I remember when I first got onto the Chicago Blackhawks' bandwagon. It was the spring of 2010, the team was rattling off wins and I was finally discovering my love for hockey. After a childhood full of watching losers, here was a team led by guys practically my age who dominated a fast, exciting sport. I was sold. I was also undeniably a bandwagon fan.
I wasn't there when the Blackhawks were losing, or when frugal owner Bill Wirtz refused to put the team's home games on local television. When it comes to the Blackhawks, I've been there for the best, but I admittedly was not there for the worst.
Maybe that experience makes me slightly less appreciative, maybe the greatest victories can only be experienced in the wake of agonizing defeat. Older Blackhawks fans certainly know all about that. What my experience doesn't make me, however, is a lesser fan of any sort. Fandom is defined by passion and loyalty, not timing and knowledge, and I, like many Blackhawks fans, have that in abundance.
A shared interest in hockey, no matter the source or reasoning behind it, should bring fans together, and most of the time, it does. Go into a Chicago bar wearing a Blackhawks sweater, and you'll undoubtedly have that moment where you catch eyes with another Hawks-clad person and nod in acknowledgement that, yeah, we're on the same team here. Not everyone welcomes the fan in a brand-new Patrick Kane sweater with open arms, though.
This doesn't apply solely to the Blackhawks, or even hockey, but fan shaming has been prevalent ever since the team went from also-ran to national commodity. Chicago gets the national broadcasts, the All-Star Game votes, the top-selling jerseys and crowds that show up that arenas across the continent. There's a bit of "chicken or egg" there with the proliferation of the team's brand, but I don't think anyone is throwing their hands in the air wondering, "Where did all these Blackhawks fans come from?!?" The result is a ballooning fan base full of every type, from the hardcore to casuals who literally don't watch any other sports.
The Hawks fans were always there, however, waiting for a team that finally offered fans respect and winning hockey on the ice. Since ownership changed in the middle of the previous decade and a couple high draft picks hit big, the bandwagon has basically become a band-aircraft carrier. Naturally, not everyone in that group is going to be on the same page, but at the very least, you'd think a love of hockey would be the thing we all agree on.
When someone tells you that they just got into Game of Thrones four seasons in, you don't start lambasting them for having the audacity not to sign up for HBO in 2011. You talk about all the amazing moments they're going to experience going forward and OH MY GOD THE BLOOD. ALL THE BLOOD.
What you don't do is shame someone for realizing they had interest in and passion for something on a different timetable from other people. I just starting liking seafood a few years ago -- I probably wouldn't have if everyone was telling me, "Dude, you're 20, if you don't like seafood by now, what's even the point?!?"
And I don't think hockey fans should be doing that to their less experienced, knowledgeable peers in a time when hockey is clearly a niche sport. The NFL and NBA's television contracts dwarf the NHL's. TV ratings for the Blackhawks are often strong but that doesn't apply to most teams. We should want every passionate fan the sport can get, and the idea that some are being discouraged by the tone of discourse is frustrating. That's why we should open our arms to all kinds of fans, even if they're just getting in the door with a winner. Not all of them will stick around once this era ends -- life is a busy, complicated thing -- but a great community makes it that much harder to shake the passion. Maybe I wouldn't have stuck around if old-timers were telling me I didn't know anything and couldn't appreciate things the same ways.
With the Blackhawks, we have an awesome group of fans coming together. Even if you're just getting on board this year -- or this series -- welcome. Ask questions, learn about this fantastic sport we all pour so much time and emotion into. In return, other fans should be encouraging that passion, because hey, everyone needs to start somewhere. It's a fun ride and let's enjoy the memories while we can. It won't be like this forever, after all.
(Note: Thank you to Jen LC and everyone on Twitter for the discussion that helped spur this post. You guys are awesome.)