One of the benefits of an annual November sports conference is the possibility of catching an NHL game in a new city. Mark and I recently attended the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport Conference in Tampa, Florida and, as luck would have it, the Lightning were in town during our stay. In 2011, Mark and I attended a Minnesota Wild vs. Vancouver Canucks game during the same conference and even though the Canucks lost 5-1 we really enjoyed our Minnesota experience. Fast forward to 2016 just days before America would go to the polls in its most divisive election to date and our experience was… a little different.
The first thing I will say is that the Lightning have an awesome stadium and outdoor viewing area. Also, every fan seemed to be wearing some sort of Lightning merchandise. Canucks fans certainly do their part to “wear the team” but there was a noticeable difference – literally everyone was wearing a Lightning logo. I had flown to Tampa with one goal in mind: buy a Stamkos t-shirt. However, the first thing I saw when I entered the team store was this beauty and couldn’t resist:
The Lightning were playing the Bruins so Mark and I were invested in a Lightning win, as if it would somehow avenge the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals (#stillsad). We found out after the fact that the Bruins were staying in our conference hotel (probably better that we didn’t know it at the time). The Lightning would end up losing in a shootout to the Bruins 4-3, but it’s not the hockey that we want to talk about. It’s everything that happened above the ice that we found intriguing as sports scholars, Canadians, and hockey fans.
I always enjoy visiting NHL arenas, and have now seen games in the home arenas of 12 NHL franchises. While I enjoyed the fan atmosphere and some of the arena features (especially the electric organ, which was visible from our seats; and the Tesla coils that shoot “lightning” bolts when the home team scores) I want to focus on two (quite different) sociocultural observations I made at the game.
My friends and I bought seats in what appeared to be a college student section, based on the age of the fans in our vicinity. It was a rowdy atmosphere, with a lot of fans seeming more interested in socializing with their friends rather than watching the game. Nonetheless, many of the fans wore Lightning merchandise and cheered lustily for their team. I was interested, though not surprised, at how significant social media usage was among these fans. The spectators were regularly splitting their time between their friends and their phones, sending Snapchat messages, taking selfies, and Facebooking throughout the game. As a minimal user of social media (despite my research interests on sport and new media) who is on the very upper cusp of the Millennial generation, this was a reminder of how engrained social media is in the lives of many Millennials and how integrated it has become in the experience of consuming live sport events.
The second observation concerns the present political climate in the US. The game versus the Bruins was less than a week before Donald Trump’s stunning election to the Presidency of the United States, and partisan politics worked their way into the game in two interesting ways. During a commercial timeout, a fan was chosen to participate in one of the silly in-arena games that NHL teams seem to feel is necessary to occupy fans when there is no action on the ice. This game involved the participant naming the partner of a famous figure shown on the scoreboard. Near the end of this game, the scoreboard showed Hillary Clinton and then Bill Clinton. And the arena erupted into loud, angry, and boisterous booing and verbal abuse hurled at the Democratic nominee and the former US President. A few moments later, the scoreboard showed former US President Ronald Reagan – and the crowd erupted into wild cheering and whistling. I looked at my friends in shock.
Hockey is known for being a predominantly white sport, both in terms of participants and fans, and for its suspicion of or hostility to racial minorities. I suppose I was not surprised, therefore, that some of the overwhelmingly white audience at the Lightning game would support the rhetoric of Donald Trump. I realize that being anti-Clinton does not equal full support for Trump’s racist and hate-driven polices; nonetheless, to my eyes at least, the crowd’s behaviour reflected the aggressive and angry attitudes that characterized so much of Trump’s presidential campaign. I was not prepared for the extreme level of hatred directed at Hillary Clinton by fans who would (presumably) vote for Trump less than a week later, and the outpouring of support for Reagan also caught me off guard. Reagan is a Republican darling, yet his neoliberal economic policies are ironically responsible for accelerating many of the economic shifts against which Trump – and his working class base – routinely rail. The juxtaposition of a seemingly pro-Trump stance and a fanatical celebration of Reagan was particularly jarring for me.
North American sports have, especially since 9/11, become sites for the celebration and promotion of certain right-wing values, including neoliberal economics and militarism. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see partisan politics so brazenly on display at the Lightning game – particularly in the tense and emotional crucible of the final week of a bitter and hostile Presidential campaign.
Picking up on the militarism of the game, it was Hockey Fights Cancer night which meant purple warm-up jerseys and a lot of recognition for cancer survivors. However, these were not just any cancer survivors, if I remember correctly, they were all military cancer survivors, two of whom were women with long service records. In the second period we were asked to “Stand and Salute” one of these female military cancer survivors. Here is a tweet from a German colleague who was also at the game:
As an academic what I saw was a conflation of citizenship with militarism. It would seem that cancer awareness and fundraising was hijacked by an attempt to (re)produce American military strength. What did Hockey Fights Cancer night achieve? It created awareness about cancer? Isn’t this the disease that affects every family? I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty “aware” that cancer exists. What I am less aware of is which cancers we are actually talking about. I had to go on the NHL website to try and find more information and it is still very vague:
To date, the Hockey Fights Cancer programs of the National Hockey League Foundation (in the US) and the NHL Foundation (in Canada), along with NHL supporters and fans, have donated more than $16 million to support the cancer programs of national and local cancer research institutions, children’s hospitals, player charities and local charities.
Moreover, as a Canadian, I found all of the American flags and soldiers imagery overwhelming. This is not to say that we don’t also pay tribute to soldiers at Canadian games (I do, however, find that strange) but the amount of patriotism at the Lightning game was as noticeable as the fans wearing merchandise – you can’t miss it – especially when the ice cream cones are literally wrapped in little American flags. The normalization of military discourses is anything but normal for most citizens in this world. The military should be anything but normal. It’s very existence is for extreme circumstances – not the everyday.
Mark mentioned the reaction to the Clintons at the game and as a minoritized woman in a sporting arena surrounded by angry white fans, it was unsettling to say the least. Many non-Americans have this caricature image of what Americans can be like, a negative image that we know is not true of most Americans, but the stereotype of a rude, loud, arrogant, and ignorant citizenry, unfortunately, lives on. That night the stereotype came to life and the hate was palpable. Despite the fact that Tampa ended up voting Democrat, one would have never guessed that if they seen all the grown men flipping the bird at the image of Hillary Clinton on the jumbotron and cursing her out. I have no idea what the response would have been had an image of Trump appeared on the jumbotron but it was made very clear that watching hockey in Vancouver and Toronto with diverse fan bases are not representative of hockey culture more broadly. There was a stark difference between the white fans watching the game and the people of colour working the game in the concession stands and at security positions. If hockey is white in Canada, then it suffers from albinism in Tampa.
It was far from my most enjoyable hockey experience, but I’m sure it will endure as one of the most memorable.
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