Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Pilsner ice-hockey war: players vs fans

Core fans are a great net asset and shouldn't be reeducated

Pilsen has top teams both in soccer and ice-hockey. In the recent decade, FC Viktoria Pilsen won about 1/2 of the seasons – although it will be second now, after its main rival Slavia Prague. HC Škoda Pilsen is also very good. It was third before the play-offs... and it is now playing the semifinals against Třinec (which was second before play-offs).

Pilsen took a lead... but yesterday Třinec won and it's 2-to-2 by matches. Four winning matches are needed.

But what I want to talk about are Pilsner fans who are... special.

So you know, I think that both soccer fans and ice-hockey fans in Pilsen (these sets surely have some intersection) are extraordinarily memorable, extraordinarily loud, extraordinarily creative, unusually melodic, and also producing a near-record number of vulgarities. I don't claim that Pilsen has no competition in this contest: it does have competition. But I think that Pilsen's fans would win, anyway.

OK, the ice-hockey stadium, now called the HC Monitoring Arena, has the capacity of 8200 viewers or so. The most important fans visit certain sectors. And these sectors contribute much more to the atmosphere in the ice-hockey stadium than anyone else.

I have never been to these sectors. And I don't belong there. To start with, I am unable to shout this loud! Second, I don't understand ice-hockey as much as they do. Third, the high density of vulgarities isn't really my cup of tea. Some people could say it's a surprising statement but intelligent readers surely understand what I am saying. This blog may have a high-than-average density of expletives relatively to the scientific websites but the ice-hockey league is an entirely different league.

But I do admire these emotional fans. Their choir music is slightly out-of-tune but it is good enough to figure out the musical theme they had in mind. And their slogans to mock various opposing teams are complete enough, creative, clever, and witty. Well, I admit that I am not a real sports expert and sometimes I found it more interesting to watch those fans than the players.

OK, what happened yesterday: Pilsen's mood wasn't great, the team was losing, and the referees made some problematic decision. OK, some folks in the cauldron or boiler or melting pot – whatever is the English name of the "kotel", the loud sector with the most active fans – started to convey their hypothesis that the "referees were a gang of pr**ks". I've heard similar comments about referees many, many times. Such situations are tense and the fans are often right when it comes to the substance.

But we're living in the era of reeducation. So the big "cube TV" at the center of the stadium started to show a "request by the general manager Martin Straka" (a former NHL player) to "be polite". It changed nothing and the criticism of the referees continued. What the organizers did then was problematic although they surely wanted to pretend that it was guaranteed to be wise: they started to play some really loud disco music (Scooter) so that you could no longer hear the vulgarities. And the "cube TV" showed a slogan "disco is better than vulgarities".

Now, before you continue to read, try to predict what happened.

To overshadow the fans' criticisms by the primitive disco tunes – while saying that our disco beats your screaming – is equivalent to "f**k you, fans". So maybe you correctly predicted that some 60 core fans left the sector in the middle of the match. And this had far-reaching consequences: those who listened could see that Pilsen was suddenly without almost any vocal support from the fans.

Almost all these fans returned for the last period but they continued in their "silent protest". They behave just like the polite fans who never open their mouth. Isn't it great? Again, for much of the period, Pilsen "sounded" like a team without fans. The relative contribution of these people – close to 1% of the viewers – is huge and may very well surpass 50% of the "volume". The silence should have been quite a lesson – about the importance of these fans who also produce some vulgar expressions.

Sadly, this war between the core fans and the players and bureaucrats didn't end. So the club said that "they didn't need such fans" and a player named Kovář said that he was "disappointed" by the fans. The players work so hard, display 100% efforts, jump to the puck's trajectory etc., and then they see some bad disrespectful people etc. Well, the fans also returned their opinions. One of them recommended Kovář to return to the KHL, the Russian league.

You know, I find the managers' and players' moralizing comments plain inadequate. Players are playing fine most of the time and the fans are doing some easy tasks, like screaming simple slogans and occasional vulgarities. But this summary overlooks some key details: the players are actually generously paid for their efforts – while the fans are among the sponsors who play for this whole industry. They work in factories or something and pay to relax in the evening. This very detail – the direction of the financial flows – should guarantee a certain amount of respect for the fans, too.

And the loud, core fans deserve the respect for another reason: they are really the key people who make the atmosphere in the stadium exciting. Without them, everything would be boring and artificial. And it's rather boring and artificial in other stadiums, e.g. those in Prague. It's not just about some impartial atmosphere. I do think that the fans' vocal support really helps their team. Sometimes they are an extra player on the ice. It's been a convention for a very long time that this is the normal way how it should be. And Pilsen's fans are also very active in traveling to other stadiums (both soccer and ice-hockey).

So I don't believe that the moralization by the players and managers is wise. The comment that "they don't need such fans" is utterly false, I think. They badly need such fans. They pay for the tickets and they create an interesting atmosphere even for the other visitors who also pay for their tickets. They have been an important part of the Pilsner sport – and as far as I am concerned, my pride about the special creativity and heart of the fan is at least "remotely comparable" to my pride about the players.

They have their own list of priorities, their own freedom, their own reasons to visit the matches etc. And it is completely wrong to try to reeducate them and dictate what they should and shouldn't say, why they should visit ice-hockey, and how much they should worship the referees. The fans aren't being paid by the club so they shouldn't be treated as disciplined or obedient employees of the club. Viewers with kids who don't want the kids to hear expletives – which they have learned in the kindergarten, anyway – should take them to a puppet show, not an emotional sports event.

At the end, this disagreement between the managers/players and the fans is just another example of the "discipline vs freedom of expression". The managers say that "true fans would never leave the stadium". But it's just a meaningless cliché. "True fans" don't have to be idealized according to some managers' needs. Fans are people who support their club but they still have their own priorities and dignity. If someone overwrites their critical shouting by stupid music, they may have a good reason to consider it a problem – and leave. Or stop rooting for their team.

Tomáš Vlasák, another former great player and the current sports manager of HC Škoda Pilsen, whined that he was sad that the viewers don't even respect the wishes of Straka, such a personality. Please, give me a break. If Straka appears as just another "better person" who is suppressing the fans' normal behavior, then he's only respected as another apparatchik. The fans in the melting pot are just fans, not members of a religious cult who come to worship Straka as God.

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