Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Home Team Disadvantage?

A lot is made of the home ice advantage, but how much does it really matter? Does being in another person's stadium really affect your game that much, when you're already a highly skilled professional that visits dozens of arenas a year? After all, how much do these arenas differ? It's all just ice and empty corporate arena names that have stripped most arenas of any original character or history.

Home ice can also be a factor if you're entering a new time zone (jet lag is a major disadvantage for any visiting team) or if the ice itself is changing (NHL vs. olympic size ice).

But what about the fans? Are they really the X factor? Do they really have an influence? What about their cheers, jeers, goalie taunts, swag, flags and the dying art of the wave?

As a fan myself, I know that we're all inclined to say that we do make a difference. Our passion, our drive, our emotional investment into our teams, apart from the time investment of following games and the financial investment in gear and tickets if we're lucky, surely all of that has to count for something?

I hate to burst bubbles here, particularly my own, but I don't think that we have as much of an influence as we'd like to think we do. Sure, it's demoralizing to play for empty stadiums and fan membership helps to pay the bills too. Sure, it's amazing to hear the roar of the crowd when a goal is scored, but are they really doing this just as much for us as for themselves?

I've sat behind a player's bench once with tickets that I won in an auction and I can tell you right off that they don't hear as much of the stadium roar at ice level. So that heckler in the third level? I'm sure the guys around you are entertained.

As professionals, I'm sure that most players have learned to block out most of those sounds, particularly the goalies whose names regularly turn into boos. It's pretty convenient when your name actually has Boo in it (Boucher) and a little harder when the name is a bit of a trick (Varlamov everyone).

Then there's the role of the heartening crowd that's supposed to inspire the players for that final push. After seeing my own team go down in every home game (Ottawa), I can tell you that's some clear fan fiction too. If the players don't have it in them to fight, there's nothing that the fans can do to instill it. We can only influence what's already there, not replace what's lost.

I think the ultimate home team disadvantage occurs for those teams with the rabid fan base. You know which teams I'm talking about. The stadiums that shake with rage-fueled energy, where emotions take charge and the weight of about a thousand expectations are heaped onto the backs of every player wearing the right jersey.

I always imagined that these arenas are the perfect example of how fast rage can transfer and turn normal people into crazed monsters. You know that fantastic horror film 28 Days Later where the rage infects the monkeys and then the monkeys attack a group of do-gooder humans who want to rescue them from science and then the infection spreads and takes over England with horrific apocalyptic results? It's a big, bloody, suspenseful, haunting mess. I always figured that those rages occur in hockey arenas. The worst is if the crowd 'turns.' That's enough to make your blood chill just thinking about it.

Cities like Montreal and Toronto are known as the hardest cities to play in. That's because if you're winning, you're the toast of the town and if you're losing, you're poop on a stick. The fans also feel perfectly comfortable booing their own players when things don't go right. I'm not sure how this is a sign of loyalty or if the boos are meant to incite them to do better the same way that spanking's supposed to teach you a lesson?

In any case, logic and reason don't rule this discussion. If the home team advantage does have any lasting effect, the true effect is in the memories. There's nothing better than a win in life, unless it's a win at home.

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