Everything that exists has a rhythm. A vibration. An air that it gives off, be it a person, an object, a place. Hockey is no different. Hockey has a pulse, a sound, a defining aura that gives it permanence in the universe. The scraping of blades on a freshly smoothed, glassy surface, the echo of sticks obliterating solid rubber as it screams toward it’s final resting spot, either in the safety of woven rope or with the thunderous clang of pipes.
The thing that brings this sport to life though is a synergetic relationship that exists between the players and their fans. Some may argue that sports still exist without their fans. While a sport alone may exist, the vitality and excitement that ignites it and helps to give it purpose is because of this relationship.
Fans fill arenas to see the extraordinary, the Sidney Crosbys, Evgeni Malkins, Claude Girouxs, Zdeno Charas, Marion Gaboriks and Patricks Kanes of the sport they breathe for. But it is not just the super stars that draw the affection of fans. Fan favorites, the goofy personalities that light up locker rooms and steal the hearts of fans at meet and greets add just as much substance to the sport.
Fan favorites energize crowds not so much with sleek skating and impossible shots on goal, but with a personal touch, something that fans can relate to: their personalities. They bring fans to the game because they help make fans feel as though they are a part of something exceptional.
No matter what I may feel toward Max Talbot as a player, he played this role perfectly during his time in Pittsburgh. An average player turned super star on the ice once again in his new home across the state, Max understood how to play to fans by allowing himself to be integrated into the Pittsburgh culture. He embraced the city and its people, consistently showing generosity toward the children of this small town with his work at Children’s Hospital and his personal charity, The Max Talbot Foundation.
Known for his goofy car commercials and as an all around ladies man in the South Side, Max let the fans into his life but also kept the locker room at Mellon Arena and then Consol Energy Center alive and full of hope with his natural charisma and good natured demeanor. While I personally was not a fan of Talbot, I understand and appreciate what other fans saw in him and why he was so important to this city, even though he was not among my favorites.
Max Talbots are littered throughout the league. Every hockey town has that one magical guy who brings a smile to your face, even if it isn’t always on the ice.
Former Penguin, Paul Bissonnette (now with the Phoenix Coyotes) is another guy who may not be a prodigy on the ice, but he owns the hearts of fans and his teammates. If the NHL had a Mr. Personality Award, he would win it every year. He knows how to make people laugh and laughter in any locker room is important. Anyone who has ever played sports knows this. If you’re not having fun, you’re not going to win. A downtrodden attitude is toxic to any team.
Scott Hartnell in Philadelphia is among my most hated players on the ice, but off the ice, Philadelphia fans insist that he would be your favorite guy in any city. Based on his tweets and his sense of humor, anyone would have to agree. His Hartnell Down website pokes fun of his own misfortune, a man who is constantly taking spills on the ice. Every time he fell during the All Star Game, he donated $1000 to charity (He fell a total of 4 times).
Mark Recchi, also a former Penguin and favorite to our fan base, compelled Boston in his short stint there, a veteran player at the end of his career who stepped up as a leader to his team and earning unyielding respect from Bruins fans. He acted as a martyr when Zdeno Chara laid a hit to Max Pacioretty, ending his season early with a fractured neck by being outspoken to take the focus off of Chara. Retiring a Bruin on the night the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 39 years.
I have a Mark Recchi autographed puck on my desk. It is 21 years old. You cannot forget the Wrecking Ball’s searing blue eyes and warm smile.
Fan favorites are important to the game, the teams and the fans. They bring fans a little bit closer to the game, integrating them into the team in a way that goes beyond sitting among the crowd.