Hockey fans like to think tradition is important in our sport. While other sports such as basketball and football cater to the flavor of the day, hockey is built on decades of tradition.
We have our own terminologies, many of which have come under assault in recent years. The traditional hockey term of dressing rooms has been replaced by the unoriginal term locker rooms. Center ice has been replaced by the neutral zone. Two-on-ones and three-on-twos have been replaced by the generic term odd-man rushes. And perhaps worst of all, the boards are starting to become known as the wall, especially in non-traditional markets.
It is enough to make a hockey fan scream.
However, if a hockey fan screams and nobody can hear it over the too-loud arena music, does the scream really exist?
Over-the-top game presentation has long been a trademark of the National Basketball Association, and while critics have praised the league for their marketing, NBA ratings and interest are a fraction of what they were a decade ago.
Sadly, this type of game presentation is creeping into our game, and fans must voice their opinion to stop the spread.
Last weekend should have been one of the greatest moments in recent Chicago Blackhawks history. The team is playing well behind rookie sensations Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and Sunday’s game against Detroit launched a new era of home games being televised on local television.
Yet the big story came in the area of game presentation. Longtime organist Frank Pelico was largely absent from the weekend’s games, his duties being limited to the national anthem and post-game proceedings.
Anyone over the age of 25 who grew up as a hockey fan associates the organ with Chicago hockey. While the pipe organ did not make its way from Chicago Stadium to the United Center, organ music stayed a big part of the Blackhawks. While other teams shunned organ music for recorded music, the Hawks stayed traditional.
Ironically, now that many teams are featuring more organ music than they have in recent years, Pelico finds himself watching games as a spectator. Hawks fans are understandably outraged, flooding message boards, blogs, and the front office with complaints.
Southern California’s two NHL franchises demonstrate the radical differences between various arenas when it comes to game presentation. While the Los Angeles Kings take a traditional approach to game presentation, the Anaheim Ducks feature a nightclub atmosphere – something most people outgrow before they reach 30.
The Kings start with a great introduction on their 2400-inch ICE T, also known as an on-ice projector. The accompanying music by Hans Zimmer and Linkin Park – played at reasonable volumes – provide the perfect accompaniment to the visuals.
Once the game starts, the game presentation stays top-notch. Organist Dieter Ruehle, who was the organist at the last two Olympics, leads the crowd in traditional yells such as “Go Kings Go.” He does a great job of mixing classics like Kalinka or Hava Nagila with modern adaptations of bands such as U2 or Green Day. Ruehle maintains at least a 50/50 ratio of organ music to recorded music, and both are played at reasonable levels.
Thirty miles southeast at Honda Center, the assault on the senses is impossible to avoid. The introduction music is played way beyond the capabilities of the sound system, making the music painfully loud and virtually impossible to understand. While this is happening, a couple of dozen spotlights move in a fast, haphazard manner across the ice, creating a sense of motion sickness.
Sadly, the presentation gets no better once the game begins. While the music stays too loud and the organist adds too many Disneyland-esque drum rolls in most songs, the spotlights return far too frequently. When the spotlights are thankfully reduced, several migrane-inducing strobe lights are used in conjunction with the music at most whistles. The result is an atmosphere that resembles a WWE event or a teen-oriented nightclub, but certainly not a hockey game.
As someone who has spent most of his life in traditional hockey environments, there is no question which arena is more appealing. And the California market is more savvy than the Ducks seem to give it credit. Many, if not most, hockey fans in the region are transplants from traditional markets. If I had a dollar for every time one of these transplants told me they will not go to Ducks games because of the distracting game presentation, I might have enough money to buy the team and change the game presentation myself.
While no other NHL arena – certainly not the United Center – approaches the distraction level of the Honda Center, the loss of another hockey tradition in the sake of modernization would be a travesty.
Rocky Wirtz has done many things right since assuming leadership in Chicago. He would be wise to do one more thing right – bring back Pelico.