This story appeared in our very first issue of Missouri Life. It was published in the March/April 1973 issue.

Story by Jim McKinley and Photography by Jerry Lee

Ice hockey is a game of blazing speed, considerable violence and almost continuous action. It therefore seems altogether logical to me that the people who pay money to watch it tend to be speed crazy, at least emphatically violence prone, and subject to frequent and prolonged. (I almost wrote continuous), seizures of great excitement.

Fans, of course, are an abbreviated form of fanatics, a singularly apt designation for the adherents of many athletic teams. And this fanaticism displays itself in many forms. In Montreal, when a Canadiens season ticket holder dies, the disposition of his hockey tickets often is specifically provided for in his will. That will give you an indication of how seriously they take their ice hockey up in Montreal.

St. Louis Blues fans are getting a lot like that. I haven’t yet heard that St. Louis testators who own Blues season tickets have begun to include those tickets in their legacies. But I expect to start hearing it any day now, even though the Blues have been having difficulty penetrating defenses this year. Because St. Louis hockey fans have a long history of being … well, intense. I know. I’m a certifiable member of the tribe.

And, at the considerable risk always involved in analyzing oneself, individually or as a member of a group, I’ve endeavored to take a loot at the Hockey Fan.

The most cursory examination exposes a quick certainty about THF. Emotional involvement. He reeks with it, seethes and simmers with it, yells with it, explodes with it. And he has for, lo, these many years—long before the words were included in your modern faddish lexicon.

You can feel it even before the Blues take to the ice. It builds perceptively and persistently, to a peak. Then the announcer’s “And here come the St. Louis Blues,” is drowned out by the roof-shaking organ and the fan’s foot-stomping song-singing exuberance as the players guide onto the rink.

Then the two center iceman square off, the referee drops the puck and THF mirrors the frenzied pace on the rink. Like fans of other athletic events, man, he identifies.  Im his zeal, he reveals another facet of his personality. He knows. And he freely tells the players, the referees, the people around him–anybody—that he knows.

Not that there’s such a whole heck of a lot to learn or to know about the game. In complexity of essential ingredients, ice hockey is to football, say, about as canasta is to contract bridge. The object in hockey is, as they say, to put the biscuit in the basket. The ways of accomplishing that object—and of keeping the opposition from accomplishing it—are not complex. And they become steadily less complex with the passing of time.

THF may—unintentionally—have caused this development. Because, for all his knowledge of the game, it’s easier for him to spot the skating ability of Bobby Orr, the shooting skill of Phil Esposito, brute strength of Noel Picard, than it is to appreciate team defensive skills, play-making and finesse.

There’s a good deal of milling around in hockey these days. And the scorers are firmly in control of the game. It’s the era of the gifted free lancer.

For THF, too. “One-on-one” yelling at Gary Unger is much more satisfying than spraying instructions, criticisms, insults—and yes, praises—at an amorphous group called The Team.

Big league owners, coaches, writers, and broadcasters may sing fulsome hymns of praise to the “unsung playmakers” and “the selfless team players.” But they, too, like THF, lust mightily after the big, strong, hard-nosed prima donna who can put the puck in the net—and never mind the welfare of his unsung and selfless teammates. As Dr. Johnson was heard to observe: “When a butcher tells you his heart bleeds for you, he means nothing by it.”

Which brings me to a rather embarrassing self-confession. Next to scoring, THF loves fights. Some of them even make it a participatory sport, but most content themselves with spectating. This puts a certain pressure on the player. He must be willing to fight. If he isn’t, he’ll get muscled right out of the league. Now it doesn’t follow that the fans require him to fight all the time—or even very often. But he must be willing to fight any time—and demonstratably so. Otherwise, good luck to him in Fort Worth. And down there he’ll even find an ill-tempered defense man, about a head taller and thirty pounds heavier, who’ll try him out.

NHL fans see some real fights. They bear no resemblance to those gambols on the greensward that pass for fights in professional football, none to those comic-opera tugging, shoving, and grimacing matches which are touted for in-earnest combat in baseball.

As one genuine THF, I’m surprised not that fisticuffs are had recourse to occasionally but that the occasions on which they occur are as infrequent as they are. The patience, of the elbowed, prodded, gouged, work-over-in-the-corners hockey players is what amazes me. And I frequently exercise my prerogative of pointing out the Other Sides’ transgressions in this connection to stupid, blind, out-of-position referees.

As a Blues fan, I can understand the necessity of Bob Plager, for instance, putting a head-lock on Kieth Magnuson with one arm and working him over with his free hand. That’s splendid form. And if Bob can get the rotten kid’s sweater pulled up over his head and beat on him while he’s straight-jacketed and blinded, that’s even better than the head-lock ploy.

Now, using a hockey stick or a broken, splintery portion thereof on an opponent’s anatomy is not comme il faut, and THFs universally frown on it. But it’s done, perhaps even with the approbation of some of the more extreme THFs. Not me, of course.

Now, hopping on top of a felled opponent and pounding hell out of him while one holds him pinned to the ice is perfectly all right. And I can understand that a Blues player might have to trip his opponent during the stand-up stages of a fight so he can get him in shape to accomplish said pounding. We hockey fans go very big for all this sort of carryin’ on. Sometimes when it gets out of hand, we’ll put the mean mouth on it. (“Out of hand.” That’s a hockey euphemism for the sort of near-riot in Philadelphia’s Spectrum last season when some Philly THFs decided to hell with spectator sports. Let’s participate!) But mostly we don’t do that—provided, of course, that it’s one of The Righteous dishing out the punishment and one of the Heavies absorbing it.

Mostly, we hockey fans go for the studied violence of a “good, clean” hip check, the mayhem of a mad scramble in front of a net, and the incessancy of the full-throttle action which is the game’s hallmark. And with perhaps just a tinge of anticipatory delight that possibly—just possibly—tonight The Righteous gladiators will violently avenge—without time in the penalty box—brutal indignities previously suffered.

Failing that, maybe tonight the Blues will just outscore ’em.


Our very first Letter from the Editor: