Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Angry Islander Fans Make a Stand

All the power's in the hands/Of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street/Too chicken to even try it
Everybody's doing/Just what they're told to
Nobody wants/To go to jail!
Are you taking over/or are you taking orders?
Are you going backwards/Or are you going forwards?
- The Clash's "White Riot," from the band's 1977 self-titled debut album

With one minute and 34 seconds remaining in the NHL Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff game last night between the New York Islanders and the Buffalo Sabres at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, bottles and souvenir towels rained down onto the ice. The Clash's "White Riot" ran in my head as the fans protested a highly-questionable penalty called on the Islanders' Randy Robitaille as his team tried to come back from a 3-2 deficit. The penalty, which was the last in a series of controversial calls that all seemed to break in favor of the Sabres, essentially ended the game. Was I stretching, connecting the anger of a bunch of hockey fans with the protestations of British punks commenting on a decaying social system? Maybe a bit, but maybe not too much.

As I sat in my seat in the upper deck, watching as bottles crashed onto the ice while more than 16,000 angry spectators directed a chant at the referee likening him to a body part essential to the body's excretory function, I surprised myself a bit. Normally, I am the first to condemn fans that do not behave. While I oppose capital punishment, I think I could be swayed that the death penalty is appropriate for idiots who run on the field during baseball games. But as play was stopped while the ice was cleared of debris, I found myself, in my head, cheering on the onslaught. And, almost immediately, I wondered why, after all these years and the hundreds of professional sports events I have attended, I had experienced such a change of heart.

The more I thought about it, the more the issues came into focus. For starters, the bottles in question were plastic bottles. In 2007, no arena official that has had the occasion to walk within 100 feet of a lawyer's office would allow glass bottles to be sold at a hockey game. With the ice mostly empty (most of the players had retreated to their benches), I did not feel for a single second that anyone's health was in danger.

Freed from the fear of injury, the underlying cause of the anger began to emerge in my thoughts. The Islanders, as I wrote about in this space last week, went through an unlikely chain of events just to qualify for the playoffs. The team, the lowest seed in the conference, had earned the right to play the high-flying, high-scoring Buffalo Sabres, the club with the best record in the entire league for the season (the Islanders were 17th) in a best-of-seven series. Most commentators didn't think the Islanders stood a chance. Many thought they could not win more than a game.

After being completely outplayed in the first game and taking the loss, the Islanders bounced back two days later, riding the surprise return of the team's flamboyant star goaltender, Rick DiPietro, to an upset victory. DiPietro had missed the squad's miraculous run to the playoffs at the end of the regular season after he sustained two concussions in a two-week period.

That takes us to last night's third game, which was the first playoff game on the Islanders' home ice since 2004. The game was a rare sell-out, and there seemed to be virtually no no-shows, which is even rarer. Even "sold out" regular season Islander games feel like the building is only three-quarters filled.

The fans for last night's game were excited to be watching playoff hockey. They were loud and animated, creating an atmosphere that makes attending live sporting events fun. While every Islander fan in the building was hoping against hope that their team would find a way to squeak out three more wins and advance to the next round, I have no doubt that most of the people in attendence (like me) just wanted the team to play hard and not embarrass itself. Personally, I was happy that after the win in the second game, they would not be swept. To put it simply, the Islander supporters knew that their team was a big underdog.

So, when on play after play controversial calls went against the Islanders, the building grew angrier. As fans, we didn't expect to win necessarily, but couldn't the officials give us a break? We (or at least, I) started wondering, Does the league want us to lose so the glamorous Sabres can continue on? (As an aside, yes, the NHL is the only organization in the world where you can attach the word "glamorous" to "Buffalo.") Islander players were going down, and there was nearly never a call. Sabre players would go down seemingly under their own power, and yet an Islander would be sent to the box. And, in the second period, after a long video review, the Sabres were awarded a controversial goal when there was a question of whether the puck had made it all the way across the goal line.

So, the stage was set when, late in the game, the Islanders' much-maligned captain Alexi Yashin was slammed into the boards from behind, and defenseman Chris Campoli was taken down on the way to the net after beating several Sabres. In both cases, the referees kept their arms down, allowing play to continue while the fans in the arena screamed in protest. A short time later, with one minute and 34 seconds left to play, Robitaille was sent to the box for barely touching a Sabres player, and the fans exploded.

Islanders star winger Ryan Smyth, who played his whole career until a late-February trade to New York in the hockey hotbed of Edmonton, summed up the fans' reaction simply but accurately in a New York Times article: "They pay to watch good hockey and not to have the officials take over." The referees had robbed the Islanders of a fair shot. We did not think our team would prevail, but we thought at the least we should get to watch a fair fight.

Smyth's quote, which thankfully steered away from the normal, neutral platitudes, raised two issues for me that felt dead-on in analyzing what happened. First, he immediately recognized that the fans have rights. That is, that NHL players would be playing for free in local leagues if not for the money spent by fans. Last night, the fans felt they were being taken advantage of. They felt they had a right to watch a fair hockey game, and they felt the officials had taken that away from them. Powerless, they acted the only way they knew how. While I cannot condone throwing objects on the ice, I also cannot deny that I liked the idea of the fans empowering themselves and taking action. And, I think it is remarkable that in the heat of the moment, nobody crossed a line. Nobody ran on the ice. Nobody threw anything dangerous. As riots go, it was pretty sedate in action, if not in emotion.

Hockey is not important in the scheme of things, but I felt the spirit of the Clash in the unrest. After all, this is a country where the citizenry normally waits for things to fall completely apart before acting. (I'm happy for the results of the 2006 midterm elections, but the main thing voters were concerned about, Iraq, would have been addressed much more easily if they had just not voted for the guy causing the problem in 2004.) In some ways, the country can take a page from the fans last night. Again, not in the actions that were taken, but in the spirit behind them.

Second, Smyth alluded to fans paying money, and in modern sports, that money is significant. I was sitting in the cheapest section of the arena, I had a discount as a season ticket plan holder, and my ticket was still $60 plus service charges. Most of the people in the arena were sitting in seats that ranged in price from $75 to $200. I think the amount fans pay for tickets now (not to mention merchandise), raises expectations and a sense of entitlement. And, it should. I could not help but think that this might be an early salvo in a larger fight, and that the high price of tickets will pop up as an issue all over the sports world. Fans will start feeling the right to assert their authority in light of the bigger burden they are carrying.

In 1976, when Yankee Stadium reopened after two years of renovations, my father paid $7.50 per ticket for our 16-game plan box seats behind home plate. Those seats now? Try $150 each as part of a season ticket plan, $300 if purchased individually, and $400 the day of the game. I do not hold a PhD in economics, but I feel quite sure that the increase is well above the rate of inflation. Of course, it's not like many (any?) of those seats are available. The Yankees come close to selling out every game now, more than doubling their attendance figures from 1976.

The leagues are only too happy to collect the staggeringly high fees for tickets that fans are obviously willing to pay, but they may also have to learn to handle the increased expectations of its supporters.

Yes, I understand that that last night a bunch of hockey fans were mad because they thought that their team got some bum calls. And, the lawyers, salesmen and construction foremen throwing things on the ice were a long way from the kids on the dole the Clash were talking about. But, to dismiss the events of last night as the rantings of a bunch of neanderthal hockey fans would be a mistake. This country can use a bit of the sense of justice I felt in the arena last night.