on hockey plays using the leafs as examples. When Montreal would get eliminated from the playoffs, he'd bring in a set of golf clubs and hand them out to all the Canadiens fans like cigars after a baby's birth. Habs fans retaliated by dressing his effigy in Toronto gear and a big "loser" sign and hanging it in the corridor. We jeered, we taunted and we plotted our next gag, all over the passionate devotion to our respective hockey teams. Which all goes to prove one thing:
Hockey fans are nuts.
We dress in team colours and paint our faces. We travel great distances and spend great amounts of money to see our teams play in person. We have playoff rituals, pray for favour to hockey gods and are superstitious to the point of ridiculousness. We haunt hockey message boards online, we're happy when our team wins and bummed when it loses. We use the first-person plural when discussing our teams: "We need to promote a young defenceman," or "Carey Price will win us a Cup someday." And, perhaps the most fun of all, we taunt the pants off our team's biggest rivals' fans.
When we watch a Canadiens/Bruins or Habs/leafs game, we not only ride the emotional crazy train of the game itself, we also fear/anticipate the inevitable post-game encounters with the other team's fans. Sometimes, it's not even the other team we dislike that much. It's their supporters. Toronto fans have had nothing to cheer about since their appearance in the Stanley Cup semi-finals in 1993 (hey...we know the Habs are in the same boat, but at least they won that year!) Yet, after every regular-season victory over the Canadiens, our leaf-fan friends call us up to ask how "great" Carey Price looked, or what happened to the Mighty P.K.Subban? They love to laugh, mock and rub it in. And so do we, when the skate's on the other foot.
That's why it's so surprising to see fans vehemently angered by the same kinds of celebrations by players. If Subban runs the length of the ice after a game-winning goal and leaps on his teammates with a celebratory grabbing of his sweater logo, it's sacrilege. If Price shuts down Stamkos, St.Louis and Lecavalier in a shootout and holds an archer's pose for a second, Lightning fans moan about how he's a poor winner. If Nail Yakupov loses it just a little bit after scoring his first NHL goal, fans wag their fingers and say the kid's got attitude.
Between ourselves, fans know we're going to hear it when our team loses. And we know we're going to do the same thing to our rivals' fans if the Habs win. If we play the taunting game as fans, why do we expect the players to be above all that?
The guys on the ice are the ones who actually sweat and bleed and hone their bodies into hockey-playing instruments. Their in-person investment in a game is so much greater than ours, even though we might have been fans for years before they were born, they must feel the thrills and disappointments of what they do out there much more keenly than we do. So, if we jump off the couch, yelling and fist-pumping when Subban scores an OT winner, it's hard to expect him to politely accept congratulations and skate off to prepare for the next game. Players are invested and emotional and so much better at hockey than any fan out there, they should be able to celebrate their big moments any way they darn well please. If hockey fans are nuts, the players should be allowed to be nuts too.
Fans, and players with delicate feelings, should lighten up and let the taunting continue. If it riles up the opposition, great. Maybe it'll elevate the tempo of the next meeting and make the game better. In the meantime, it's entertaining and it's no different from what we do as fans. Which reminds me, I have to find out where that Grade Ten teacher is now, just in case Toronto and Montreal should meet in the playoffs.