This past weekend saw the return of Scott Hartnell to the Wells Fargo Center for the first time. During his time as a Flyer, he endeared himself to Flyers fans for his ability to score, hit, fight, and …fall. (Hartnell sponsors a fan created charity that tracks the incidents in which Hartnell falls every game.) In 7 years he had 326 regular season points for the Flyers, along with 908 penalty minutes. Looking at those two statistics alone will likely give you some insight as to what made Hartnell so popular in Philly. Well that and…
The return of Hartnell to Philadelphia had a number of your obvious storylines. Fan favourite that you couldn’t picture getting traded for anything, the kind of guy that bleeds the colour of your team, gets traded. I still remember the day he was traded, if not for anything else, because I had a conversation with a fellow Flyers fan the weekend prior, and we had actually spoken to how much we like Hartnell as a Flyer. To say it was a bit of a surprise is a bit of an understatement. So Hartnell coming back to Philly had all the feelings of a homecoming. The Flyers had a video made up that was played during one of the commercial breaks. While all this was going on, I started to think about what exactly makes a fan favourite. What does a guy have to do to endear himself to an entire fan base in this way?
I live in the Greater Toronto Area. That means that NHL isn’t the NHL. It’s the Leafs. I really get a kick out of the big reveal every time. “How can you like the Flyers?” Its kind of like saying, “I’m Keyser Soze.” To Leafs fans, being a fan of another team often seems like an impossibility. So growing up around Leaf fans in the ’90s, the only players you ever heard about were Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour. (Now that I think about it, they’re still the only players I ever hear about.) They embodied two of the more important aspects of the game, grit and skill. It makes a lot of sense why these two became fan favourites. Aside from their playing styles, they helped to bring the Leafs back to respectability. Which is most likely why they are still remembered with such passion. Fan bases like to see their teams get as close to the Promised Land as possible. Which is one thing that helps for a player to emblazon themselves into the lore of any given team.
It’s no secret that the Enforcers, or sorry, Fourth-Liners of the League are usually fan favourites. After all, game in and game out they literally bleed for the team. It should come as no surprise that this is something that many fans come to like. I’m sure we all remember what it was like being in high school and a fight broke out. For whatever reason we just cannot turn away from the spectacle of a fight. Which is most likely one of the reasons that the NHL has tolerated fighting in the NHL as long as they have. It really does elevate the in game experience, whether you are a proponent for it or not. I do find myself less interested in fighting during a hockey game these days, but I would find it strange when (if?) it will be gone from the NHL altogether. Enforcers are not only popular because of the their brawling, they tend to usually be one of the more accessible players on any roster. More often than not Enforcers will be responsible for running charities, they will almost always give interviews, and are probably really good guys. After all, they do fight for their teammates night after night. Fans know these things, which is what makes them such favourites.
I would really like to think that being a fan favourite is equivalent to catching lightning in a bottle. There are so many ways to be one. Of course being a Superstar player is a given, but the one’s that have to work for it, they are the one’s that I really appreciate; they’ve grinded it out, they have scored the big goals, they have made the big hit, they have fought, they have lost, they have won. It is a very delicate formula, sometimes one that is never again reproduced.