On Saturday, I took advantage of a pretty rare opportunity: I got to see Vancouver play Montreal in two different sports on the same day. After an off-season that stretched seemingly forever, the Vancouver Whitecaps finally got to show off their revamped squad against the Montreal Impact at 3pm. Then, at 7pm, the Habs made their only visit of the year to Rogers Arena. I’ve been to my share of Canucks games in the past, and I was at all but one Whitecaps home game last season, but I’ve never been able to so directly compare the atmosphere in the two stadiums.
It couldn’t have worked out better, frankly. The Habs always inspire one of the liveliest affairs (off the ice) you’re likely to see at Rogers Arena, while the home opener in any sport is usually a noisy one. I even got to take in the games from a similar vantage point in each stadium. So how do the two events stack up? Read on to find out.
The Canucks have been at this a while, and it shows. They also have the advantage of owning their building and the technology within it. From the interactive historical displays on the concourse to the scrim that drops from the four corners of the rink to be used as projector screens just before puck drop, there is a layer of polish on the Canucks pre-game experience that just feels slick. I imagine that, even if I were not a Canucks fan, I would get a little tingle from the way the lights drop and a heartbeat thrums throughout the stadium. I think I’d smile appreciatively at the way little lines are projected onto the ice as the sound of skating joins the heartbeat. Compare that to the Whitecaps pre-game ceremony, where high school students run to and fro holding white flags aloft before large pyrotechnics go off. First, waving a bunch of white flags? Surely someone at the Whitecaps front office must understand the symbolism there. Second, causing a lot of smoke in an enclosed stadium and partially obscuring the first minute of the game is just plain dumb. Advantage Canucks.
This will probably be the last complimentary thing I have to say about the Canucks and Rogers Arena.
You wouldn’t expect it of the old cavern, but BC Place has atmosphere. Rogers Arena, on the other hand, feels like listening to a top forty radio station with the volume set too high.
Pre-game, many of the events were the same. There was a video on the jumbotron to get the crowd pumped up. The teams came out to much applause. The national anthem was sung well, and the crowd joined in. Drunk morons interrupted the moment of silence for late Canadian skier Nik Zoricic with a hastily shushed “wooo”. Finally, the starting lineups were ready to play, and the crowds began to chant. In BC Place, the noise swelled. The Southsiders sung Come on, Vancouver as their tifo display was unfurled. In Rogers Arena, the 3,000 or so Canadiens fans in attendance began to chant “go Habs go”. It started in a corner of the lower bowl, and started to spread. You could only hear them for a few seconds, though, because the oft-mocked Canucks fans rose to the challenge. For a few seconds, it was just confusion. You could tell someone was supposed to “go”, but it wasn’t clear exactly who. Then the majority took over and, for a brief, spine tingling moment, all was as it should be. The home fans urged their team on. Go Canucks Go! Go Canucks Go!
Then, quite suddenly, “MAKE SOME NOOOIIIISSSSSE!!!!” was screamed over the loud speakers.
We were!! Weren’t you listening just now, dumbass?? And, dammit, if you’re going to yell at us to do something, let us do it. Don’t immediately take your own advice and play Motley Crue 40% louder than it needs to be! (Don’t play Motley Crue at all, really, but especially not 40% louder than it needs to be.)
When the puck dropped at Rogers Arena, and the canned music was mercifully cut off, the stadium was once again quiet, the fans reduced to spectators. When the Whitecaps kicked off at BC Place, the fans cheered even louder. The Southsiders were a sea of scarves belting out Boundary Road to a John Denver tune. There was life in the building that the Canucks, knowingly or not, had suppressed in theirs.
It was a theme that continued throughout the games. The Canucks didn’t allow dead air. Either you were watching the game, or you were paying attention to their message. The Whitecaps used stoppages in play sparingly to plug their sponsors, but for most of the game, live ball or dead, you could hear the crowd.
It was never more apparent than when the home teams opened the scoring. In the fourth minute, Sebastien Le Toux was sprung on a breakaway. His finish was clinical. Bedlam. It hurt my ears. Flags and scarves waved, people yelled, some poor bastard forgot to cap his $10 stadium beer and drops of it rained down on half the section. A minute later we were still chanting the riff to The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. But when Ryan Kesler opened the scoring at 11:58 of the second period, I have no idea how loud the crowd was. The Canucks DJ did all their work for them. A horn blared as if a ferry was about to leave Horseshoe Bay, and The Clutch’s Electric Worry was played at a deafening volume. The song didn’t stop until the puck dropped again. I counted dozens of Canucks fans in my section alone that didn’t even bother to stand and applaud. I’m not sure I blame them. Even from the lower bowl, the team never would have heard them.
The games went in different directions. The Whitecaps won the day 2-0, and when it was over both the players and fans stuck around a bit longer. The fans applauded while the players made a circuit, applauding them in return. Some of the players disappeared into the tunnel, then came back out to applaud the Southsiders who were still serenading them with Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough.
The Canucks collapsed in the third and lost 4-1. Every time Montreal scored, their fans cheered louder. The Canadiens heard it, and it seemed to motivate them in a way Electric Worry didn’t motivate the Canucks. That’s not surprising. Long before it was over, the place was half empty. Even then, the Habs fans were in the minority, but when they started singing “ole, ole, ole” there was no response. Not liking the thought of being out-sung in our own building, I tried to get a response going. I tried to start the only thing I knew might catch on, but after bellowing “GO CANUCKS GO” three times, as loud as I could, not a single person joined me. One guy in my row told me it was a “nice try”. Thanks.
When the game ended, the Canucks disappeared quickly down the tunnel while the Habs skated out to congratulate Carey Price. When PK Subban, the game’s third star, skated back out, tugged on the Canadiens logo on his jersey and raised his stick to the fans, there was no chorus of boos. There were no howls of outrage. Most Canucks fans didn’t even see it. They were already gone or on their way out.
The Canucks game was an eye opener for me. I’ve railed in the past at the lethargic and disinterested crowds at Rogers Arena, but I’m no longer convinced it’s their fault. I saw flashes of pride and moments of passion, but they kept getting snuffed out. The Canucks are playing a dangerous game by not allowing the fans to create the atmosphere. Right now, the product the Canucks are providing is a generally good one, but what happens when the product sucks? When the team inevitably falters, when a 4-1 loss to a last place team isn’t an aberration, what will the draw be? The Whitecaps had one of the worst seasons in MLS history last year, and their season ticket sales barely faltered. Part of that is the price: the face value of those two Canucks/Canadiens tickets were nearly as much as one season ticket to the Caps. Part of it is novelty: lots of people still haven’t seen the Whitecaps play live. Most of it is the atmosphere. It’s fun to go to a Whitecaps game, even when they lose. I can’t say the same about the Canucks.