This is a post that is published on the day before a rather low-heat game against Ottawa, five days before Pride Night at the Rock, and is applicable at any point of the season. Given how 2018-19 has went for the New Jersey Devils, I regret not writing out this request back in October 2018 when times were good for the Devils and it seemed like “Now We Rise” was an appropriate tagline for the season. The good news is that the request is just as applicable for the future.
The request is that it is up to us to make being a Devils fan welcoming to others. Whether it is at the Rock, at a watch party, at a social event, or even online, we must all strive to make everyone feel welcomed to be a Devils fan. This is not a royal us. This is up to you, my fellow Devils fan, and me.
I am not pointing any fingers or making any accusations of anyone here or in particular. But I want to emphasize that we have more power than we may think when it comes to growing the community that we have called Devils fans. At its core, being a fan of a team is being a part of a community. It is not an even community in that there are many avenues to fandom. Some fans have the money and time to go, see, and support the team live; some fans can only watch from afar; some connect primarily through the Internet, social media and sites like this one; and some are so casual in that they do not really follow the team but like it when the Devils for one reason or another. There are multiple avenues and means of supporting the Devils. Not everyone needs to paint their face, be willing to take off their shirt in public to show off the ‘D’ painted on your chest, and frighten someone in a car in Manhattan by telling them the Devils can beat anybody. But the common trait is simple and straight forward: We support the New Jersey Devils and would like them to succeed.
To that end, fans mostly interact with fans and so we have a lot of influence over whether someone wants to be a fan or not. Sure, we’re not the main source of influence. We’re not the New Jersey Devils players or coaches or management. If they stink - like they do this season - then there is not much we can do about it. And we certainly do not impact the ticket prices, which remain rather high at the box office for a team set to pick in the lottery again. But we directly and indirectly interact with each other. That can have a huge impact whether someone wants to be a fan and/or someone wants to go (or keep going) to the Rock.
Here are some possibilities of negative impacts: While the Devils have their Pride Night on Monday, it only takes one thoughtless jerk to say something offensive about it to convince someone that they actually do not belong as a hockey fan. When the Devils have had one of their Heritage Nights, it only takes one ignorant person unhappy about it to make someone who went to a game because of it think they made a bad choice. While the NHL has their Hockey is for Everyone initiative, it only takes one off-color comment at a game or on a message board that can make someone feel being a Devils fan is not for everyone. While a Devils player or the team’s official account Tweets something about reaching out to a community, one nasty response can undercut it completely and act as evidence that the fanbase is toxic - all in less than 280 characters. When someone looks like they are new at a game, it only takes a dose of condescension about what they do/do not get about the game to make them not want to learn any further. When When someone just wants to go to the game and support their team and have a good time, it only takes one person to be intentionally disruptive to everyone around them, goad other fans, and even try to pick or start fights to make that someone wonder why they even bother going or being a fan.
And we just don’t always talk to each other. We do not even create the opportunity to learn more about each other despite having something immediately in common, our support of the Devils. This is something I will own up to as being a problem. I’m not the most social person in the world and I tend to keep to myself at games. I’ll talk with people familiar with me around me and that’s pretty much it. Unless someone new is engaging or I recognize them, I just go to the game, watch it, and that’s that. But unless someone is reaching out -whether in conversation or putting out their hand for a high-five after a sweet goal by the Devils, I’m hardly adding anything to the community outside of the work on this very site. It certainly is not welcoming.
I provide examples as how we could possibly cause someone to not be a fan regardless of what the Devils actually do (or do not do) on the ice. Maybe this is on purpose. Maybe this is by accident. But it can be done and it hurts the larger cause. This is not to say that every out-reach effort by the NHL and the Devils is perfectly and tastefully done. There’s always room for improvement. And, again, the Devils have to perform well enough to be worth supporting. But it can take one fan to completely undo whatever work has been put in by the league and by the team for reaching out.
However, just as we can cause harm to the community in that way, we can make it better, larger, and stronger with a little more effort. Simply, we can welcome others to the game.
Here are some possibilities of positive actions to consider: Whether they’re here because of a theme night or they’re there with friends or family or they got a free ticket and never saw a hockey game, we can welcome them. We can watch a little more carefully about what we may say to others. We can recognize that theme nights like Pride Night or the various Heritage Nights that the Devils do not promote for reasons unknown do matter to others and we should encourage them instead of dismissing them or whining it is being shoved in their faces. We can ask if someone would like an explanation before offering one. We can point someone in the right direction if they do not know where to go at the Rock or answer a question. I’m not saying we need to be like the MSG broadcast and pump sunshine for a bad hockey team. Nor do we need to be surrogate employees of the Devils. But if someone who doesn’t see a lot of hockey is excited about what they just saw, then perhaps just not put an immediate damper on it. We can talk to each other like we are fans that have something in common - something I recognize I need to do and will try to do more of outside of this site.
And for those who are disruptive to everyone around them and trying to start fights, we should contact security. Don’t escalate it by getting into the fight or threatening them or whatever. There are people whose job is to deal with these situations; let them know - you can discreetly text them at the Rock - and let them deal with it. That would be welcoming for everyone else who suffers from someone trying to make the stands a actual unsafe space for the night.
To put it another way: Be more neighborly to your fellow fan regardless of where they come from, what they look like, who they are with, who they want to be with, how they identify themselves, how much or how little they know/care about the game, what they believe, and (this maybe the tough pill to swallow) whether they are a member of your outgroup - the people you cannot stand based on what they do or stand for despite sharing more in common than you think. Being tolerant rings somewhat hollow if you’re only going to include people you find agreeable anyway.
But tolerance is not quite enough. My request is more than tolerance. Tolerance does not take a lot of actual effort. It is literally putting up with someone or something. Being welcoming is an active effort and it needs to be done for everyone. Everyone. Not the groups you tolerate in practice or in theory, everyone. Just as the You Can Play Project is built on the concept of “If you can play, you can play;” notice that there are no exceptions in the statement. The same follows for being a fan. Being welcoming puts this into practice. Only being tolerant is being passive.
I understand I am making a big request by stating that you and I need to be welcoming. It may actually take a little effort. I do not see it as work or a hard effort. I see it as an opportunity. This may mean learning more about others. This may require learning to respect those you may otherwise not. This may mean avoiding the temptation to get on your high horse and proclaim that you’re virtuous and it is someone else’s problem and you’re great and they’re not. This may mean getting out of your comfort zone and talking to some people. (Again, I’m guilty as charged of that one). Will it work instantly? Probably not. Will it be effective? Hopefully. Is it the right thing to do? It is at least a lot more right than ignoring or disrespecting groups of people that may be Devils fans or could be Devils fans.
This the sort of mindset and effort that we can do as the larger organizations - the Devils, the NHL, etc. - make a similar effort to reach out to communities and groups that may have been historically under-served, ignored, or even ostracized. As we are the fans, we are the community. And the strongest communities are the ones that not only want to grow but actually do it. We cannot just talk the talk about embracing others as fans, we must walk the walk too. We cannot wait for it to magically happen or hope that a perception somehow turns to something favorable. We cannot just sit here and wonder why there are not more fans and why the Rock can be “taken over” by opposition fanbases, and then not consider the state of our community. Not that we need to act as if everything the Devils do is great and wonderful and cannot be criticized, but when they take a step forward and reach out, we can do the same and we should in this sense. That will go a long way to growing the community directly - and even indirectly as people do pick up on how others treat each other and respond accordingly. We will help people realize what you and I have realized in the past: it’s fun to be a Devils fan, it’s worth being a Devils fan, and when the Devils are successful, we greatly enjoy it (especially if they win on Saturday). The whole goal is to have more people be Devils fans. I see this as a worthy goal in of itself.
If you’re already doing this to a degree, then great. Keep it up. Be an example for others to follow. If you’re like me and you know you could do better in some regard, then let’s work on it and support each other in doing so. If this is something you’ve not considered or not realized what is going on, then let this be an opportunity to make some real change - and for the better. Again, this is not a post to point fingers. This is not a post to lay blame at anyone. This is a request to make Devils hockey and being a fan - however that is practiced - welcoming to other people.
We can start today. We can do this on Monday night on Pride Night as the Devils take on Montreal. We can do this on Wednesday night when the Devils host Calgary on a theme-less night. We can do this on March 21 to pick a random day in March. We can do it on Fan Appreciation Night on April 1. We can do it on a rainy weekday night in mid-November 2018 against a Western Conference team. We can do this now and in the future. And so we shall because it is important to ensure that our community of fans welcomes all races, genders, orientations, nationalities, ethnicities, abilities, faiths, and even outgroups can come together and support the New Jersey Devils. The request goes beyond tolerance, it is for us to make being a Devils fan welcoming. We have that power; that is up to you and me. That is up to us.
Thank you for reading and considering this request.