Whenever fans cross the line, they make the beautiful game look ugly. Rage can fuel a rampage in the streets or a royal rumble in the stands, leaving stains on hockey history
Chris Falcone, a then-36-year-old Philly fan, got his 15 minutes of fame in March 2001 when he tumbled into the penalty box during a Maple Leafs-Flyers game in Philadelphia, trying to get at Toronto’s
Tie Domi. Fans behind the box were throwing beer and other projectiles at Domi, something not unheard of in Philly. So Domi returned fire. Armed with a water bottle, he squirted it over the low glass. Falcone lunged at Domi from two rows back, but he lurched too far. The glass gave way, gravity took over, and he spilled head first to the floor. The two went at each other, but linesman Kevin Collins jumped in before things got worse. The wild scene was replayed on sportscasts all over North America and has since been viewed a couple million times on YouTube. And it’s still good for big grins. Hockey culture, after all, freely mixes rough stuff with laughs. But it’s also a cautionary tale about the real boundaries for spectators and fans.
“I’m where I’m supposed to be,” Domi said afterward in his defense, even though the NHL subsequently fined him $1,000. “That’s my work. That’s my territory.” It wasn’t Falcone’s territory. The concrete worker from Havertown, Pa., who had a few prior arrests and was jailed again, had gone too far.
That’s frequently the bottom line on bad behavior by sports fans everywhere, including hockey fans: taking that unintended extra step, or tumble, in Falcone’s case. There are exceptions, like the European soccer hooligans for whom gang violence was intentional. Then there was the mayhem that followed the Canucks’ loss to Boston at the 2011 Stanley Cup, where instigators reportedly chanted for a street riot in Vancouver as early as the first period. There was also premeditation by a fan in London, Ont., who imitated Spanish and Italian soccer crowds by hurling a banana at Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, who is black, during a shootout attempt in the 2011-12 pre-season.
But most episodes seem to be situations that grow heated and spontaneously spin out of control: spectators exchanging punches; fans behaving inappropriately toward players, team personnel or game officials; or even the riots and near riots we’ve witnessed to celebrate championships. These episodes involving fans often are unplanned acts in which emotions boil over or become misdirected. In our age of celebrity, that misdirection can take other forms and pose dangers to players.
Dustin Penner, for example, had to get a restraining order against a woman he’d never met. According to Penner, she’d made fake Penner Facebook accounts and created conversations between her account and the mock accounts to make it look like they had a relationship. In an interview this summer with Florida Panthers reporter Sophie Julia, Penner said police told him that when they put her in handcuffs the woman just laughed and said, “This isn’t over.” The legendary passion of hockey fans is integral to making the sport a compelling spectacle. But that passion has boiled over at times, dating back to the game’s formative years. In 1890, the Toronto Globe criticized amateur teams that “indulge in fisticuffs, and the action of some spectators in rushing the ice is also to be deplored.” It would take a book to adequately chronicle and dissect the array of wayward conduct. Fortunately, it’s not an everyday occurrence. The vast majority of hockey fans remain civil. Jerry
M. Lewis, emeritus professor of sociology at Kent State University in Ohio, is the leading social scientist in the study of fan violence in sports. He’s been analyzing and writing about it since 1970 and specializes in examining large-scale episodes that often occur during playoffs in all sports. Hockey’s contribution includes the Vancouver riot that caused more than $4 million in theft, vandalism and property damage; celebratory riots, like the one that accompanied the Canadiens Cup victory in 1993 in which there was also much damage; and smaller-scale disturbances like Chicago’s following the Blackhawks’ 2013 Cup triumph. Lewis has found that in those large-scale disturbances, the fans (who he finds are often young white males) are acting out as players on the team for which they have such a strong identification. “They want to perform an act of skill,” he said. “But they perform an act of violence instead.” And, of course, they also seek attention. “I have lots of reports and photographs in my files of violent fans looking for approval, looking to be on camera, when they commit these acts, raising their finger and saying, ‘We’re No. 1,’ ” he added. “When they knock down a sign or break a window or overturn a car, all these are attention-getting acts.” Some of that was echoed by the independent review of the 2011 Vancouver riot, whose authors not only blamed the instigators and those who followed them but also “the people who stood around, providing an audience.” Rioters posed for selfies they later posted on social media, and observers also grabbed images. Photos taken during the legendary March 17, 1955, “Richard Riot” in Montreal show groups of participants smiling and mugging for the camera. That clash was the worst sports riot to that point in Canadian and hockey history. NHL president Clarence Campbell had suspended Maurice Richard for the balance of the regular season and the playoffs for punching linesman Cliff Thompson when Thompson tried to stop Richard from going after Boston’s Hal Laycoe, who had cut The Rocket with a high stick. The riot ignited the following evening when, despite warnings from city officials, Campbell showed up at the Montreal Forum for a crucial Canadiens-Red Wings game. (At the time, the Canadiens were battling Detroit for first place, and Richard led in the league in scoring.) A sizable sign-carrying throng had been demonstrating against Campbell outside the Forum for hours. Once he took his seat during the first period, objects were thrown at him, and he was physically attacked. In the first intermission, a tear gas bomb was thrown in his direction, and the crowd fled into the street. (The game was forfeited to Detroit.) After smashing the Forum’s windows, the crowd moved down Rue Sainte-Catherine, destroying shops and vehicles and looting for 15 blocks. A dozen cops and 25 civilians were injured. “But the greatest damage was not physical,” wrote Sidney Katz in Maclean’s. “Montrealers awoke ashamed and stunned after their emotional binge.” The suspension ultimately cost Richard the scoring title and Montreal another Cup. Many have ascribed a political subtext in the riot, the oppression of Quebec’s French majority by the English minority. Richard himself eschewed politics, though opponents regularly used anti-French slurs to distract him on the ice. “These riots tend to be relatively short-lived, compared to, for example, racial riots that have sometimes gone on for four and five days like the Rodney King thing,” Dr. Lewis said. “Sports fan violence tends to be short, maybe four or five hours long, which is about the only good thing you can say about it.” Another of hockey’s darkest episodes, Eddie Shore’s 1933 blindsided assault on Ace Bailey – which left Bailey convulsing on the ice and resulted in the Leaf forward fighting for his life with a brain injury – was punctuated by angry Boston fans who accosted Toronto GM-owner Conn Smythe as he rushed to the dressing room after Bailey was carried off. Smythe had a running feud with a segment of the Boston Garden crowd, and on this night he was surrounded by a small mob under the stands, one of whom told Smythe that Bailey was faking his injury. Smythe tried punching his way out of things and ended up in jail for a few hours. During the Original Six era, Black Hawks fans earned the reputation as the most hostile in the league. A particularly rowdy night might include chairs thrown over the boards onto the ice. In 1949, one Hawks fan reached over the boards and grabbed the sweater of Habs defenseman Ken Reardon, who confronted the fan and was joined by a couple teammates. The fan jumped on the ice to get at Reardon, but was intercepted by referee Bill Chadwick. A 20-minute near-riot broke out in the stands, the crowd pushing on the pre-Plexiglas wire fencing behind the net, tearing it away from its frame. Reardon and two teammates were subsequently arrested, but the charges were soon dropped when the judge ruled the fans were the aggressors. As an NHL referee, King Clancy had tough times in Chicago, too, including death threats. Once, as he jumped on the sideboards to avoid play, a woman sitting rink side jabbed a long hatpin needle into him. He halted the game and had her ejected. Another time, a fan threw a punch at him and Clancy climbed over the boards to retaliate. The former Hall of Fame defenseman didn’t come out second best in that scrap. Extending Lewis’ theory of fan riots to individual fan’s misadventures, they can be equally motivated by overzealous loyalty. Fans who act out as players seem to believe they should physically respond when they feel aggrieved and can react as participants rather than spectators. In January 1989, 22-year-old Bruins fan Frank Barbaro hoisted himself over Boston Garden’s low glass onto the ice and jogged toward referee Bill McCreary – only to be launched into the end boards by incoming linesman Ron Asselstine, then hustled off the ice and to jail. McCreary had just declined to call a penalty on Winnipeg’s Paul Fenton, whose stick had bloodied Boston’s Glen Wesley. The Bruins protested to McCreary and coach Terry O’Reilly was particularly incensed. The non-call set off a loud reaction in the Garden and Barbaro decided to try and redress the grievance in person. O’Reilly was playing for the B’s in December 1979 when Rangers and Bruins players skirmished along the Madison Square Garden boards after the final whistle. A fan leaned over the glass to grab his stick, and O’Reilly climbed over the boards to go after him. Many of the Bruins followed, leading to a wild melee in the seats, best known for Mike Milbury whacking a prone fan with his own shoe while the fan wrestled with Milbury’s teammate Peter McNab. Away from the arena and the major market spotlight, Newfoundlanders showed their worst side during a rugged 1975 Allan Cup semifinal series. Thirty-five fans of the senior league St. John’s Capitals stormed the hotel of the visiting Barrie Flyers, breaking windows in the hotel as they tried to get to the Barrie players, who they felt had assaulted their local heroes during the first two games of the series in Ontario. It’s no secret that drinking often plays a role in these episodes, and it has fuelled countless fan-on-fan fights. The Independent Review of the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Playoffs Riot lists alcohol consumption as a cause, though Lewis is hesitant to agree. He believes it just lowers inhibitions. “What drinking does is give you permission to do what you wanted to do anyway,” he believes. “The literature on spousal abuse shows that.” A few too many beers reportedly went into one 21-year-old Nordiques fan’s decision to jump on Le Colisee ice in 1992 and challenge the Sabres bench, where he was held by some Buffalo players while Rob Ray rained punches on him before police arrived to drag him away. The fan may have been bruised, but he had also won a bet with a friend. The beer apparently emboldened him to win the wager. Crazy moments in NHL buildings occur less frequently now. Arena security has improved and gotten more sophisticated. Fans can anonymously communicate with arena guest services departments and identify individuals who could potentially become troublesome. Multiple cameras are trained on the crowd. Beer sales end after the second intermission. Nonstop in-arena music, video and live entertainers all contribute to a different, diverting environment than a few decades ago. “These are things, like a guest services department, I never could have imagined when I worked for the Sabres in 1981,” said the Predators senior vice president of hockey communications and public relations Gerry Helper, who has previously been a public relations executive for Buffalo and Tampa Bay. Added Michael Santos, former Panthers assistant GM: “With the glass around the rink being higher now, and the netting that’s up there, a lot of these incidents couldn’t happen today.” But these in-arena changes haven’t entirely halted fan malevolence, which can occur anywhere. After the 2012 Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, three Flyers fans wearing orange and black clashed with a pair of red, white and blue-clad Rangers fans outside a famous cheesesteak restaurant, severely beating one of them. The most aggressive Flyers fan, Dennis Veteri, was convicted and sentenced to a lengthy house arrest and five years probation. And bad behavior has found a home in cyberspace: From the safety of their computers and cell phones, racist fans have used social media for offensive tirades against black players. When Washington’s Joel Ward scored an overtime series winner against Boston in 2012, and when P.K. Subban tallied an OT winner in Game 1 against the Bruins in 2014, both occasioned a firestorm of tweets directing racial slurs at the goal scorers. In our society – where we too often treat sports like war and war like sports – these incidents likely aren’t going away.
This feature appears in the Nov. 24 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.