Okay, no more fucking around, I’ve been officially blackmailed into writing this piece that I’d been procrastinating for so long. Much like Duke Nukem Forever, Daikatana, GnR’s Chinese Democracy, Marco Scutaro’s throws across the diamond, and the 2010 New York Jets, this piece was long-delayed, had to be re-done several times, and will almost assuredly disappoint in the end. Deal with it.
So here we stand in a bizarre time for New England sports. This is a hawwkey taaawn, for the first time in a long time. The Bruins are the hottest ticket in town, hoisting a Stanley Cup, running shirtless around town and running up million-dollar bar tabs. Hell, even Dreamboat Ellsbury can’t get enough action to keep up with Marshmont, Seguin, and the boys. The Swesties this fall will be trading in their pink Red Sox caps for pink Bruins caps. And with the NBA on a one-way ticket to Lockoutsville (the NFL having cancelled its reservations in the city’s town’s skeezy motel, thankfully heeding the advice of a psychopath), hockey seems destined to be ready to fully captivate everyone’s sports eyes, save for one and a half days a week this winter. You know what that means, right? I would be shocked – SHOCKED I say! – if attendance doesn’t skyrocket around Hockey East this year. That would include our beloved Minutemen, as our freshly-minted Bruins fans invade the Mullins Center eager to see some good ol-fashioned HAWWWWKEY in person, without the possible distraction of, say, the Celtics playing the Bulls or Heat or Lakers at the same time. (Of course, there’s always the off chance that more people will stay home to watch the Bruins now, but shut up, let me continue pontificating for a bit, geez.)
I’ll be totally honest – I was rooting for the NFL lockout too. Why, you ask? Well, aside from my not-so-secret sentiment that the NFL receives a disproportionate amount of coverage from the sports media compared with equally-if-not-more-deserving sports like hockey, hoops, and baseball (nothing pisses me off more than random offseason notes in the NFL like Brett Favre’s latest unretirement distracting from oh I don’t know A FUCKING PENNANT RACE MAYBE), I was also kind of really excited for the potential benefits this might have toward a little thing called UMass football. Yes, our boys are finally graduating to the “big show,” and technicalities aside, I guarantee I’m not alone in suddenly caring a hell of a lot more about what this team does now that it “matters.” Yes, it’s just the MAC, and yes, the CAA was actually a slightly stronger conference last year despite its higher “status.” Whatever. UMass was not bowl-eligible, and now they can be.
…Well, except for the fact that they’re stuck in CAA purgatory this year. It’s hard to imagine that won’t impact the players, who really have nothing but pride to play for. But it will mean everything that the fans come out and show their support, because it’s gonna depend on us, and on you, for this to work. The Kraft family has provided the stage, but the difference between this being “the big step up the UMass program’s been waiting for” and “another mistake that the Globe can flaunt around as ‘proof’ of the state school’s inferiority to their darling private schools, while ignoring anything positive UMass does” is whether or not the fans show. If the fans don’t show, this doesn’t succeed, and it sets the whole athletics program back big-time. If it succeeds, UMass is a name brand, the only (likeable) D1 FBS college football program in Massachusetts, and all of a sudden things get a little easier on the recruiting and ticket-selling fronts for the other sports, all of a sudden Dick’s Sporting Goods is putting Sam the Minutemen next to Baldwin the Eagle, all of a sudden the Big East is knocking again…alright wait, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. That’s all way down the road. Like, you can’t see it from atop Du Bois far. (That’s good, hopefully I can afford season tickets by then.) But it has to start somewhere, and it’s starting in Foxborough of all places.
It starts with 5-6 Saturdays a year, against schools that (UNH aside) are about as interesting to UMass fans as the William and Maryses of the world. In this economic climate, taking the family to a Pats game on a Sunday for $500+ (and that’s just the tickets) is out of the question. The chance to see FBS college football, however technically that description is, is going to draw casual interest in New England, I’m convinced. It’s going to be whether the team gets the diehards, the lifers, the young alumni still not ready to leave UMass behind (ahem, the founders of this blog say hi) and – of course – the students.
Therein lies part of the problem. Frankly, the quality of the UMass student section in all sports has gone decidedly downhill in my five-plus years of being associated with this school. (THERE. I SAID IT.) When I was a freshman, the diehards were standing in the preseason game at the Practice Rink teaching newbies the chants and singing Fight Mass with the full left-right diagonal clap dealie. Now? There’s seriously kids who think it goes “Hey…you suck…fuck fuck fuck fuck go UMass!” Nobody aside from us three has asked Matty G how much time is left in the period for a couple years now. Clever chants, fun twists on old ones (“Your mom called! She said you suck! Your dog called! He said you suck!”), even dumb guilty pleasures like Noleeeeeet-Nolet-Nolet-Noleeeeeeeeeet” have been supplanted with – yup – “fuck (name of school).” And the occasional “let’s go UMass!” And that’s fucking it. All the things that make college sports fun – all the shit that got me hooked in the first place, besides the hockey of course – have gone by the wayside, and though the gate numbers have been solid despite the team’s less-than-stellar record, the atmosphere has suffered. We’ve gone from “notoriously profane fans who yell mean-spirited things and get really loud when they need to” to “notoriously profane fans who yell really fucking stupid things and have to be told when to get loud by a NOOOOOOOOOISSSSSSSEEEEEEEEEMEEEEEEEEEEEETERRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!1” I don’t need S&P to tell me that’s a downgrade. (hurrr he made a political funny)
See, here’s what I loved about the Bruins this season – there were no pink hats yet. It was like watching the Red Sox back in ’04. The bandwagoners always seem to watch on the edge until the very end. I was at games 3 and 4 of the Flyers series. That place was loud. People were actually into the game, people knew what was happening. Maybe that’s just the difference between hockey and baseball, or maybe it’s because cell phones are exponentially more powerful these days, but I feel like the atmosphere at Fenway ain’t what it used to be. It’s not about the team anymore – it’s about being seen. I have a horrible sinking feeling that this is the Bruins’ impending fate, actually. Actually, the Bruins’ run has put the UMass students into perspective for me. For so long, I felt like the sudden surge of Tourette’s-like stupidity was a sign that our students really were the neanderthals the Globe and the rest of the eastern-MA media stereotypes them as. Then I watched kids from all over the Commonwealth erupt from the North Station area after game 7 with, not “let’s go Bruins” but “fuck Vancouver” – and after every chant for a Bruin was something like “Luongo sucks! Luongo sucks!” It actually distracted me from celebrating that emotional moment (which, by the way, I wrote about over here, shameless plug). For a moment I was disgusted, but in a way, it was also a relief – these are BC kids, and BU kids, and Northeastern kids, and they’re no classier than our guys. At the same time, though, it’s a bit discouraging to think that, as a whole, these are Massachusetts kids.
That’s what this boils down to, methinks. Boston kids are spoiled sports fans. I mean, no shit we are. No fanbase has been this lucky over a decade, and with three teams at least in the conversation to win their sport’s next championship (and the other, well, not playing for a while). That’s why apathy about the sports teams makes so much sense. We have an NFL team that contends for a Super Bowl literally every year, so why care about a D1-AA football team aside from some tailgating? The Celts have the big three, so it’s no big deal if Derek Kellogg’s boys aren’t winning. (Just wake us up when BC or URI is in town.) And the hockey team? It’s a great pregaming event, but let’s try to get out before the third period so we can drink some more before we head to the frats/Hobart and banging/being drunk Swestie sluts. I mean, even the group of friends me, Matt, and Walsh partied with my senior year after games in North…most of them were there as a pre-pregaming event.
Ah, but I think I’ve argued this before – hockey’s a special case. It’s become the thing to do on campus that the University doesn’t discourage. The other big two either a) don’t play in “real” D1, or b) play on weeknights. Friday and Saturday nights can’t be overslept, nor can studying get in the way. This works heavily in hockey’s favor – they can draw a crowd without playing particularly well, due to the perfect timing of most of their schedule. Ironically, though, this has been a huge negative for the quality of the student section.
See, the team hasn’t played particularly well over the past three semesters. Alright, “dismal” might be a better word. They never had a stretch that bad for that long in the few years prior, when the fanbase was breaking attendance records and riding the momentum of the ’04-05 Hockey East and ’06-07 NCAA runs that finally put the program on the map. Anyone who started following the team starting midseason of ’09-10, though, has seen nothing but failure. We still have the upperclassmen who were freshmen and sophomores when the school was still buzzing about those then-recent playoff runs, so hockey’s status as a popular weekend event lives on through them. The enthusiasm and hockey know-how just didn’t carry on to this generation, though, because the teams they witnessed were mediocre. We now, however, have another batch of freshmen and sophomores who have seen three semesters of low-quality play (half a year of the Jimmy/Casey fiasco, and a whole year of rebuilding) and who are getting bad habits from the start.
Look, I can’t just stand here on this soapbox and say I want every student to do this when this happens and say that when this happens. But I’m not horribly enthused about where this is going. I guess I’d rather the Mullins be full of students for hockey games than the barren wasteland it’s become for basketball, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t have a Hockey East-caliber student section as it stands today. And we totally did for a couple years there. Now? Like I said…one big pregame party, where the douche yelling “fuck BC!” in between looking at the Smokeshow of the Day on fucking Barstool and talking about that one time he played JV in high school to the girls in Marchand shirts reigns supreme, until he leaves midway through the second. Oh, and we’re probably playing BU that night.
That’s where we stand now. There are a number of directions it can go in, but you – yes motherfucker, YOU – have a lot to do with it. I really want Fight Mass to get bigger this year. I’m not looking for personal gain from it – I’m happy with my software support job in Manchester for now, and am more than happy to delay pursuing my dreams in sports journalism until my financial situation is more clear. And I’ll be damned if this thing ever makes any money. No, I really want this to be a rallying point for those of you diehards who, like me, have bigger and better things in mind for our alma mater. For a while, you see, this dream was just that – a pleasant thought, like “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we had even half a section of kids wearing our school colors, let alone a jersey or something to indicate they know they’re at a sporting event?” But now, with this football thing (oh hey look I tied it all together, go me!), shit’s for reals. Integrating the fanbases is something I’ve preached before, but now I mean it. The students who go to hockey and the students who go to football and the students who go to basketball…it’s never seemed as uniform as when I was a freshman. Granted, those were the best of times for me, it turned out. Lasme and Freeman were around, the hockey team had Jon Quick, football had its epic playoff game against UNH…the future seemed so bright, and everyone knew it. Moreover, Maroon Platoon was present at every game. There was some kind of school-sanctioned unity going on. I’ve seen the rise of Mullins Militia presence last semester when I came back from Florida. This has GOT to continue next year. Get kids hooked early, spend whatever budget there is to keep these kids devoted. Sell big on the future for this program, and get the kids who care to spread the word.
And it IS a bright future! Football may be spinning its wheels for a year, but building momentum for the first year in the “big show” is important. Hockey is returning a very promising young class, keeping almost everyone who did any scoring last year, and adding some more talented freshmen, all in a year where the rest of Hockey East figures to be down. Basketball…Kellogg finally has “his” guys in there and seems devoted to simplifying that offense to fine-tune it to the players he actually has. The Big Three programs on campus seemingly have nowhere to go but up after last year, and this is a perfect time to get freshmen excited about the team. Push hockey to the kids who are hooked on the sport after the double-whammy of Olympics last year and Bruins this year. Push basketball to those who need something to fill the Celtics void. And push football, because as much as I love hockey, I’d be a fool not to acknowledge that the success or failure of football’s FBS jump is vital for the entire program going forward. That’s why, for the first time, I’ll actually be including some football coverage on the site this year (though rest assured, it’s still a hawwwkey taaaahwn.)
I haven’t lost faith completely in the classes of ’12 and ’13. There’s some very passionate sports fans there who are waiting for something to cheer for. The teams have to do their part, of course, to make the games count for more than just an amusing diversion from books or a place to be seen before the parties. But, silly as it sounds, I want this incoming freshman class to learn the traditions the right way, before “fuck fuck fuck fuck Go UMass” becomes part of the lexicon. It might come in the form of a basic rookie guide, which sounds lame when you picture a school-sanctioned “appropriate” one, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I’d much rather prefer a more natural approach, and that means you – the student readers and fellow recent alumni – to band together and make an example. Speaking of bands, this would be so much easier if we had a hockey band, and it looks like this might finally almost be a possibility at some point, but until then, it’s in our hands. I have no problem with the douche in the Howitzer t-shirt, aside from his taste in sports websites and his inability to at least use the word “fuck” in a more clever manner/chant. But in order to get him to care about what’s actually happening on the ice, or to get him and the Swesties and everyone else to realize there’s (gasp) a THIRD period, it’s up to those of us who do know and care to start showing it a little more. So let’s give last year a mulligan with the rebuilding effort, and actually build something ourselves this winter, shall we?
So there you have it – yet another meandering rant-turned-pep-talk from yours truly. Hope it thoroughly fell short of your expectations, which I imagine were massive at this point. Now for some more teasing – I have some fairly big plans for this blog in its third year, as part of my strategy for FM to become a rallying point for my fellow devoted UMass student fans and/or a place where I can bitch and moan about the power play for several paragraphs. You’ll have to stay tuned for that. In the meantime, for your concrete hockey news based on things like numbers and journalism, stay tuned to everyone’s favorite craft beer enthusiast/hockey fan, Fear the Triangle, and keep asking yourself: is it October yet?