With the Nashville Predators embroiled in doing their imitation of of a puddle any time they play in Pittsburgh and that of an all-destroying tidal wave at home, the notion of dominance in one’s own barn has reasserted itself in our collective hockey head.
Anyone who has watched the Preds on home ice has been immediately transported, in memory, to some hockey rink of yore where it felt impossible that the team wearing the home sweaters could lose. Maybe this was an old high school rink where the student section loomed over the bench and that girl you wanted to impress was standing with her friends.
Maybe it was when you first got to college and were taken aback by the atmosphere on a Friday night when your school’s rivals of seventy-five years parked the bus outside. Maybe it was some AHL contest between teams with rosters of guys who’d never drink so much as a few ounces of espresso in the NHL, but who invariably dropped the gloves and threw with each other, like some repeated rite of passage centered on dragooning.
Or perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to experience some of the NHL’s greatest home ice advantages in the flesh, one of which these Predators can certainly lay claim. That’s unusual in today’s league, in a PC world, where architectural quirks have given way to state-of-the-art facilities long on amenities, but often short on grit. Idiosyncrasies. A groundlings element. A free-for-all spirit.
There’s a dash of this in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, in large part because of a pervasive college element. Go to a college game between top-tier programs, in some rink that is much the same now as it was in 1978, and you’ll hear warring student sections cajoling their respective partisans to get involved in myriad chants.
Chants, of course, are fun. They are also often stupid—yes, goalies can be sieves, but allowing a single goal does not a sieve make—but, more than that, they’re very handy in fostering crowd unity, turning everyone into a member of a gang for an evening. A good gang, mind you, not the blood debt kind. A gang that is knitted together to be the Greek chorus portion of a drama that hopefully ends with the team’s whose beds are closest finishing up the evening by at least one goal ahead.
In NHL history there have been all manner of home ice advantages, though we see less of them these days, which makes Nashville’s situation all the more special. And, frankly, good for the game; the non-hockey fan, even, can appreciate the TV-friendly spectacle of the Nashville experience. Have a big enough set—or get up to a small one close enough—and you can even pretend you’re there, chanting along.
The Montreal Forum was the gold standard for home rink magic, with that magic being of the psychological variety. Teams, simply, were scared to play there, feeling the ghosts of the past, of all those other teams who had laced them up in the visitors’ dressing room and then been destroyed, as if part of some Roman festival that could only have one result.
Chicago Stadium used a different tactic: intimidating you during the national anthem—while, paradoxically, inspiring you as well—as the crowd sang along, often drowning out the singer, followed by the opponent then getting drowned out on the scoreboard.
Madison Square Garden has had the curious blend going for it of both making you feel that bodily harm could happen to you, via crowdsourcing, and that the assembled throng was smarter than any other assembled throng in the league. Certainly harder to deceive, for instance, if someone on the Rangers wanted to try getting away with dogging it for the night. Montreal fans at the Forum could become a satire of themselves, whining about every call, no matter how obvious, that did not go their way, and sometimes the death-by-a-thousand-cuts style of those great Canadiens teams gained a death-by-17,0000-whiners element, but Madison Square Garden crowds have always tended to be fair, even when calling for your head. Which is part of the reason they’re so scary when they wish to be.
Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena was one ugly barn, but one laced with kinetic energy, as a person-to-person sense of hope could all but be felt swirling about. Even in the 1970s and 1980s against stacked Canadiens and Oilers teams, there were moments in the playoffs when the Wings would hold a brief lead, and not only did a single game victory feel possible, but a mighty streak to Cup-based jubilation seemed to be in the balance as well, before reality set back in.
A strong home ice crowd is useful in staving off reality, which is vital to the American sports experience, both for providing us some repose from our daily slog, and because only one team’s fans go home entirely contented each year when it’s all said and done, so how does everyone else have max-fun along the way?
There was so much fun to be had at the old Boston Garden, an architectonic bad dream of a building for visiting teams. The place had this perma-smell of beer and popcorn, with the seats hanging right over the ice. It felt like you could reach out and grab Guy Lafleur’s jersey to slow him down while the ref wasn’t looking. The Gallery Gods of the upper deck taught many a New England child how the words you weren’t supposed to say really worked, which was an added bonus—or a concern—depending upon whether you were a kid or a parent.
But on Sunday return to Nashville—Smashville, if you prefer, which sounds like a city under siege that Superman would have to restore to order in the a 1940's comic book. The order of the day will probably be a Preds victory, because the Penguins aren’t just skating against a team that is a whole different animal on their home ice, they’re skating against a kind of collective experience as well, that comprises men and women whose own personal home rinks, if you will, are more commonly venues like the office, the classroom, the hospital, the deli, the courthouse, the home where the kids are raised.
Granted, none of this will probably matter in the end when it goes back to Pittsburgh for Game 7. Why? Because your goalie is an absolute sieve there, Nashville fans. A horrible, horrible sieve. They should follow your lead and get some chants going.