Take Me To Church

Paul Balm with his first article of the new season. A wonderfully written summary of why we, the fans, keep going week after week.

It’s that time of year again. Pre-season is done and we’re in to that period of expectation that marks the start of the season proper. It’s a wonderful time of the year, hopes are high and there’s almost a feeling that anything can happen. We’re all joint top (and bottom but I’m ignoring that) of the league and it’s still anyone’s to play for (it’s obviously also a time for clichés). Will it be the same as last year or is someone going to do a Leicester. We don’t know. In all this, though, there’s one question at the back of my mind that I can’t get rid of.

Why do we do it?

Why do we put ourselves through so much just to watch a game of sport? Why do we put in the long miles, the late nights? Why do we set off in such high expectation only to return home in such disappointment? We don’t do this once either. We return to it again and again, year after year, season after season. We’re drawn in by the internal mantra that this time it will be different. “You’ll see, this will be our year” We tell ourselves that, convince ourselves. And when it isn’t, when it’s exactly the same as before what do we do? Do we come to the conclusion that it’s really not worth the time, effort, money and emotion, don’t forget the emotion, that we spend on it. Of course not, we lie to ourselves all over again and just get back on the merry go round.

Why do we do it? I wish I knew.

It can’t just be about the game. The game is what we go to watch but it’s not why we’re there week in year out. If it was just the game we’d tire of the long miles, the drubbings, even the great nights. It has to be about something else. Why did we chose this game over all the others? What makes this sport we love so different? For me it’s about the people you go with, it’s about the memories, about sitting round a table in a pub talking about terrible games you’ve been to years after the event because they usually stick in the mind more than most. You remember the great nights as well. The trophies, the victories over the bitter rivals, the “I was there when…” moments all stick in the mind as well but it’s those terrible nights that we talk about. Time changes things and what started out feeling as raw as an open wound changes over time to something almost akin to comedy. OK, maybe I’d get that from other sports maybe it’s more about sport itself rather than an individual sport, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that watching sport is some kind of therapy.

Ice hockey has changed so much in the time I’ve watched it. We’ve gone from straight time periods, Cooperalls, goal time tickets and dimly lit rinks to new arenas, multiple player sponsors and feeling like you’re being forced to buy a 50/50 ticket. The way we watch the game has changed enormously as well. Remember the days when the only way to find out the score of a game you weren’t at was to check the score on Ceefax (come to think of it do you even remember Ceefax or Teletext?) or, if you were feeling particularly flush, you could phone the club’s 0898 premium hotline. Failing that, and this feels incomprehensible now, you had to wait until the morning after or even tea time to read the report in the local paper. Compare that to today. Can’t get there? You can watch the webcast, get updates on Twitter or Facebook. You have to wonder why people still go to away games if they can follow what’s going on with such speed and ease from the comfort of their own living room. We’re back to those original questions, why do we do it? Because being there is always that little bit better. It might not seem like it at the time depending on how the game is going but it gives you that “I know, I was there” edge when you’re sat around that pub table.

It’s not all good news though. When I think back to when I started watching hockey I remember going to places like Billingham, Durham, Whitley Bay, Streatham, Solihull. Places that you could walk in and feel the atmosphere and the history in every (at times) dimly lit brick and wooden board. Rinks were different in those days, they had, for want of a better word ‘soul’. There’s not many places that still have that undefinable feeling, that sense when you walked in the door that hockey was played there and had been for years. That ‘soul’ seems to be getting replaced more and more often with comfort and I have to wonder whether those comfort levels are responsible for people decrying the loss of atmosphere across the leagues. Why sit on the edge of the seat when the rest of it is so comfortable? You had to want to be there in those old places. The uncomfortable seats, cramped conditions and all the other little bits of (let’s be charitable) character meant you really had to love the hockey to put up with the place.

Don’t get me wrong some of those places were absolute dumps. But, to those of us that went to one of them week in week out they were our dumps and we loved them for all their foibles because they were where we came together to watch the sport we love. There’s still a few of them out there and we should cherish them for what they are, not what they are in comparison to somewhere else, what they are. They’re our churches, the places we go to worship.

In all this change one thing remains the same and always will do, the people. Those seemingly normal people who once or twice a week descend on a place not just to witness a sporting event but to become an integral part of it. How you get involved may have changed and will vary from fan to fan. Some will shout and cheer all game, some will moan for just as long and others will sit there quietly, nervously taking in every moment, every pass, every shot only to jump up and join in the throng along with all the others, part of that mass (no matter how big or small of fans) celebrating that goal.

We’re all different but we all have something in common. We love the game.

You can follow Paul on Twitter @MrBalm

%d bloggers like this: