Partout ended up at a HC Sparta hockey game in Prague because – in the great tradition of “when in Rome” – Doris said, “We should see if there is a hockey game while we are here.” Sure enough, the proud Spartans were taking the ice Sunday at 3 pm. Louis said “Proč ne?!” or the French or English equivalent of “Why not?!” and off we went.
Louis’s principle interest was in hockey. Doris’s was in the tribal behavior of Czech hockey fans. Neither was disappointed (the caveat emptor offered because only a sports fan would find such arcana remotely of interest).
Maybe the most dramatic difference we found between Czech hockey and the NHL came at the first step of going to the game: buying tickets. Tickets three rows off the ice at center-rink cost $17 each. Of course, Czech players earn something slightly north of $100,000/year on average, while the NHL annual average is $2.4 million, so that may play a part. For us, it felt like Christmas had come early, and that was before we got to the game and discovered that beer was $2 a cup.
Security check practices were in effect, just like in the U.S., and Louis’s selfie stick flunked. Having never tried to take a selfie stick into a pro game, we have no idea if they are banned everywhere but, in Prague, he was ordered to back out of line and check the stick for the game, a privilege for which he paid about a quarter in Czech koruna.
Louis found the game pretty much the same as in the NHL except that nearly every penalty (and there were a bunch) was called for hooking; not a single call resulted from slashing, roughing, fighting, misconduct or a body-blow of any kind. There was a bit of manly elbowing and glowering, but they were positively gentlemanly by NHL standards.
Some fan and team practices and rituals turned out to be pretty universal but not all.
As in U.S. sports, the arena’s name had been sold to the highest bidder (O2, a mobile telephone provider), and branding was everywhere, especially on the players.
Men clearly outnumbered women in the stands; Doris didn’t even encounter lines in the women’s loo. The sections behind the goals were reserved for uber-fans, where everyone seemed to be wearing team colors and carrying team paraphernalia.
No arena or stadium is complete without a Jumbotron, and O2 was no exception. Cameras picked out happy fans in the stands, especially children, who waved frantically when they spotted themselves on the big screen. Fan quizzes were broadcast during breaks in the action, and pizzas appear to have been awarded for perfect scores. Replays and fan messages played all game long.
The team even had a mascot (a Spartan warrior), who made animated appearances on the Jumbotron whenever there was a penalty or a score.
There were cheerleaders, though the NHL definitely did not produce their costumes.
The approach to fan cheering was also noticeably different. The home team had what we called in high school a pep band – drummers and a trumpeter, who pretty much performed non-stop the whole game except when things were going really badly. They led the fans in well, the same cheers from Doris’s high school football game days … in English!?!
DRUM, DRUM, DRUMDRUMDRUM, DRUMDRUMDRUMDRUM … LET’S GO! There was also a lot of We will, we will, rock you. Also in English.
When either team scored a goal, fans and cheerleaders held uniform team scarves over their heads.
But perhaps the strangest difference to Doris, who has been to more than a few sports events in her life, was in the seating, eating and drinking practices of the Sparta fans.
First, nobody left their seats during the action. Fans were managed like theater-goers: You either got to your seat before the face off or you waited in the lobby until there was a break in the action. Presumably as a result, once the play started, the aisles were absolutely empty; nobody came or went. Presumably, also as a result, during the breaks between periods, everyone left their seats.
Maybe this influenced the second surprising behavior: There wasn’t much eating or drinking going on. We spied one bag of popcorn down the row, but nary a peanut or pretzel or nacho, and the concession stands didn’t seem to be selling anything but those. No Czech sausages with mustard, no chimney cakes. For that matter, not much beer was in evidence. Each seat had two drink-holders, but – in a city with no apparent open-container law and people walking around or in outdoor cafes swigging cold beer even when it is snowing – there seemed to be at least as many Coke cups as beer cups in the holders and not all that many of those. It was as if people actually went to see the game.
Alas, the home team went down in defeat but, win or lose, the players lined up for ritual handshakes in the middle of the ice.
With no dog in the fight, Louis had happily cheered for every goal, no matter who scored it. Given that there were nine goals in all (Sparta lost 6-3), it all made for a very happy afternoon. We collected the selfie stick and headed to the Metro with a vow to try to catch local sporting events whenever we can when on the road.
Coming soon: Christmas Shopping in Paris