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A B.C. Lions' fan cheers. (CP PHOTO/Jeff McIntosh) (Jeff McIntosh)
A B.C. Lions' fan cheers. (CP PHOTO/Jeff McIntosh) (Jeff McIntosh)

Michael Grange

Canadian sports fans still stuck in the stone age Add to ...



It's not as if we can't do rituals.

Canadian sports fans trot out theirs when needed, from the Hey, Hey, Goodbye chorus Habs fans have been raining down on losing opponents since the 1980s, to the white towels Canucks fans break out at playoff time, bringing back memories of Harold Snepsts and Stan Smyl.

But can we not do better? Why, after 80 years of history, is the best Leafs fans can do is "Go Leafs Go." Why, in Ottawa, did the thrill of getting their own NHL team inspire only "Go Sens Go."

And don't get so smug Calgary. Your scoreboard-prompted Stompin' Tom Connors singalongs and "Go Flames Go" chants make you part of the problem.

Canadian sports fans can sing, that's been shown. At the Air Canada Centre in Toronto recently they've done away with anthem singers on occasion and handed it off to the crowd with great success, something other clubs have done too. In Vancouver, anthem singer Mark Donnelly turns the microphone to the crowd during O Canada and lets them carry the "with glowing hearts" verse.

"I think it's brilliant," says Alan Frew, the front man for the 1980s hit machine Glass Tiger, a Leafs fan and an occasional anthem singer at the ACC himself. "There's nothing purer than handing it over to the public."

It's not quite a tradition, more of a semi-random event started to leverage the patriotic wave that crashed over Canada after the Winter Olympics, says Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Maple Leafs, the Raptors and Toronto FC.

Well, here's an idea: Make it a tradition. You have to start somewhere.

What better way for a group of like-minded strangers to drop their inhibitions than singing alongside one another. The bonus would be no butchered anthems and the possibility (less than slight, but indulge us) that singing might become part of the overall fan experience.

In sticking to a strict diet of cheers, boos, the odd leather-lunged cat call and otherwise mundane chants, Leafs fans are like most North American sports fans, for whom singing is anything but the norm.

Cameron Hughes, also known as SuperFan, is an Ottawa native who has made a living exhorting crowds at live sporting events since getting his start watching the dreary early 1990s Senators games (they needed the help).

In all that time, he's seen fans spontaneously break into song only once. "I was at a New Jersey Devils game and there was this group of families just killing it," he says. Turns out they were from Britain and on vacation.

It doesn't have to be that way, and it's not, as anyone familiar with the European fan experience can vouch. Just last month, without a moment of scoreboard prompting, bands of drenched, muddy golf fans stole the show at the Ryder Cup in Wales, drawing laughs from even the most steely-eyd U.S. golfers for their quick-witted, spur-of-the-moment chants and songs.

("You've got Big Mac, we've got Little Mac," in reference to height-challenged Northern Ireland star Rory McIlroy, was just one of many.)

It seems a shame fans on this side of the Atlantic can't relate when legions of Liverpool supporters sing the sad, yet uplifting Gerry and the Pacemakers cover You'll Never Walk Alone, a tradition that started in the early 1960s when fans crammed into the standing-room terraces at Anfield got in the habit of singing along to the top-10 pop tunes played over the stadium's public-address system.

Nearly as good is the habit of co-opting well-known tunes and crafting appropriate (if decidedly un-PG) lyrics, with often hilarious results. Guantanamera, the Cuban folk song, was long the basis for appreciative hat tips to top stars ("One David Beckham, there's only one David Beckham…) when fans of the Glasgow Rangers in the 1990s began affectionately serenading their mildly eccentric goal keeper Andy Goram with: "Two Andy Gorams, there's only two Andy Gorrr-ammss."

There is no shortage of material here: Julien Sanchez, proprietor of the popular Leafs fan blog Pension Plan Puppets and I came up with a tribute to bad officiating for Leafs fan in two e-mails. Sung to the tune of For He's a Jolly Good Fellow, bad calls could instantly evoke Wayne Gretzky's (unpenalized) high stick on Doug Gilmour from the 1993 playoffs:

You're worse than Kerry Fraser

You're worse than Kerry Fraser

You're worse than Kerry Fraser

It's clear that you can't see

Even MLSE knows that fans in its neighbourhood are capable of meeting the challenge, as just down Lake Shore Boulevard in Toronto, they have been part of the show at TFC games since the MLS club was founded in 2006, with supporters either paying tribute to, or doing overeager imitations of, the British soccer fan experience, take your pick.

With MLS teams coming on board in Vancouver and Montreal in 2011 and 2012, perhaps the supporter experience will travel.

Frew was commissioned and has delivered a Maple Leafs anthem, Free To Be, which has yet to set the ACC on fire, but, Frew says, is gaining momentum if only because other fans resent the implication in the lyrics that the Leafs are Canada's team.

"So what," said Frew, a Glasgow Rangers fan, when callers on a Vancouver radio station took him to task. "If you don't like it, write your own damn song."

But he and others suggest the real obstacle to fans taking more of the in-arena entertainment into their own hands is the corporate nature of the North American sports experience, in large part.

"Let's not kid ourselves, at an average game at the ACC, there are a ton of guests invited who couldn't really tell you a hockey player if they woke up in bed beside them," Frew says.

But the nature of being a fan is to hope, and Hughes, the SuperFan, hasn't lost his optimism that after more than 900 paying nights as a designated cheerleader - some of his first gigs earning $300 to work the crowd at the old Maple Leaf Gardens - there could come a day when he's not needed any more.

"So much effort is made to entertain the fans, we never have the chance to find out what they would do on their own," Hughes says. "Maybe if they give fans the leeway to do their own thing, they would entertain themselves.

"Except," he says, "at Leaf games."

 

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