Thinking about the state of the NHL recently has brought to mind something that I find to be very curious; the state of the NHL's fans. It seems to me that there has been an increasing sense of "hockey nationalism" growing over the past few years. Before I go any further, I feel I should point out that there is a distinct difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is, simply put, love of and devotion to one's own country. Nationalism, however, is when that love becomes excessive, bordering on chauvanism. The first time I was really exposed to this was at the most recent World Cup of Hockey in which the games being held in the United States were being held at the Xcel Energy Center. Being a student at the time, as well as an avid hockey fan, I jumped at the opportunity to get discounted tickets through my university and was lucky enough to get tickets to every game held at the X.
The excitement in the building was palpable, the environment electric. You could tell, even before the opening drop of the puck, that there wasn't a single person in that building that wasn't excited to watch the best that the United States had to offer play the best of the best from the other countries involved. The hockey was fantastic from the first drop of the puck until the final buzzer. What I had witnessed at the arena, however, was far less than fantastic. The factor of nationalism was certainly at play throughout each and every game played. Every single fan that was shown on the screen supporting any team but the United States was booed and jeered, simply for showing their patriotism for their country. At one point, a child no more than 6 years old was shown on the big screen with Finnish flags painted on his cheeks and wearing nothing but the blue and white of Finland. An adorable sight, to be sure, but how was this image accepted by the fans? With a chorus of boos and jeers that had the poor child looking like he was lost. Even more disgusting to me was the display after Finland defeated the United States in the final game at the X, moving them along to the medal round. As the game came to an end, the celebrating Fins were greeted with garbage being hurtled at them from the stands. Cups, plastic bottles and the like were all sent flying towards the celebrating players. I can only imagine that, had USA's players recieved the same treatment from opposing fans, the USA hockey fans and USA citizens in general would have been appalled.
Another troubling form of this "hockey nationalism" is taking place as we speak amongst Canadian and US hockey fans alike. The idea that some towns don't deserve hockey teams because they are a non-traditional market has been brought up numerous times in the past weeks and even months. Being a Minnesota hockey fan through and through, I have a great deal of sympathy with the Nashville hockey community because I know how hard it is to lose the team that you love. I also can sympathize with the likes of Winnipeg and Hamilton because I also know how hard it is to know that you could field a team that would garner the full support of the community in a way that other teams may not. The fact is that, regardless of nationality, we all share a common bond whether we be from Toronto or Tampa Bay. We all love the game of hockey. Who's to say who does and doesn't deserve a team? Don't get me wrong; I think that Canada should have another team. The Los Angeles area has two teams, after all, why shouldn't the Toronto area have two? My point is only that hockey should not be considered exclusive to those who experience large amounts of snow during the winter. We, as fans, have a duty to band together and support the NHL. Especially as the league is going through troubled times, we must band together and support whatever attempts the NHL is making to reach a wider audience.
This form of nationalism that is prevalant in our sport may never go away. It will always be there to spark discussions about certain topics. It will always be prevelant in international games. But it needs to turn away from nationalism and turn into patriotism. Support for your country, your country's teams and your country's players is paramount, but it should never turn into disrespect for other countries, their players or their fans.