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Last year on this blog I wrote about sensing sport heritage, that is to say that there is a particular form of sensuality associated with sport heritage which is more than just seeing or touching a sporting place or artefact. Many heritages, as we know, are more personal in nature and link to individual pasts and memories, particularly from childhood. Things like smell and taste are part of our sporting pasts, and can take us back to particular sporting experiences. One of my students, for example, recently related a story about how drinking hot chocolate immediately reminded her of being at a hockey rink in her home in Vermont. For her, hot chocolate will always be linked to winters at the rink, and she found that it triggered a very specific form of nostalgia for her.
Perhaps less specific than links to specific senses are the associations of sports with the natural calendar; that there is an almost visceral connection between seasons and particular sports. Of course, particular sports must be played at particular times of the year, although with our ability to control and create artificial environments, weather can be eliminated or controlled in sporting environments in many cases. No, this is to say that watching or participating in certain sports simply belong to the wider heritage of a particular season; that certain sports simply belong at particular times of year. Of course, we may simply be conditioned to expect that particular sports belong at certain times of the year – what is commonly called institutional seasonality. American football is associated with the Fall, and though it feels as though it ought to be associated with leaves and cooler temperatures and autumn holidays like Thanksgiving, the institutional structure of it simply puts it at a certain time of year. Football could, of course, just as easily be played in the spring – but, because of its institutional structure, we associate the sport with the broader markers of the season. Other sports, like baseball, have – in a sense – a dual season – as Ken Burns says (and to paraphrase), baseball gives us the promise of spring and the harsh realities of fall. And, yet, there is something wholly appropriate about the traditions associated with Opening Day in baseball – normally one of the most anticipated days in the American sporting calendar – in large part because of the promise of spring renewal. Similarly, I have friends and colleagues who adore October baseball, not only because it is the playoffs but because the feel of the games are part of the tradition; that summer has clearly past, and winter is on the horizon, but the playoffs occupy that beautiful liminal space in-between. As a colleague said to me earlier this month, “it just smells like October baseball.” Baseball may even have a third season, the offseason where many of the moves and transactions take place, which – associating it with cold, winter nights – is called the “hot stove” which “calls up images of baseball fans gathering around a hot stove during the cold winter months, discussing their favorite baseball teams and players.”
A few years back, I had a paper published about the development of community league hockey rinks in Edmonton. Although the paper was largely a historical look at gender and recreation, the paper was – in part – framed around the winter-based tropes that are part and parcel of the outdoor hockey experience. Of course, cold, winter weather is necessary to have outdoor hockey but, of course, the rink and the season associated with this sporting practice are part of broader identities. I liberally quoted from both academic and popular sources that framed the rink as, in part, “a key signifier of our national claims on winter and northernness, of our identity as a wholesome, hardy people. Rosy- cheeked children play shinny against a prairie sky, a city skyline, a ridge of pines. Cold winds are vanquished by the swoosh and cut of a blade, the thwack of a frozen puck on a stick. A national fairy tale.” In this, the sport cannot be separated from the season; they are both part and parcel of the traditions and heritages of certain times of year.
Of course, like any heritage, the linking of sport and particular times of year are contextual and, perhaps, driven by media discourses. The infamous – and often parodied – introduction of The Masters golf tournament by Jim Nantz has constructed and solidified an impression of spring in the South. Of course, in the global media age, many of these impressions of particular times of year are mobile, and may resonate with people who have never directly experienced these conditions – but feel attached and attracted to them, nevertheless. Growing up in Canada, the outdoor rink was simply part of who we were – though, now, through the proliferation of outdoor hockey events, many fans may now see these kinds of environments as part of their heritage too – even if they are relatively foreign to them.
However, we ought to consider these broader environments – seasons, temperature, and weather – as part of sport heritage. In many cases, they are as important in creating and constructing the sporting past as buildings and artefacts.
The idea of dissonance as perhaps the central, innate characteristic of heritage is not new. Indeed, if we accept that all heritage is not neutral, the notion that all heritage could have a counter narrative seems reasonable. In this, we understand – as many in critical heritage studies do – that heritage is often, and perhaps always, about power.
In sport heritage, we have not necessarily considered dissonant heritages that often. While Sean Gammon and I, back in 2005, argued that the sporting past in tourism ought to be called heritage rather than nostalgia – in large part because heritage had the capacity for dissonant narratives – there actually aren’t that many dissonant narratives at sport heritage sites. Of course, there are many reasons for this – as most sport heritage sites like museums and halls of fame are primarily about celebration of achievement and, as such, more challenging views are frequently ignored. Still, there appears to be very few outlets where more challenging approaches to the sporting past – at least in terms of cultural sites like museums – are seen. Similarly, many non-sport cultural entities tend to avoid sporting exhibitions, perhaps viewing sport as too common and popular to represent at, say, a gallery or as part of a broad-based exhibition.
However, there are a few examples I am familiar with where art, dissonance, and sport heritage have met. Perhaps the best example was the Arena: The Art of Hockey exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2008. The exhibition both embraced and challenged many of the links between hockey and Canadian national identity. On the one hand, many of the works embraced – if, somewhat subversively – the role hockey plays in Canadian identity. I recall one work which was little more than a nude male and female holding hockey sticks. On the other hand, there were many works that challenged hockey culture and heritage. One work, in particular (and, forgive, I forget the name – though it appears that there are still exhibition guides available) was a collage of images set on an indigenous reserve that featured scenes of hockey as well as suicide, alcoholism, racism and sexual abuse. Although I suspect the work could be read in many ways, I took it as the fact that hockey – and sport in general – does not necessarily address, and perhaps masks, larger social issues.
Similarly, a 2008 exhibition called “Hard Targets: Masculinity and Sports” looks at the violence and voyeuristic aspects of sport consumption. Like Arena, this exhibition appeared to take sport cultures and heritages into an unfamiliar space, both critiquing and celebrating the physicality of sporting practices.
Although there are certainly many other examples of art, dissonance, and sport heritage than these, and there are many sporting sites and places that do address dissonant heritages (Although I have a chapter coming out in early 2017 which looks at several sites that employ dissonant sport heritage narratives), there appears to be space within art galleries in particular – which, perhaps is not available to traditional sport heritage sites like museums and halls of fame – to both celebrate and challenge sport heritages. Perhaps some of this has to do with visitor expectations: hall of fame patrons may be looking to celebrate and nostalgize, while gallery patrons may expect subversion. However, these not need be polar opposites – and can exist, in many cases, side by side (as was recently featured in a post about Argentina). Certainly, many stadia – such as Marlins Park in Miami – have incorporated public art into stadium design (and not simply for nostalgic purposes). While this is not always necessarily addressing major social issues – as some of the art in the Arena exhibit might – it nevertheless demonstrates that so-called “high” and “low” cultures and heritage are not necessarily incompatible.
For the better part of my life, I have been fascinated with sports stadiums.
I have been fascinated with sports stadiums not so much for how they are operated, or constructed, or designed – but, rather, that sports stadiums are somehow meaningful. They are, as geographer John Bale argues, more than just utilitarian structures where games are played. We have imbued sports stadiums with particular meanings, values, and identities that we don’t do for many other places, save perhaps for our own childhood homes or monuments of national importance. We are, to cite another geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, topophilic about them – that is to say, we speak of them as very special places that, in many cases, we love.
Indeed, this interest in the meanings of sports stadiums has driven much of my research in sport heritage, looking at why millions of people will travel thousands of miles simply to tour empty sports venues. In some cases, people go to them because of a famous event happened there, or a famous team or athlete plays there. Other times, it is because the stadium is particularly old, or has a unique design or aesthetics. But, often, the love of sports venues is because there is a personal connection to them – of games seen, and people we’ve gone to see them with.
I’ve been very fortunate to tour numerous globally famous stadiums and, while many of them are important to me personally, few are as particularly special to me as Rexall Place (nee: Northlands Coliseum, Edmonton Coliseum, Skyreach Centre) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada – which is most famous for being the home of the Edmonton Oilers hockey club.
This week sees the final Oilers game played at Rexall Place, as the Oilers are moving to a new arena next season. The future of Rexall Place has not yet been determined though, whether it is renovated or demolished, it will have little resemblance to it’s current form.
One of the ironic aspects of remembering Rexall Place, particularly in using terms like topophilla about it, is actually just how architecturally unremarkable it is. It is the epitome of the placeless, utilitarian venue both inside and out.
And, yet, I can safely argue it probably is the most important symbol of personal heritage to me. It is a repository of so many memories, of events of all sorts – not just hockey – seen with so many loved ones. I can still vaguely remember my first game, and though the details of the game itself are somewhat lost (1980 or 1981, maybe. Definitely against the Bruins. And, I think, a 2-2 tie), I went with my dad, sat at centre ice about halfway up in the 200s (or the Blues, as we called them), from tickets he had bought from a scalper outside the door. I remember seeing demolition derbys at the summer fair with my family, Hulk Hogan wrestling cards with my best friend, innumerable hard rock and heavy metal concerts with high school buddies. But, inevitably, I come back to the hockey games, because those were the ones I still remember.
And, I was at some pretty famous games: Game Five versus the Islanders in 1984 when they won their first Stanley Cup, and the relocated-from-Boston Game Four in 1988 when they won their fourth Stanley Cup. I should have seen them win the Cup in at Game Five in the 1987 Cup Finals as well – but, the Philadelphia Flyers had other ideas, though my brother got to see them win it in Game Seven a few days later. I was also at the infamous miss the empty net game, and the incredible Game Six victory over Detroit in the 2006 Cup run. There were, of course, many games – many seasons, even – that blur into memory. During the mid 1990s, when the building was half-full, my friend and I became defacto season ticket holders, as tickets were in very low demand and very inexpensive to obtain (not to mention we could sit almost anywhere we wanted).
More than anything, though, I remember who I went with and, more than anything, those are the memories I have when I think about Rexall Place. My mother, father, and brother are who I think of most, and how hockey games were some of my best family memories growing up. Into my 20s and 30s, it was friends and girlfriends, when the hockey game was part of a night on the town.
I considered coming back to Edmonton this season, just to see Rexall Place one more time. My brother and I, in particular, thought we would try and get some tickets near where our father’s tickets were in the 1980s – Section K, Row 14. Neither Section K or Row 14 exist anymore, the red seats removed during a mid 90s renovation, but I decided against going back. Perhaps because hockey is not necessarily a large part of my life anymore, or maybe because one last visit seemed unnecessary, I simply decided it wasn’t worth it. But I did slightly regret not going back one more time, just to be with my people in a place that meant so much to me for so long.
However, last week, it all came around full circle. My wife and son went up to Edmonton to visit friends and family, and she decided to take our hockey-obsessed boy – along with my parents – for his first visit to the old rink.
My son, born and raised in South Carolina, experiencing a place that meant so much to me, along with the people who took me for so many years. This is the way it should end.
Farewell Rexall Place.
There’s little doubt that sport heritage can play an integral role in tourism development.
Of course, sport heritage attractions and experiences that are purposely positioned to appeal to tourists are part of this. Sports halls of fame and museums, behind-the-scenes stadium tours and the like can be significant in a destinations year-round tourism. Cities like Boston and Barcelona – both not lacking in tourist attractions – cite stadiums (Fenway Park and Camp Nou, respectively) as some of the largest heritage and cultural tourism attractions in their communities.
However, just as often, attending a game live is one of the best ways to experience authentic local or national culture, traditions, and heritage. When I lived in Canada and was hosting an overseas visitor, inevitably we would end up at a hockey game. In South Carolina, I encourage visitors to come during the fall college football season – or, barring that, come during the spring or summer to experience minor league baseball in the Carolinas.
In general, this kind of heritage/cultural sport tourism is seen as beneficial for destinations, clubs, and visitors alike. For the destinations, visitors will come to watch matches in the tourism shoulder/off-season, there is the prestige of having global visitation (and, often, the revenue that comes from international visitors), and – in cities like Liverpool – additional local businesses and attractions can be created around visitors wanting to experience something of the club’s heritage year-round. For the clubs, the market for tickets and merchandise becomes global, additional off-season experiences – such as stadium tours and heritage-themed restaurants – can be created, and international competitions can be created. For supporters, seeing a match in the home of a particularly famous team can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
However, it’s not always so rosy. In the case of the Premier League in England, tourists form a significant number of ticket-buyers, often being motivated to experience the history, heritage, and traditions of English football. In fact, nearly 800,000 overseas visitors went to a football match in Britain (most of whom went to a Premiership match), with an estimated economic impact of £684m. Destination Marketing Organizations, such as Visit Britain, have sections on their webpages about attending football matches.
But, the influx of visitors have – in the view of many local supporters – driven up ticket prices, have not embraced local traditions (and, have created new ones, like half-and-half scarves) and created a much different atmosphere in the grounds (as visitors don’t know the chants and are, seemingly, just there to watch the spectacle).
Recently, the chairman of the Football Supporters Federation claimed that clubs would “lose the atmosphere and link to the local community”, with match-going supporters replaced by “foreign tourists with half and half scarves taking selfies of being in an English ground”.
There is little doubt that tourism has probably driven up prices at heavily-subscribed sporting events like Premiership football, particularly at heritage-based clubs like Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal. While fans of other sports in other countries – like the NFL, NHL, MLB – have more opportunities to sell their tickets on the secondary market (like StubHub) and are able to finance going to some games by selling others at inflated prices, this is probably not as much of an option in the EPL – owing to both tradition (season ticket holders typically go to all games) and security at grounds. As such, there is probably a limited supply of tickets for tourists – and, perhaps, some of the “tourist tickets” are actually sold by the club at inflated prices. Few teams garner as much international interest as English football clubs, and with international travel being relatively easy and inexpensive as compared to previous generations, one can see how tickets to heavily supported clubs have gone up due to international demand and limited supply.
There is also the notion that tourism has changed the heritage and traditions of watching a football match. In this, English football – at least at certain grounds – is probably going through the changes that happen in many parts of heritage tourism. The line between “spectator” and “participant” is a challenge in many kinds of heritage tourism, as many heritage experiences are meaningful, important, and impactful because this line between spectator and participant does not exist. In this, the heritage tourist’s participation is integral to the spectacle – in fact, participation is integral to the heritage existing in the first place. As is the case in many kinds of heritage, the “outsider” coming in to ruin a local heritage can often tinged with a very reactionary form of nostalgia – and, of course, that could be happening here. The “good old days” of attending a top-tier football match in England are long gone, and perhaps tourists (or, particular kinds of tourists) are an easy and available scapegoat for broader social and cultural changes. That said, if tourists are “gazing” rather than participating (or feeling they can participate, which is a different thing altogether) and the number of “gazing” tourists are of a significant number, I can understand why local fans feel that some heritages are under threat.
Naturally, the idea of finding some sort of balance between maintaining heritage and tradition and welcoming tourists is as important in heritage sport tourism as it is in all other forms of cultural and heritage tourism. There have been some proposals to limit tickets to people with local postcodes, or have some other scheme by which local, longtime fans still have access to their home club. One thought might be for local or national destination marketing organizations to promote other sports and sporting experiences as “authentic” forms of cultural and heritage. In the case of Britain, perhaps rugby, cricket, or horse racing becomes the focus, rather than just football. Personally, attending a county cricket match seemed like a far more “authentic” sporting experience than any of the English football matches I’ve been to over the years. And, of course, local rugby teams and county cricket clubs would probably love the additional support! Easier said than done, of course, but actively promoting other important cultural/traditional sport might both ease the pressure on popular sports, help maintain some of the intangible heritage, and help spread the wealth a bit.
Ultimately, most organizations and destinations would love to have the heritage sport tourism issues of the Premier League. And, it goes without saying that the Premier League offers a unique heritage conservation issue that most sports do not have to contend with. By and large, heritage sport tourism is beneficial to destinations, clubs, and visitors alike. Few tourist experiences can rival the authenticity of watching a sporting event live in another country. However, as the Premier League example tells us, this has to be managed, lest local supporters (quite literally) revolt.
As many sports organizations have realized, heritage is an asset that can be used for a variety of needs and in numerous circumstances. We have seen many kinds of ways heritage have been used in sports, from throwback apparel and uniforms to retro stadiums to nostalgia-based events and experiences (like fantasy camps). Many teams, such as the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, also view their historic stadiums as assets which provide both cultural capital as well as economic benefits (the Red Sox have the second highest revenue generating ballpark in MLB, despite the capacity, in large part because of Fenway’s history and heritage).
When a team moves venues, often for economic reasons, there is normally a celebration of the old venue. Often, as in the case of Yankee Stadium, Anfield, or the Montreal Forum, the old stadium was beloved and reflect the fact that – paraphrasing sports geographer John Bale – sports stadiums are more than utilitarian structures and many supporters feel a strong sense of attachment to them. In the case of both the new Yankee Stadium and the Molson Centre (which replaced the Montreal Forum), care was taken to provide a blend of old and new – where the new venue has either direct references or explicit echoes to the previous stadium (as Anouk Belanger notes, the Montreal Canadiens had a parade of ghosts from one venue to the other). There was generally an acknowledgment by the teams that, though fans loved the old venue, the new venue would provide the club much needed benefits while also maintaining the sense of place and tradition.
However, this year there are two examples of teams celebrating the final seasons at venues that – to employ an overused phrase – they “threw under the bus.” The Edmonton Oilers, who are set to move to the new Rogers Place in Fall of 2016, are celebrating the final season in their longtime home, Rexall Place (nee: Northlands Coliseum; Edmonton Coliseum; Skyreach Centre).
Rexall Place, architecturally, is unimpressive, but as a venue that has hosted numerous notable events – particularly as a hockey venue – it undoubtedly has broad historic value. However, in securing a new arena deal, the arena was denigrated as “antiquated and outdated“. In fact, there appears to have been little mention that the venue had any heritage value at all until the “Farewell Season” commemorations were announced.
Similarly, the Atlanta Braves are set to commemorate the final season at Turner Field during the 2016 season.
The Braves inherited Turner Field, as it was previously built for the 1996 Olympics then converted to a baseball stadium. As such, the Braves were never particularly fond of the stadium or location, and so a celebration of the final year at a (shockingly recent) venue is a bit odd.
Celebrating the final season at a venue can have benefits for both team and spectator. For the team, it can provide an additional revenue stream through memorabilia, as well as an incentive to come to games that season. For fans, it allows them to experience the venue one more time, relive memories, and provides a transition to the new stadium. The tone of both the Oilers and Braves commemorations are a little different though, in that neither organization will shed a tear for their old venues given the apathy and, in the Oilers case, hostility towards their former homes. While I suspect the teams would have had commemorations anyway, the fact that both are teams have had or are expected to have little success in their final seasons, the heritage angle to “visit one last time” is probably an effective motivator for fans to go to games, purchase merchandise, and perhaps acquire memorabilia like seats, turf, signage and the like after the final out/whistle. It is the one season when, very likely, “just being there” rather than victories is incentive enough for fans to turn out. That said, these two celebrations this year come across as slightly hollow, particularly when compared to how other teams have seemingly handled these occasions.
The holiday season is upon us and, if you have someone in your life with an interest in sport heritage, gift buying can be difficult and quite expensive. Of course, there are many gift options in terms of memorabilia, autographs, and the like – though, often times, these can be costly and sometimes difficult to obtain depending on the item. Other sport heritage-related gifts – such as attending a fantasy camp or an historic event like the Masters golf tournament or Wimbledon – can be equally expensive and inaccessible to all but a wealthy few.
Not to fear, however, as we have some gift suggestions for the sport heritage person in your life to suit both your budget and their interests!
Though there are many options in the art/sport heritage landscape, the work of Paine Proffitt is particularly notable. I first encountered his work in the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham Stadium back in 2007 when on a research project, and I was thrilled to see that he is still producing magnificent artwork. Although much of his current work is based in English football, as an ex-pat American he also covers North American sports such as baseball and ice hockey. Visit his website at www.painproffitt.com – you’ll be pleased you did.
(Some examples of Paine Proffitt‘s outstanding artwork.)
Retro and throwback sports jerseys and apparel are fairly common now, but weren’t always so. Several companies – most notably Ebbets Field Flannels and the Old Fashioned Football Shirt Company (or TOFFS) – now produce sports apparel from bygone eras, or from long forgotten teams, often in era-specific fabric (I have a replica 1950s canvas football jersey from TOFFS). I was amazed at some of the replica items of truly quirky teams and eras that these companies reproduce. For example, Ebbets Field Flannels, though mainly reproducing baseball apparel from various minor league teams from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, produced a replica jersey from the Edmonton Flyers – a semi-pro hockey team that most people in my hometown of Edmonton had probably long forgotten existed. Much like Paine Proffitt’s artwork, people interested in throwback sports apparel would have a field day looking at all of the reproduction items available.
Books and other reading material
There are many, many, many sport history books released during the holiday season, as books are an easy fall-back as gifts. Of course, there are also several academic sport heritage books as well, some of which were covered in a previous post. However, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, the holiday season is the best time to dream about the spring and summer to come. Few things are more enjoyable to think about during the cold winter months than a perfect day at the cricket ground and, for that, Wisden is your spot. This time of year, there are many cricket books on sale at Wisden – not the least of which is the famous Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
Memberships to sports museums, halls of fame, and sports clubs make some of the best gifts. Even if the recipient is not living near the museum or club, it provides an opportunity to both provide support as well as give a sense of being a part of the organization. Most museums and halls of fame provide various levels of membership – including the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum – while some sports clubs have memberships for patrons living away or abroad, such as Kent Cricket’s affordable “13th Man” club membership.
For the sport heritage aficionado who has it all, donations to organizations involved in the preservation and interpretation of sporting heritage make wonderful gifts. The International Sports Heritage Association has a list of member organizations – perhaps find one in a local area and provide a one-time or on-going donation as a gift. Another possibility are donations to organizations – such as the excellent Sporting Memories Network – that use the sporting past to tackle major health issues such as dementia and depression.
One of the topics that has occupied heritage studies research lately is the process of heritagization; that is to say, the process whereby various pasts are constructed in the present to address a contemporary need, issue or circumstance. As any heritage studies scholar will (or, perhaps, should) know, heritage is about the present and an imagined future – it is never about the past. We leave the past to historians and archaeologists to critically assess.
What we don’t often talk about is de-heritagization; that is, when a heritage is no longer useful in the present and becomes part of, to employ an overused phrase, “the dustbin of history.” We talk of heritages changing, or heritages being malleable, but rarely of heritages simply becoming, for lack of a better term, “not heritage.” Perhaps in some cases – such as when a post-colonial regime looks to new national symbols, for example – heritage truly does transform into materials reserved for the historian or archaeologist. In any event, they are no longer part of our contemporary needs – we no longer use them and, as such, they are no longer heritage.
These thoughts came to me recently when I began to consider aspects of my personal sporting heritage and, in particular, how they became simply a part of my personal history and not my contemporary identity. The first was when I was in my hometown of Edmonton recently shopping for a used pair of hockey skates. I was a goaltender for most of my life, including through all of my adulthood, and made certain I brought my goaltending equipment with me to South Carolina seven years ago. However, the lack of local hockey opportunities coupled with a busy career and home life meant that continuing to play goal – a central part of my identity throughout my life – was not an option. I certainly thought about playing at times, to the point that I found out my goalie skates had fallen into disrepair and were no longer useable. When I looked for a replacement pair of skates a few weeks ago, I immediately went to the goalie skates when it dawned on me: I am no longer a goaltender, and will never be again. Most of my equipment – and not just my skates – have fallen into disrepair, I have little desire to replace my equipment and, though I might occasionally pine for another game in net, I am quite alright with that part of my sporting life being over. Simply put, being a goaltender is no longer part of my contemporary identity and has ceased (for the time being) to be part of my heritage. This is not to say that it won’t be resurrected as heritage at some point – if my son takes up goaltending, for example, we’ll probably talk about our family’s goaltending heritage. But, for now, it is simply a part of my past.
Similarly, I was recently in Winnipeg, Manitoba when I came across the many advertisements for the city’s NHL hockey team, the Jets. The Jets were, of course, the Atlanta Thrashers at one point – and I was a Thrashers season ticket holder. The franchise’s move to Winnipeg was personally quite difficult. I had come to strongly identify myself as a Thrashers fan, and going to games in Atlanta was one of the ways I came to embrace my new Southern home. I felt quite bitter towards the sport, league, and fans of the Jets for some time. Being in Winnipeg, however, and seeing all of those Jets banners didn’t really hurt anymore. While I can’t say I’ll ever become a fan, they became just another team, and my Thrashers fandom became simply part of my biography and, again, not my identity.
These two personal examples, though hardly earth-shattering, made me think not just about how something becomes heritage, but how we let particular heritages go. Again, we see the letting go of heritage all the time – and it can frequently be a painful and divisive process. And, certainly, some heritages must change and become “history” – for a variety of social, political, and economic reasons. However, I think it is worth investigating the de-heritagization process, particularly in sport. Sport heritage no longer used is not heritage – by definition, it cannot be. I would like to say that there are, for example, Olympic cities in the act of forgetting or “de-heritagizing” – perhaps through neglect, or simply through a new generation not being tied to the symbols of the old. Obviously, each generation creates its own sporting heritage and, perhaps, through the ephemeral creation and consumption of heritage, particular sporting legacies aren’t as durable as they once were. In any event, my two recent personal examples highlighted to me that the idea of letting go of particular heritages is as important to understand as why we created them in the first place.
Few aspects of sport engender as much passion – and debate – as team nicknames. Beyond the fact that they are often divisive, particularly when announced for a new franchise, they are also frequently triggers for larger social debates – including, most notably and recently, debates about racism. In the contemporary global sports marketplace, team identifiers (such as names, but also uniform logos and colour schemes) are commodities. Heritage, of course, plays a significant role in team names – often, names are linked to local or regional histories and traditions, or have long-standing links with (for example) legacies of success. In this, heritage is both a signifier and commodity; it separates the team as something unique and special while also selling those unique signifiers to a global audience. On the other hand, if the heritage is too local, it may not resonate with a wider audience. In January 2014, I wrote about Hull City FC formally adopting their “Tigers” nickname in order to appeal to a global fan base, with some accusing the club of turning their backs on local history, heritage, tradition, and sentiment. I wrote at the time:
What is fascinating about this is how the team’s heritage is seen as both a global marketing opportunity and a burden. On the one hand, the fact that the club supporters have informally used the “tigers” nickname for many is a benefit that may resonate globally and separate the club from its rivals. Essentially, it is formalizing and institutionalizing an informal heritage that has existed for years. On the other hand, the team’s “proper” name – which, too, has a long history and heritage – was seen as too local and too common and, as such, burdened the club internationally.
I would suggest – though I don’t know this for certain – that an animal nickname, such as tigers, perhaps too closely resembles American sport or other franchise sports (such as the IPL) and lacks a certain authenticity, as well as the public trust/connection to community that is traditionally view as part of English football. Perhaps this is part of the local resistance to the name change?
In Hull City’s case, local heritage was viewed as a burden, particularly to their global ambitions. But, can a turn towards local history, heritage, and signifiers actually benefit a sports club?
Enter the Greenville Swamp Rabbits…
The Swamp Rabbits are an ECHL ice hockey team located in Greenville, South Carolina, and are one of the minor league affiliates of the New York Rangers of the NHL. They have been in Greenville for five seasons, though this is the first year they are called the “Swamp Rabbits.” Previously, they were known as the “Road Warriors” – a subtle and generic nod to the community’s current automobile manufacturing economy (metro Greenville is both the national headquarters of Michelin and the BMW’s only US plant). However, the name never really resonated outside of a small, hard-core group of fans. So, the team turned to local heritage for their new name:
“We determined that we wanted our new identity to honor a piece of Greenville’s history while also being relevant within the community today,” said Fred Festa, owner of the Swamp Rabbits. “Ultimately, we selected the Swamp Rabbits because the name holds dear to a variety of residents, businesses, popular recreational areas and the historic landmark, the Swamp Rabbit railroad, dating back the 1920s in Greenville.”
The railroad, which linked the South Carolina city with the coal fields of Tennessee, became known as the “Swamp Rabbit” by locals who would use the freight train as a means of transportation to picnic in northern Greenville County.
In a recent, long-form interview on the Tao of Sports podcast, the team’s Executive Vice President Chris Lewis describes that that the name change (though controversial among some supporters) not only links the franchise to the community through one of its most locally resonant histories, it also provides a strong symbol that the team is committed to the community. Furthermore, he notes that it is meant to spur local interest in the team – both from sponsors and the general public – and drive new merchandise sales. Surprisingly, this turn towards local heritage has resonated across North America, with both American and Canadian sports media outlets – as well as a nationally-trending social media – covering the name change.
Though it remains to be seen whether the Swamp Rabbit’s name will ultimately pay-off in terms of increased local interest, it does point to the fact that there remains a strong link between sport and broader forms of local heritage, and that local heritages are often unique, appealing, and (dare I say) authentic. It would make little sense, outside of Greenville, to name a team the “Swamp Rabbits” – but, in Greenville’s case, it appears to be a perfect fit. In addition, while Hull City rejected their local heritage to embrace a more palatable global brand, Greenville seems to have attracted inadvertent national attention while attempting to solidify their local footprint. It also suggests that teams need to find ways of connecting themselves to their communities, and embracing a local heritage can be one of the ways to do this.