So, let’s get a few things out of the way:
- Philadelphia does not have a monopoly on boorish, disruptive, or embarrassing fan behavior. Any fan base could have twice delayed the game—once drawing a penalty—by littering the ice with dozens of light-up bracelets distributed for a pregame ceremony to honor the recently deceased owner. Bad fans are everywhere.
- And yet last night’s humiliation did not happen anywhere; it happened in Philly, and it feels like these things happen disproportionately in Philly. There is probably confirmation bias in this; when Toronto or Atlanta fans throw debris onto the field, it is noted, filed away, and largely forgotten. When Philadelphia sports fans do it, you go, Yep, Philly at it again, and added to the litany.
- Even if confirmation bias is in play, that means there’s something to confirm. Philadelphia’s reputation did not come from nowhere; it is not kept alive by nothing. There’s a civic character that values toughness, carries a chip on its shoulder, is vehemently unapologetic. It’s what makes Philly such a great city, as John Gonzalez teased out in this really excellent essay. It’s also why some Philadelphians will take pride in things like last night’s bracelet storm. It ought to be embarrassing, but as time goes on and the sharpness of the censure fades, this is just another incident to be added to the lore.
- That lore matters. As much as Philadelphians hate it when lazy sportswriters bring up throwing snowballs at Santa or batteries at J.D. Drew—and it is lazy—they rightly value what these incidents represent. Philly is a hard place to play for visitors. The crowd is invested, passionate, emotional. It’s a legitimate home advantage, something most fanbases cannot boast. Philadelphia fans have an identity, and they are understandably proud of it and of anything that reinforces it.
- Sports, after all, is entertainment. And sports are better when there are strong, clearly defined characters, playing roles they’ve carved out over the decades. Philly’s role—and here the Flyers and their fanbase are inseparable—is the tough guy, the troublemaker, and more than maybe anywhere else, Philly stays in character. The entire soap opera of pro sports is much more enjoyable because the Philly crowd plays its role so well. It’s not quite the role of the villain, not exactly: it’s more like an elemental force of chaos, adding a genuine sense of menace to the otherwise entirely choreographed proceedings of sports fandom. Sports are more fun because Philly is Philly, and as much as anyone else wants to shit on them, we need and want them doing what they do. We should be thankful.
- This mania should never infringe on anyone else’s safety or right to enjoy a game.
Last night’s debacle was, maybe, inevitable. The Flyers are woefully outclassed by the Capitals, and because the Flyers have an institutional character every bit as ingrained as their fans, it was a matter of time before the team decided that if it could not win at hockey, it would win at hitting. In the second period, Ryan White put Brooks Orpik into the boards with a completely clean hit. Orpik’s brain stopped working:
Again, the hit was fine, but the frustration was bubbling up and the bloodlust was on. “They weren’t interested in playing anymore,” Caps coach Barry Trotz said.
The next period, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare hit Dmitry Orlov from behind.
That hit was dirty and dangerous, and Bellemare could and should face a suspension. He got a game misconduct, but not before a brawl broke out on the ice. Down 4-1, and soon to be down 3-0 in a series, the Flyers’ frustrations bubbled over, and it was a cue to the fans to do the same thing.
They starting chucking their bracelets onto the ice, with one even striking Orlov as he was tended to on the bench:
Lou Nolan, the Flyers’ PA guy, begged fans to stop:
Just a few minutes later, after order was briefly restored, Alex Ovechkin scored on the power play, and the wristbands came down again.
Players on the ice pleaded for them to stop, to no avail:
The officials had seen enough, and called a delay-of-game penalty on Philadelphia.
Cameras appeared to catch Wayne Simmonds calling the display “fucking embarrassing,” and it was.
But the biggest embarrassment of the night might have been Ryan White, who, after the game, condoned—encouraged—that sort of behavior.
It was a bad scene, with plenty of the thrown bracelets falling short of the ice and striking fellow fans. And those bracelets were hefty; they hurt. The most charitable reading of White’s comments is that he felt the fans’ frustrations were justified by the Flyers’ shitty play, but a player can not come out and applaud actions like those.
The fans who threw bracelets were a tiny minority of the sellout crowd, and they are bad fans. But there were enough of them last night to reflect poorly on everyone else, and to give critics plenty of ammunition to smear Philly fans in the future, fairly or not. It was ugly. Uglier, somehow, than even the Flyers’ play—and that’s the harshest thing I could possibly say.