Sports Fans Culture and University of Denver Hockey
“Watch out! Terry in front. To Gambrell. Rebound. Score! Hat trick, Lukosevicius!” bellowed ESPN’s John Buccigross. The evenly matched Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs and Denver Pioneers battled for 30 minutes until Luco dropped three in the net in five minutes to shift the momentum. Duluth watched as their chances of victory slipped away past the goal line. That is until the third period when every Pioneer fan watched nervously as Duluth drew ever closer to tying the game. After 60 minutes, the assault was over; the Pioneers survived.
The Whiteboard’s dream was to be at the NCAA finals and appear on an ESPN highlight reel. And when Denver battled their way to it in 2017, we saw our chance. That is until we saw the cost. After those heart attacks, our dream was put on hold indefinitely. Just as our hopes had faded, a knight in shining armor rode up and presented us with an opportunity we could not pass up. We finagled 4 tickets to the game, including one in the first row, thanks to the generosity of a DU alumni. Home or away, DU Whiteboard was going to follow.
NCAA hockey is far from football or basketball in media popularity, but the fans are no less dedicated to their team than any other sport. Alumni and other donors pour hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting the Pioneers; when you have a lot of wealth and a little bit of school identity, there is great generosity and support. Some even pay to hold onto traditions they loved. Boone, who used to be DU’s mascot, is no longer officially funded and supported by the administration. Alumni chose to pay, out of their pockets, to have him attend and travel to DU games in a variety of sports.
The drive to Chicago is 18 hours from Denver, and one person making that drive nonstop isn’t the easiest thing to do. Denver was set to face Notre Dame in the first game and they hadn’t played each other during the season so no one knew what to expect when the two hit the ice. We had a lot to live up to on that day; so, as we drove, we prepared some of the funniest things to put on the board against a team who had never experienced it firsthand. Notre Dame was going to be in for two shocks that day. We arrived at the hotel at noon on April 5. I in snuck two hours of rest before I had to drag my ass out and prepare for the game. Getting everything into the United Center wasn’t easy. They don’t let outside signs in, and our one contact in security wasn’t able to secure the whiteboard safe passage. Clearly, the only option available to us was to smuggle the thing in. We knew some people who had free access to the arena, so we had them take it in through their door and hand it off to us. The whole operation went pretty successfully given the circumstances. Honestly, a lot of dumb luck got the board in. That was only the first hurdle, we still had to make sure people around us would let us use it. After getting lectured with a plethora of rules, which we were happy to follow, we walked the fine line enough to not have it removed. We gave some fans around us some gear DU gear as a thank you for allowing our shenanigans. Of course, after the game, we were met by people who loved our content and others who didn’t (who were mostly Notre Dame fans yelling at us on Twitter).
A couple days later, the championship game rolled around. Lo and behold, it was against our very best friends the UMD Bulldogs. We ran the same drill again to get the board in, except on sharper eggshells this time. When they came onto the ice, they were greeted by the friendly face of DU Whiteboard. They were probably thinking, and if they weren’t they should have been, “w can’t even escape them a thousand miles away.
“The end result of what DU Whiteboard accomplished isn’t what makes the organization great, but rather why it started. What defines being a fan is the dedication to the sport they’re following. When students waited outside the Ritchie Center box office for a day just to get a pass to home games, that shows dedication. They waited in freezing temperatures and terrible October weather just to get their hands on the ticket. Hundreds came and waited, but why would so many people endure those conditions? There are deeper motives at play than just the chance at free tickets. It’s the true fans who got there the earliest and used the ticket the most. That day marks the most important day for the Whiteboard; because of the golden ticket, because of our love for hockey, the Whiteboard crew was able to usher in a new era for fans of Denver Pioneer Hockey.
To have a new era the old must’ve established something first. Thousands of years ago, in the real first era, ancient civilizations played and used sports for a variety of reasons. The Mayans’ religious game Pitz, the Greek Olympics, and the Roman Colosseum represent the most well-known of those sports. The ancient Olympics of 3,000 years ago was a marvel to behold. People from various Greek city-states came to Olympia compete in the games. The Greeks were not a united people, and many times were in conflict with one another. Despite this, athletes were granted passage to the games and could participate peacefully as competitors until the game’s conclusion. This is the first time many nations would come together in peaceful competition. This is one of the earliest versions of massive political cooperation between nations where people were competing against one another. In many instances, nations compete for resources, glory, and land, but never did any of those endeavors end completely without bloodshed and strife. Winning was so important for individuals, those who had the olive leaf crown bestowed upon them represented the most impressive of men. The Olympians were viewed as heroes in their home countries and were showered with gifts, befit for the gods themselves.
The Olympics were brought back in 1896 where only a handful of countries participated. Today, over a hundred years later, athletes from 206 countries leave their home nations to compete for pride and a whole lot of gold. It functions the same as in ancient Greece, people had a place to compete for their nation outside of conflict and war. No matter how much the participating countries hated one another, they still came and battled side by side for victory. There is no other institution that links so many differing countries together in the name of the same cause, which is a reason why the Olympics never cease to amaze.
Playing for gold is a common trend as Denver began their season with their eyes on the prize. The season kicked off Friday, October 7 against Ohio State in the Ice Breaker Tournament. I experienced the culture of Denver Hockey fans and the boisterous arena for the first time, and what it was all a shock. The arena’s student section encompasses 3 sections which stretch back an entire column of seats. The stadium wasn’t standing room only, but it was pretty crowded. In the first three rows sat the dedicated fans of DU hockey. Devastating check after check slammed against the glass, only inches away. My seat had a perfect view of the net; you could see each puck fly past the line in slow motion before the crowd erupted with cheers. Week in and week out the arena became alive and music boomed through the speakers. Among all, that ruckus was the fierce stick slaps and the crunch of blades shredding through the ice. Each and every game, the student section was pumped with a fiery energy; which isn’t something the other sports can say regularly. You’ve not experienced the student section until you’ve heard what we spew out to the other team in the name of fandom. They are worth a chuckle but don’t put your kid in the middle of it of their going to learn some naughty things. Magness Arena is our turf, they are the intruders and we’re not going to let them out easily. Between the incessant badgering of the student section and the Denver team out on the ice, other teams must wish they could just go back home. I realize it’s this dedication that defines DU hockey fans because the love and support for the team is tremendous.
Dedication to a sports team, of course, isn’t something unique to hockey. People become so intertwined with their teams it becomes something like a nationality. Sports clubs “represent important social identities that convey meaning and belongingness to their members”. What fans experience leads to spending a lot of time and money into the sport they are connected with. None of this would be possible without capitalism, which at its core, is a system of economic privatization. Sports in America are vastly private organizations with a lot of power. But more broadly, multiple other factors arise as byproducts for capitalism’s continued success. For example, there is a central focus on competition because that prevents private corporations from being able to take advantage of consumers. Competition is foundational in American capitalism, for years presidents fought to bust monopolies and trusts because when competition is reduced or feigned, consumers suffer monumentally. Every working American contributes to building a competitive scene; it’s this drive that spills over from economics into entertainment.
This sentiment is evident in how sports are valued in the television industry. The sports market is worth a whopping $70 billion, and the players are some of the most highly paid people behind few actors and mega corporation CEO’s. The NFL’s Super Bowl is often cited as the most-watched programming in the United States and they are not making it up. The top 20 programs in television history are 20 different Super Bowls. Sports are loved and people will dedicate hours of their lives to following a team. Although the NFL tops the charts, that doesn’t discount the vast popularity of other sports. There is a huge fanbase for many sports and which gives way to some of the highest paid people in America. Players are paid as much as they are because of how cherished sports are in America’s culture. Sports are a staple and money is shoveled into them. Once the middle class was able to grow, a new stem grew out from capitalism’s roots. People began collecting items and materialism rose to prominence. Sports perfectly exploit this as memorabilia and merchandise have carved a huge market. Seats on the arena’s first level cost multiple hundreds of dollars for both days, what made people willing to spend money on prices steeper than Everest for one ticket and 6 hours of hockey? Shoes of players are sold for thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars. The reason many are willing to spend hundreds to go to their events and buy their merch is that of that identification with their teams. To become a fan is to make the team’s success, failures, and culture a part of you.
These ties create an atmosphere where the competition breeds disgust and hate towards opposing members. DU_Whiteboard, for the lack of a better term, harasses the other team, but not in any evil way. We do enough to distract, amuse, or annoy the players on the ice. Some don’t like what we have to say, others have even gotten heated toward us and lost their cool. But they are only doing it for the same reasons we’re out there messing with the other team: we love our own.
I had gone with my friends to every home game of the season, but the DU Whiteboard brainchild formed at the game against Providence December 30, 2016. During winter break, Magness sells off the sides of the student section so students only had the middle section to sit in. It’s because of DU selling out seats around me that I met Dustin, who I interestingly had seen at every game prior as well. Since Dustin was forced to sit in the middle and just so happens next to me, we casually talk and he throws down the bombshell of an idea. “Would you like to be a part of something I’m thinking of starting for hockey games?” I’ve never branched out and done something in the name of school spirit in my life, nor do I actively make conversation with strangers. Oh, and in the background, the Pios tied 2–2 that game. Dustin wanted to pester the other team even more so he devised a foolproof method to communicate our thoughts to the players since voices didn’t travel through glass very well, handwritten text. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to enhance the student section’s spirit and engage with school more. Thus, DU Whiteboard was officially born.
DU Whiteboard is not a very household name and many at DU don’t know it too well, let alone the 4 people behind its creation (with me is Anny, who I already was friends with, Kat, Dustin). When we debuted, fans in the arena took note of our, then tiny, board and immediately loved us. The first official appearance of the board was January 7, 2016, against Arizona State University. It was a splash, but we couldn’t directly interact with other fans. Anny and I thought a perfect to incorporate all DU fans were to create a Twitter. All while the game is happening, we are tweeting and encouraging people to tweet us what they wanted to see go on the board. We were bombarded with tweets containing all kinds of comments and requests. Kids would tweet, “We see you!” and we even caught the attention of the Magness Arena DJ. Fans had us put up anything from jokes about how bad Arizona was, to memes about how they could not score against us.
After the first series of games, the four of us sat down at Illegal Pete’s and forged a game plan. “What did the whiteboard symbolize? What are the guidelines of what we can post”. We decided the board was for people to communicate with players on the ice in a fun way with the latent intentions being to boost team spirit and game participation in the crowd. The operation was small and the board even smaller; the biggest complaint people had from that week’s games was it was too hard to read the board from across the arena. Since Dustin pocketed the expenses to buy a massive board for the games against ASU, Anny and me bought massive dry erase markers big enough John Handcock would be proud.
Each week we and the fans came up with the funniest statements to hurl at the other players; but later in the season, DU Whiteboard made its first big leap and we traveled to Colorado Springs to watch Denver play DU’s most notorious rival, CC. I felt like an outsider walking into their arena. With us our primary mode of harassment, but this place had a thousand CC fans and only a handful of us. This was it, the Battle of Thermopylae. The tensions between the rivals were invasive enveloping both the players and the fans.
The rivalry between DU and CC is everything but ordinary. Why was the DU — CC rivalry so entrenched in our schools’ cultures? Six words, The Battle for the Gold Pan. Since the inception of DU Hockey, the two clubs played four games against one another every single season and each year whoever won the most that season had all the bragging rights. I could feel the tension between us and the CC fans. During the 60’s through 80’s, this rivalry became so volatile some games were postponed due to violence among fans. In the 93/94 season, the coaches of both teams decided to throw water on a grease fire, they began using a rusty gold mining pan from Cripple Creek, Colorado as an official trophy. Not only did the winner of the Pan have bragging rights, they also had a pan. Unfortunately, the original Pan was lost for the 2004 season, but the Cripple Creek Mining Co donated one in 2005 to refuel the Battle for the Gold Pan once again. Today the DU vs. CC rivalry has one of the most games played between NCAA rivals with 308 games played. DU leads the rivalry with 176 wins versus CC’s 116 wins, with the teams drawing only 17 times. Needless to say, blood ties run deep.
The notion of identification with a team mixed with their personal investments into it creates polarized factions. People who share like feelings for one team or another start identifying as then and when two teams compete, these divides become even more apparent. During games, people take to social media or go in person and put down the fans of other teams. In a study done by Catherine Amiot, she concluded that in their study among rival hockey team fans, and of different teams in general, there was a positive correlation between self-determination and engaging in the derogatory behavior. Along with this, according to the social identity theory, people who engaged in those behaviors had a more positive social identity. On the contrary, when people engaged in the derogatory behaviors, they felt worse about themselves which then caused them to do it less. This is an important insight into fan culture; when in the moment two opposing fans can hate each other, but outside the context of the game, they would have no problems getting along peacefully. Something within competition itself drives some people to have a superiority complex which would otherwise be unseen.
A good example of this is discussed in an article by Garth Woolsey in 2000. During the playoffs of that year, fans of the Colorado Avalanche adopted a new “trademark,” according to Woolsey. This new tradition was chanting “(Team name) sucks!” This chant was posted on fan made gear, cars, and anywhere else one would put such a thing. There are those who perpetrated the tradition and those who opposed. Of course, Avalanche fans saw no harm, but people who had to play against them didn’t like it so much. This is the type of behavior Amiot meant in her study; it’s this form of degradation that makes people uncomfortable, but also raise their allegiance within that community. The chant is awfully familiar to the student fans at DU because when the Pioneers play their rivals Colorado College, they chant “CC Sucks” over and over again. The Whiteboard is a part of the DU faction. We all share the same passion for the following hockey and have spent vast amounts of time and money supporting them. What may not seem bad to us is bad to an opposing fan, and vice-a-versa. But as Amiot found, we are all just fitting into the molds in which we associate with.
America is driven the most by capitalistic ideologies, but these same sentiments are also expressed internationally and soccer being the most notable sport. However, rather than dividing a single nation with a multitude of teams like in North America, they unite as a country and demonstrate the same negative behaviors to other country’s fans. One interesting example was Brazil in the 2014 World Cup against Germany (Rice). The Germans were putting on a clinic against the home team Brazilians when the fans began to boo their own team. Not just a few of them, but the entire stadium seemingly flipped sides. They were so dissatisfied with their team’s play, they were willing to demoralize them even further.
At the extreme end, well past the action, Amiot researched, people get into fights, and some even killed, because someone chose to root for a different team. In 2013, a Dodger fan was fatally stabbed while attending a Giants game, all because of the line they dug in the sand. To the assaulter, there was the only room in this world for one fan (Anderson). This is even more shocking because those men were Americans, yet they killed over identifying with opposing teams. When the Lakers won in the 2010 NBA finals, and when the San Francisco Giants won the world series in 2014, people took to the streets and destroyed property in the name of celebration. Their deep associations lead these fans to celebrate with no cares for anything else, not even the law. Gambling aside, fans don’t have any direct stake in the success or failure of teams, but yet some treat their team’s failure as their own.
To some extent, I saw that emotion of collective loss while at CC. To my surprise, there were far fewer fans at the game in Colorado Springs than I expected; especially in their student section. So few I could count them on my hands. Although CC was having a rough year, they were still playing their rivals. Alumni and other fans stood by them, but the students couldn’t be bothered. The band was made up of more students than the actual section itself. Despite that, it was still loud and they had chants like we did, except theirs incorporated the entire stadium. The chants I’m used to is led exclusively by the student section when CC scored the entire stadium erupted with their signature chants. The dynamic of how these chants form is interesting because although these fans are no different than our fans, the way they express their pride is very much different than at DU. When they chanted, we fought back, so much so one man sitting to our right even got into a heated verbal altercation with Dustin. Eventually, he was outwitted and frustrated so he moved to the other side of the party he was with. As I sat next to Dustin and Anny watching the game, all I could think of how small their student section was. One goal of DU Whiteboard is to keep our student section filled, and not look as desolate as the CC one, no matter how poor our season is going. As the night came to a close, I could taste the Tigers’ bitterness in the air since we beat them an impressive 5–1.
Every interaction between teams and between fans builds up with each new occurrence. It’s that way one branch of America’s capitalism was able to develop because of the interactions sports had with our culture. An oversimplified viewpoint on this is that the ideologies of capitalism, and associated factors like competition or materialism, have branches which further developed because of the sports industry incorporating those values with a strong entertainment factor. So, as the mores in sports culture developed over time, capitalism followed to meet its needs by glorifying competition as seen on the rise in the mid-1800’s. The reason for this is competition made people money, lots of money. Money is a very valuable incentive to privatizing everything, including sports franchises, for personal gains. In the background, since the 1800’s, America’s middle class rose and became a primary factor in driving wealth. Owners of sports franchises saw an opportunity to expand their wealth while providing people with more leisure time things to engage in. The incorporation of buying and selling merchandise gave people yet another reason to grow so attached to sports. Becoming a part of the team by supporting them in these new ways fed the fan’s identification and association to a whole new level. They buy their team’s gear and defend their identification to varying extents, which leads to the polarization and violence displayed by fans over which team they support. Following the growth of America and it’s embrace of capitalism very closely mirrors the progression of sports culture. Self-interest was a powerful motivator in capitalism and now equally so in fans of different sports teams. After all that, we’re left with a paradox where sports are influencing American capitalism and capitalism doing the same to sports. The interplay between these things nurtured one another and with influences of both were able to progress to what we see today. As we push into the 21st century, with the incorporation of mass media and faster transportation, these sentiments only grow stronger. Media is changing the game because it is providing, even more, outlets to create associations and connect with other fans. For better or worse. This trend has become so influential, it amplifies every invasive nature of capitalism tenfold.
And now, all the fun is all over. After the finals, we drove to the team’s hotel for the celebration when the team arrived. We met many of the players, saw Tariq Hammond, whose shattered ankle looked pretty painful, and got to congratulate Monty. And they deserved it; Denver swept the board of individual awards with Tory Terry as a national hero, Will Butcher with the Hobey Baker, and Tanner Jaillet as the goaltender of the year. The 2016–2017 Denver team dominated the country, in the background, little DU Whiteboard dominated the crowds. The board shattered every goal set with 200+ followers on Twitter, appearing on TV and ESPN, getting a sponsor, boosting fan interaction, and gain notoriety in the locker room. The Denver Pioneers are gearing up for the 2017–2018 year with eyes high on snatching another back to back the title and DU Whiteboard will be alongside them like the fly buzzing around the other team’s ear. As soon as we find our board…