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moe-lemay-canucksSince the 1970s, Vancouver hockey fans have endured a club that has been roller-coaster at best and horrifyingly bad at its worst, often never making the playoffs and even more often getting drubbed in the first or second rounds by clearly superior teams.  Since my childhood the team has withstood four different ownership groups and a revolving door of players and hollow heroes.  We’ve only begged to the throne of the league twice, with two storied cups runs that are celebrated as though they were victories to this day.

Now that the Canucks are on the downward slope of the coaster, cruising past a few of the top teams in the league and looking at a bona fide winning streak, they need to remember the fans who supported them in getting there with a League-record 247 sellouts and the faithful purchase of a succession of horrifyingly ugly jerseys and fan paraphernalia. All of the money spent on these tickets, jerseys, and ball caps goes to support the exorbitant player salaries that players continue to demand (even journeymen like Alexandre Burrows – $2M?) even amidst what could be one of the greatest economic declines of the past 130 years.

Fortunately, there is a simple, no-cost way to send some of the love back to the fans who carry their home teams so far.  A trend is  slowly sweeping the hockey world that I think needs to take hold in Vancouver — a city that has not won a cup in the modern NHL and for nearly a century, and in particular a city that suffered through a terrible mid-season slump that even now threatens to cast the team out of cup contention with one of the highest pay rosters in the league.  This would also be a wonderful addition to other teams in the NHL.

When I was playing in Europe a few years ago it was tradition for the home to to salute the fans after the game.  Some would rather elaborately go back to the dressing room, don different warmup jerseys or remove their team jerseys, and return with their kids families to the ice to perform a “dance” of sorts for the fans… others would line up arm-in-arm and “sweep” the ice.  More simply, some just gathered at centre ice and lifted their sticks in a simple salute to their loyal supporters, most of whom are not anxious to leave the stadium early at the end of the game (some photos of the ERC Ingolstadt Panthers, which feature local boy Doug Ast, are below).

The result is a greater sense of cameraderie and family, but there is a deeper message here:  one of mutual respect, appreciation, and shared exhileration.  I realize that the lifestyle of a professional hockey player is difficult and challenging:  friends who’ve done the job are drained and spent for most of the regular season given the hectic travel and playing schedules.  As those of us who pay fortunes to play the sport appreciate, though, anyone who gets paid to do something so special as play hockey is priviledged.  It is vital to the health of the sport (and the long-term sustainance of those lofty salaries) that players feed the system that supports them.

Minor league teams like the Evansville Icemen have taken to saluting their fans now… a great way to support fans and teach young players respect for the institution of hockey.

And since a couple of seasons ago, the NY Rangers have paid tribute to their fans after each game with a simple salute.  You’ve got to admit, it just feels a little bit good to see this.  If players complain that certain arenas are a little quiet around the NHL, especially when compared to smaller but far more boisterous European arenas, perhaps it’s because the players never return the support and acknowledgement that fans give to them? Is it harder to hate a player who’s slumping when you’ve seen him skate out onto the ice with his new baby in his arms?  Do you feel as a fan like you’re more of a part of the big hockey family when there’s greater interaction with them in this manner?  The answer to all of these is “why wouldn’t you?”

So really, is it such a difficult thing to give the fans a little salute after the game before heading to the bike?  The Washington Capitals’ Ted Leonsis is a particularly enlightened and accessible owner … perhaps he’s a guy who could exhibit some leadership here?  Come on, players… let’s show the fans that the respect is mutual.