I was listening to the radio on my way to work this morning and Bon Jovi's 1987 hit "Livin' On A Prayer" came on.
What does this have to do with hockey, you wonder? Why am I reading about Bon Jovi on a sports website, you ask? Well, hold your horses and I'll tell you.
The chorus of the song goes as follows:
Whoa, we're halfway there
Whoa, livin' on a prayer
Take my hand and we'll make it I swear
Whoa, livin' on a prayer
As soon as I heard that this morning, my mind flashed back to the closing moments of game two of this year's Stanley Cup final.
Of course you remember. The Wings won that game 3-0 to take a commanding two-game lead on the Penguins.
Late in the third period, there was a lengthy delay due to some long-forgotten hindrance—it could have been a player injury, or maybe a maintenance issue. Regardless, it provided the music guy at Joe Louis an opportunity to play an entire song, instead of the choppy beginnings usually heard during stoppages.
Needless to say, "Livin' On A Prayer" was played, and the crowd's reaction still makes me tingle a little. Viewers at home could hear fans singing every word of the song loud and clear; it drowned out the announcers, the rustling of chip bags, the cracking of bottles, you name it.
The significance of the song, of course, was that the Wings were indeed "halfway there"—they had won two of the four games necessary to win the Stanley Cup.
Even for a Wings hater like me, to hear the Detroit faithful belt out that signature line, especially with the torrent of job losses and other hardships to hit the area recently, was a symbol of incredible resiliency. And it made me feel happy—just a teeny tiny bit—for each one of the 20,066 fans inside the Joe that night.
So here, inspired by Bon Jovi and fans of the Winged Wheel, are the NHL's 10 best home crowds.
10. Nationwide Arena (Columbus)
Sure, the Jackets and their fan base are the butt of a lot of jokes, but NHL hockey has actually taken off in Ohio. For the most part, the team's fan base has stuck with it, despite Columbus having never earned a playoff spot.
Besides, Nationwide is the only NHL rink I've been inside for a game. I saw two Columbus games last fall and the crowds were quite strong. Jackets jerseys and large signs were everywhere. Did I mention these games were against Nashville and Chicago?
9. Madison Square Garden (NY Rangers)
The aura of MSG itself contributes a lot to this ranking, but Rangers fans inside the rink are an extension of New Yorkers themselves: feisty, passionate, and not afraid to dish it out. From the Curse of 1940 to "Now I Can Die In Peace," this fan base carries a lot of history and they show it every night at MSG.
8. HSBC Arena (Buffalo)
Falling scoreboards aside, HSBC is a haven of the working class. Sabres fans and the city of Buffalo in general have taken a heavy beating in recent years from self-important scribes and pompous pundits who feel the need to pick on someone.
That just doesn't make sense. The Sabres have a very dedicated fan base and though the name of the rink is forgettable, the team ranked second in league attendance last year.
7. HP Pavilion (San Jose)
This is a market that sometimes gets undeserved criticism because of its location. Despite playing out of California, the Sharks enjoy excellent fan support. I can't profess to have been to the Shark Tank, but any time I watch the Sharks on television, the crowd comes through loud and clear.
The team finished in the middle of the attendance pack for 2007-08, but that's because the Shark Tank seats just 17,496. The team's average attendance was just shy of that figure. That's not bad at all, considering some of the other teams in the Bay Area (the San Francisco Giants, 49ers, and the Oakland A's, to name a few).
6. Xcel Energy Center (Minnesota)
The Wild may be based in the United States, but don't you dare try to tell their fans that it makes them any less passionate about their hockey. Minnesota is the State of Hockey, and it's probably the only market in the world that could give any Canadian hockey hotbed a run for its money.
And unlike some markets that only seem to care about the NHL (ahem...GTA), fans in Minnesota love the game at all levels, whether it's the Wild, the University of Minnesota, or high school competition.
Losing the North Stars in 1993 was a terrible blow to the hearts of Minnesota hockey lovers, so it only makes sense that they support their current team like few other NHL fan bases. Since entering the NHL in 2000, the Wild have sold out every single home game, regular season or playoffs. Plus, it doesn't hurt that Xcel is one of the nicest rinks in the league.
5. Joe Louis Arena (Detroit)
The debate has raged for years over whether the city deserves the "Hockeytown" label, but no one can deny that Detroit loves its hockey. Attendance has sagged a little recently because of the manufacturing crisis, but as evidenced by the anecdote I shared earlier, these fans still know how to make their Wings feel right at home. The Red Wings had the best home record in the NHL last year at 29-9-3.
4. Wachovia Center (Philadelphia)
What makes Flyer fans the best home crowd among the NHL's American markets? Lots of things. History, for one. From Kate Smith to the Philly flu to "Woo hoo!" to Domi vs. Fan, the annals of Flyer home dates are stacked with stories of hometown heart and flat-out fun, not to mention the constant pain in the ass felt by visitors.
These guys booed Santa Claus, for pete's sake. That alone puts them on this list, let alone everything else. You simply will not find an NHL rink south of the border that is louder and more rambunctious than the one in Philly, whether it's the Spectrum or the dreadfully-named Wachovia Center.
3. Pengrowth Saddledome (Calgary)
Sure, the Red Mile and the Sea of Red during the Flames' 2004 playoff run are the claim to fame for this fan base, and they contribute in a large way to their place on this list, but there's more to it than that.
Calgary fans have always been passionate. Don't forget about Electric Avenue, where Flame fans went nuts in the late '80s. Though attendance dropped sharply in the late 1990s when the Flames were wandering in the desert, a "Save Our Flames" campaign was successful and things have been on the up-and-up ever since.
It's a good bet that a significant chunk of the Flames' success in 2004 was due to the deafening roar in the Saddledome every time they took the ice. Nearly twenty thousand fans on their feet, all clad in bright red and pouring their hearts out for their Flames—what player could fail to be motivated by such a scene?
2. Bell Centre (Montréal)
Love 'em or hate 'em (and you can put me in the latter camp), fans of the bleu, blanc et rouge are second to none at annoying the opposition. They simply never shut up, and that's a great quality to have in a home crowd.
Come hell or high water, the Forum faithful (darn these bouts of nostalgia!) stand behind their Habs. Whether it's "Olé, olé, olé" nine minutes into the first period, or "Na na na na" with nine minutes left in the third, this crowd just never quits.
And when it's time for Bono and "Hello, hello," immortalized by the sight of vulcanized rubber entering the opponent's net, this place is simply electric.
1. Rexall Place (Edmonton)
Alberta's other NHL entry tops this list with style. In 2006, the City of Champions rallied around their underdog Oilers and willed them to the Stanley Cup Final, where the squad fell one game shy of winning the silver chalice.
Replace the Red Mile with Whyte Avenue, and the sea of red with a sea of blue and copper, and you've got the Calgary atmosphere all over again, but even better.
What puts the fans at Rexall two spots higher? This.
I would have given anything to be in the crowd that magical night at Rexall, wearing an Oilers jersey and singing my heart out.
It's safe to say no fan base in the NHL has experienced the ups and downs of Oiler supporters over the years. For every exhilarating Stanley Cup or Cinderella run, there has been equally heartbreaking recoil. And yet, when the call comes, Oil Country continues to rally around its team, forgetting the many heartaches of the past and cheering on their heroes in the present.
You can knock 'em down, but you can't take away their spirit.
Why isn't the Air Canada Centre on this list? Tune in tomorrow to find out!
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