On Traditions, Old and New

From approximately 1961 to 1973, I had the pleasure of watching hockey games in the old Boston Arena, now Northeastern’s Matthews Arena. For about eight of those years, I had the privilege of playing there.

The place was home not only to Northeastern, but also for Boston University, Boston State College, a number of high school leagues, and the Massachusetts Schoolboy State Tournament. It was also home for the Boston Whalers of the old World Hockey Association. They, of course, became the New England Whalers, and later the Hartford Whalers, and, now, the Carolina Hurricanes.

The place oozed with tradition and probably never more so than at the old high school tournaments. Three things stick in my mind from those wonderful days in the Arena. First, the ice surface was an oval, almost devoid of corners. It was always a treat to see some high school goalie from another part of the state come in and go behind the net to stop a puck that had been dumped into the zone, only to watch in horror as the puck caromed not behind the cage but through the crease toward the open goal.

Next was the schedule of games. In those days, high schoolers played 10-minute periods. And the Arena schedule intertwined two games at the same time. So the first period of Game A would be followed by the first period of Game B which was followed by the second period of Game A. Then ice was made. This was followed by the completion of the games in a B-A-B pattern. [Author’s Note: This is not to be confused with “Bee A Bay,” the classic Three Stooges routine. But I digress.]

Finally, there were the french fries. Tucked away in a corner of the Arena lobby was the french fry guy, serving the tastiest, greasiest fries I’ve ever had. I can still picture him taking the steel basket of fries out of the hot fat, banging it on the side of the Frialator, and then flinging a hot batch of spuds across some broken up cardboard boxes set up to catch the feast. He would then take an oversized salt shaker, one with holes the size of your thumb, and pass it over the fries a couple of times before scooping them up and filling a small or large box.

I once had a physical where the doctor suggested that my body composition was “20 percent french fry.” I choose to believe the doctor was joking. But I have never been absolutely sure. And I don’t know if any college rinks today serve anything as intimately connected to their reputation as the Arena and its fries were. (Though I did almost overdose on those coated almonds they serve at North Dakota’s Engelstad Arena when I visited in December. But I digress again.)

Northeastern has done a great job renovating and refurbishing the Arena. Corners have been added and fries removed. But it’s still a classic building, one of a kind. With each new building, college hockey gains and loses. The gains are clear for all to see in the amenities for spectators and participants alike. But there is also a sense of loss when games at the Broadmoor and Snively Arena and the Tully Forum are just memories.

To be fair, few of us will argue that we want to go back to those places. And the newer buildings need time to establish their own traditions in our collective consciousness. It’s great to see that even with new construction and renovation, some traditions remain.

From my ECAC days, I recall the bell at Clarkson and the siren at St. Lawrence, small traditions that link the past with the present. Some traditions can last regardless of the facility. I’m sure if Cornell ever replaces the venerable Lynah Rink, students will still hold up copies of the Cornell Daily Sun during the recitation of the opposing team’s starting lineup and then toss the crumpled paper on the ice as the Big Red get introduced. That is, of course, unless the attorneys mandate netting around the entire rink by that point.

One fairly recent trend that is in danger of getting out of control is the throwing of objects on the ice. The newspapers at Cornell and even the single fish at New Hampshire are kept under control. They are long standing traditions, someone comes out right away and cleans up, and the game goes on. [Author’s Note No. 2: I’ve often wondered how that fish at UNH goes undetected until it actually gets tossed on the ice. I mean, wouldn’t you notice if the guy next to you is hiding a halibut in his parka? I could understand if it was in the student section, where those replica jerseys and sweatshirts may not have been to the laundry in a while. But even Hans Blix could find a flounder in a fleece, no?]

Some people question why my own league even allows a single fish to be tossed on the ice. Our position has been, as long as it is not disruptive and happens just once, it is part of the tradition and pageantry of the game. We don’t want to sanitize the events to the point that we remove the unique atmosphere of each place.

While at Harvard, I also heard the somewhat more refined, "Bertagna you’re not a sieve. You’re a funnel." I would have considered it clever except I had the distinct impression on a number of occasions that it came from someone on my own bench.

But in other places, the situation is more intrusive. Someone actually tossed a cow’s head on the ice during a game at Colby College once. Oranges, tennis balls, and other objects take time to clean up and the items aren’t always limited to one take. This results in penalties against the home team and irate coaches who are put in a tough spot. They want their students to come out and support the team but they don’t want the price for that support to be playing a man down.

Noisemakers are another fan feature that can go either way. Rensselaer has long hosted the Big Red Freakout, usually in the second half of the season, where everyone is encouraged to attend wearing red and making plenty of noise. One year, those long plastic horns were given out and the noise was deafening, carrying over into when play was on. This led to a rewriting of the rule book.

Over the last couple of years, the issue of noisemakers surfaced again, first with a Northeastern student’s amplified bullhorn and earlier this year with those “Thunder Stix” at a couple of sites. The rule book prohibits artificial noisemakers “while the game is in progress.” So technically, these things are allowed during breaks in the action.

And so I come to my biggest pet peeve about today’s games and fan contributions. Consider this: When was the last time you attended a college hockey game and the fans in the student section did or said something that was really clever? You know, mischievous, subtle, even borderline offensive, and it made you laugh?

Maybe I’m hanging out in the wrong arenas but it seems to me that what passes as “wit” to many of today’s students is the number of ways they can use the word “suck” in a cheer or on a tee-shirt. And God forbid that you try to get the students to curb their use of vulgarities. A number of school officials at many campuses have tried to appeal to these fans on the grounds that families with youngsters are coming to the games and perhaps this language might be a tad offensive.

The response from the students is usually something along the lines of, “Hey, man, this is my First Amendment right.”

Yeah, right. I forgot about that famous debate between Jefferson and Adams where the right of college students to be offensive at hockey games was re-affirmed by our Founding Fathers. Please.

I really don’t think this is just another effect of my growing old. Sure, I remember buying baseball cards for a nickel a pack and I drank milk in grammar school under a portrait of President Eisenhower. But I’ve always tried to stay current. Hey, I like the Osbournes. I’ve got a Puddle of Mudd CD.

Or maybe I’m just reacting to some repressed memory from days gone by. I mean, as a goalie, I’ve been on the receiving end of some of these barbs. (“It’s all your fault,” comes to mind.)

In Italy, when your name was announced in the starting line-up, one group of fans had a rather unique response. It went something like, “Numero Due, Bertagna Giuseppe.” And the crowd would come back with, “Figlio di putana!” Excuse me, but my teammates told me that translates to “Son of a prostitute!”

While at Harvard, I also heard the somewhat more refined, “Bertagna you’re not a sieve. You’re a funnel.” I would have considered it clever except I had the distinct impression on a number of occasions that it came from someone on my own bench.

I will grant that there are still a number of traditions that show some imagination. There’s the Cornell thing with the newspapers, and numerous other well-orchestrated, ever-evolving range of chants. At Renssealer, when the phone rings in the press area that is situated in the midst of fans, they chant in unison, “Answer the phone!” And some wag first thought about counting down from 10:10 to 10:00 in the middle of the second period and yelling, “Halftime!”

Okay. So these aren’t knee-slappers but at least someone was trying. And that’s my point here. I think we aging fans deserve better from the college students of today. I am asking them to stop mailing it in and start doing their job. Come up with some clever, off-color (but not obscene) cheers. This is a tradition that should be upheld.

For example, while I don’t wish to encourage abuse of officials, at least “I’m blind. I’m deaf. I want to be a ref,” shows a little more effort than, “Hey Giles. You suck!”

One of the cleverest fans I ever encountered took aim at me in a Harvard-Penn freshman game back in 1970. Penn was building what would become the Class of ’23 Rink and so our game was relegated to the Wissahickon Skating Club in a suburb of Philadelphia. It was a mid-week game for freshman teams, which meant about 10 people were on hand to watch.

One of the 10 was a Penn student with a megaphone. Not one of those amplified police things but a regular cheerleader-type megaphone. He started during warmups.

“Hey goalie, let me introduce myself. We will be together for the better part of the next three hours and I feel we should get to know each other.”

He never raised his voice. He was never obscene or actually insulting. But he kept the needle going all game. If a puck rang off the post, he’d wait a few seconds and say, “My. That was a close one.”

If the Quakers scored, he might offer, “Well. I guess that didn’t go exactly as you had hoped. You must not feel all that good about yourself right now.”

He was brilliant. I actually went over and met him after the game and shook his hand.

On February 15, Harvard hosts Cornell in an eagerly-anticipated showdown between the ECAC’s top teams, both of whom are nationally ranked. These two storied programs have played some games for the ages and this one may join the list. These games have also produced some great fan moments as well. In fact, a case can be made that no Division I fans influence the game-time atmosphere as much as the Lynah Rink faithful do.

“Absolutely best integration of fans to players in college hockey,” booms TV commentator Bob Norton. “What they do after the last home game, where they stay with the band and then mix with the players, is unlike anyplace else.”

What may also be unique is the almost formal passing of the torch from upperclassmen to freshmen so that certain cheers and traditions live on. There is even space on the Cornell Hockey website that lists specific cheers and when they are appropriate. Hey, Lynah may be the one place where my theory is off the mark.

Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Cornell enjoyed one of its many dominating periods. With its success came large crowds on the road and taunting fans. Back then, the Big Red rosters routinely had a single American on the squad. And jealous critics used to claim that if their players were that good, they could only have gained admission through the School of Agriculture. Thus, at a 1971 game in Harvard’s old Watson Rink, a banner appeared inscribed with, “Welcome Future Farmers of Canada!”

Many years later, in yet another period of Cornell Hockey strength, an Ivy band revived this theme, posing this question: “Hey Cornell, if you’re here, who is milking the cows?” Two young women, of excess heft and wearing bright red Cornell sweatshirts, made the mistake of responding to the band members in an attempt to scold them. Bad idea. In response, the band huddled for a second and came back with, “Hey Cornell, we’re sorry. We see you brought the cows with you.” And it only went downhill from there.

On another occasion, the great Cornell netminder Doug Dadswell was manning the goal closest to the Harvard band. The erstwhile musicians earned Hall of Fame status with this offering: “Hey, Number 30. We know you’re Dadswell. And we hear your mom is pretty good. And we understand your sister is terrific!”

Cornell could always give as well as receive. In the 1985 ECAC Tournament, Harvard was getting set to meet Rensselaer in the championship game at the Boston Garden. A group of Cornell fans stayed around after the Big Red had finished playing in the consolation game. During warmups, the fans looked down at the benches of the respective finalists and took note of the distinguishing characteristics of the two schools’ head coaches. And they began.

Standing as a group and pointing in unison, they first targeted RPI’s Mike Addesa. “Your coach is fat! Your coach is fat!”

Then they set their attention on Harvard’s Bill Cleary. “Your coach is bald! Your coach is bald!”

Finally, swiveling from side to side, they pointed and chanted, “Fat! Bald! Fat! Bald!”

Bill Cleary used to have fun with that chant. When it continued, he would rub the top of his head and go with it. Beats getting into it with the enemy.

The most offensive chant to me wasn’t one with foul language. It was that one usually heard at an Ivy League rink when the home team was losing to a non-Ivy foe. It went, “That’s alright. That’s okay. You’re going to work for us some day.” It might have been considered clever if the people saying it didn’t actually believe it.

As a public service, I’d like to ask our readers to submit to USCHO the best cheers or banners they have seen in arenas. And while you are at it, tell us which arenas have the best food these days. We will re-print your responses here … those we CAN re-print. And let’s see a little more effort out of the bands and students.

That’s my plea for today. We’re not looking for students to step out of some Norman Rockwell painting. This isn’t “Happy Days.” Make the old-timers blush. Offend a few people. But put some effort into it, guys.

Finally, a comment about some of the reaction to last month’s piece on “Jocks”. I vowed back in 1998 that I would never again open e-mail from irate fans or go online into those college hockey chat rooms. I believe the turning point was when a UNH fan sent me a photo of an actual wildcat, except this particular image had been doctored so that it was making an obscene hand gesture. (Paw gesture?)

So I only have myself to blame for opening the files sent to me by Adam Wodon of USCHO that contained fan reaction to my last article. It is my understanding that some of these people actually walk among us by day.

Folks, lighten up. Take your medication. We aren’t submitting these articles for a Pulitzer. This is just for fun. In response to specific criticisms, no, I am not short changing my other responsibilities by doing these pieces. No, I do not get paid for this. And, with the exception of this piece, my articles are never as long as Dave Hendrickson’s.

Finally, I would like to thank “Puck Swami” for coming to my defense. And, yes, as he points out, I am “kind of rumpled.” But as a result of a year-long diet, I am now only “10 percent french fry.”

Joe Bertagna is the Executive Director of the American Hockey Coaches Association and the Commissioner of the Hockey East Association.

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