Sutcliffe: Why we shouldn’t put our old favourite teams ahead of our community

Like all matters of the heart, sports allegiances are hard to explain. How is it, for example, that some attachments between fan and team last longer than marriages and friendships (and even get in the way of them, on occasion)?

Sutcliffe: Why we shouldn’t put our old favourite teams ahead of our community
Dressed up in a Habs shirt, local TV intern Dan Cress was just looking for trouble at the Ottawa Senators rally, held in front of city hall Tuesday by Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson (pictured), Sens President Cyril Leeder and other local officials and fans. The mayor officially proclaimed the upcoming post season as "Sens Army, United in Red Days" at the event. (Julie Oliver/OttawaCitizen)

Like all matters of the heart, sports allegiances are hard to explain. How is it, for example, that some attachments between fan and team last longer than marriages and friendships (and even get in the way of them, on occasion)?

And why do some of us put our favourite team ahead of our community, like the natives of Ottawa who will be wearing Carey Price jerseys and booing Eric Gryba tomorrow night?

When I was a kid, before the idea of an NHL team in Ottawa was even a fantasy, I was a passionate fan of the Montreal Canadiens. I watched and cheered as Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey won four straight Stanley Cups.

When the Senators arrived, I, along with many other hockey fans, had to choose between my original team and my new hometown club. Somewhat to my own surprise, I discovered myself backing the Senators. Other local hockey fans also switched allegiance, some more quickly than others, while many stayed steadfastly loyal to the teams of their childhood.

To the extent that I follow the rest of the league, I was still happy when Montreal did well. And for the first 20 seasons of the Senators, I rarely felt any conflict. Ottawa and Montreal didn’t play each other in many games that were crucial to both teams. Until now, of course.

Initially, I didn’t have much to say about the people who stuck with their original teams. It seemed like a matter of personal choice and loyalty is a good quality. But as I’ve watched the Senators compete in the playoffs over the past decade, I’ve becoming less accepting of the enemies in our midst.

Maybe it’s just my own partisanship, but I’m having a harder time accepting the logic of rooting for the visiting team. I don’t object to people who moved to Ottawa as adults still feeling tied to their hometown team. If you spent the first 30 years of your life in Boston and you’ll always be a Bruins fan, even if you now live a block from Madison Square Garden, there’s nothing wrong with that.

But if you were born and raised in Ottawa and you’re still cheering for the Canadiens or the Maple Leafs or any other team in the NHL, you’re putting your competitive fervour ahead of your city.

I know, as some people will quickly point out, it’s just hockey. It’s a bunch of professional athletes competing for a trophy. It doesn’t really matter who wins.

Except that it does matter. The existence and success of the Senators is indisputably good for the city, for local businesses and charities. And a long Senators playoff run is extremely beneficial to the local economy. Hoping the Senators are eliminated quickly is hoping that local bars and restaurants lose potential revenue. Some of those small businesses are owned by your friends and neighbours.

I’m sure the counterargument of some Habs fans would be that I’m disloyal for abandoning my original team. Indeed, some people to think a sports allegiance is like a tattoo: pick one once when you’re young and you’re stuck with it for life.

But the Canadiens I cheered for are long retired, so much so that Lafleur is now the television spokesman for a product that improves blood circulation in the lower legs and feet. The only connection I have to today’s Habs is that they wear the same uniform as the heroes of my childhood. I have a deeper and richer connection to my hometown, and my children’s hometown, than to some red, white and blue laundry.

Look at it this way: Sidney Crosby’s dad used to cheer for the Canadiens. Is he a traitor for rooting for the Penguins when they visit Montreal? If it’s okay to switch allegiances for your son, why not for your city? Is that really the hierarchy: Team first, then family, then community?

I know I’m mixing logic with fanaticism here. Sometimes a fan’s choice can’t be explained or analyzed.

And yes, some of this will be cured by time. Ottawa is still a relative newcomer to the NHL, so there are many older fans who are hanging on to the attachments of their childhood. Give it a couple of decades and there will be another generation of spectators growing up with no prior conflicting relationships.

But given our proximity to Toronto and Montreal and the increasingly fluid movement of people from city to city, it will take a long time before the large constituencies of Maple Leafs and Canadiens fans in Ottawa abate. Heck, there are Canadiens and Leafs fans in Vancouver, which has had NHL hockey for 20 years longer than Ottawa.

Would these same people root for Montreal if it was bidding against Ottawa for a major international event? Would they cheer if a top pediatric heart surgeon chose a hospital in Toronto rather than work at CHEO?

I’m not going to change many minds. But I still wonder why some natives of Ottawa can’t imagine what a Stanley Cup would do for their hometown and stop rabidly supporting the people who are trying to prevent it from happening.

Twitter.com/_marksutcliffe

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