About five years ago I took my son to a hockey game at New York's Madison Square Garden. He was eight years old. We sat, as I recall, in the lower seats, halfway back from the ice. He was small then, and he knelt on the seat so he could see over the person in front of him. Along about the middle of the second period, a man five rows behind us started a steady stream of profanity directed at the activity on the ice. It was truly startling in its coarseness. I was raised in a family in which profanity simply didn't exist; at moments of great stress my mother might offer up the quaint phrase: "Ye gods and little fishes!" If someone was full of something, it was applesauce. In the male-dominated societies of the military, athletics and so forth. I got accustomed to foul language. But in the Garden that evening it was especially offensive. After a while I turned around and fixed the man with a look that a romance novel would describe as "withering" or "steely," which I thought might bring him to his senses. It didn't work. He shouted at me, "What the hell are you looking at, bozo?" Except that wasn't quite the way he put it. I turned back red-faced. My son touched me on the knee. "Don't worry about it. Dad," he said. "That man is just overreacting."
I have been to the Garden a number of times since then to watch hockey—especially when the Boston Bruins come to town. I support the Bruins (for whom I once played goal in an exhibition game) with a subdued intensity amid the Ranger partisans. Sometimes I take my son along because he doesn't seem to mind the "overreactors" as much as I do. For him, the obscenities are a fact of life—as omnipresent as the cigarette smoke that clouded the old Madison Square Garden when I was his age.
Most of the obscenities—usually chanted in unison—pour out of the upper reaches of the Garden, an area known as the blues, for the color of the seats there. The Garden's seats are divided into bands of color. At rinkside are the most expensive seats—the reds, traditionally occupied by corporate New York, the least faithful of the fans judging by the number of absentees. Next back are the orange seats (Westchester County commuters), then the yellows (a young group, including many yuppies). The green seats, occupied by a vocal, hard-drinking element from the metropolitan area (Jamaica, Forest Hills, and the like), are tucked just beneath the Garden's uppermost sections. In the balcony are the blues—some 4.000 seats filled by a crowd that is profane, boisterous and irreverent.
Indeed, some of the insults chanted in the blues are just awful. When the Philadelphia Flyers come to town with Ron Hextall in goal (his predecessor, Pelle Lindbergh, was killed in 1986 in a sports car crash), the chant rings down: "Buy a Porsche, Hextall, buy a Porsche!" Grant Fuhr, the Edmonton Oilers' goaltender, who is one of the few black players in the league, is urged by the blues to take up basketball. Occasionally the sallies are tasteful. One evening, during a Ranger game against Winnipeg. I heard the Jets' Laurie Boschman singled out for his unlikely first name. During a lull in the proceedings, a stentorian question drifted out of the blues: "Hey, Laurie, what's your sister's name? Walt?"
But that kind of wit is rare. The norm is the obscene chants in which the most common operative word—why not get it out of the way at the start—is sucks (as in. "Boston sucks!"). Attached to the operative word are any number of targets—mostly offending officials, management, opposing team players, the red seats at rinkside and. inevitably, three or four times a game, even though he retired from hockey a year ago, the name of Denis Potvin, the great Islander defenseman. The Potvin chant is not a staple in the Garden only when the Islanders play there. Potvin himself once told me he had heard it while watching a New York Knicks game on television.
The anti-Potvin bias goes back to a Ranger-Islander regular-season game in February 1979, during which Potvin checked Ulf Nilsson, the Rangers" Swedish star, violently into the boards. Nilsson, who was chasing a loose puck, was spun around by the force of the check and caught his right skate in a rut. The wrench caused ligament damage to his ankle from which he never fully recovered. Without Nilsson, the Rangers still advanced to the Stanley Cup finals, but they lost the series to the Montreal Canadiens. To Ranger fans, Potvin's check cost their team the opportunity to win the Cup, and the incident has remained as pronounced in their collective minds as an ax murder.
Last year, on March 2, the occasion of Potvin's final Garden appearance, I decided to pay a visit to the blue seats to observe firsthand what goes on there, and perhaps to understand the reason for the occupants' excessive behavior. It was a memorable night. The starting teams skated out to take their positions for the singing of the national anthem. A small red carpet was rolled out at mid-ice, and Gail Nelson, selected to sing that night, walked out on it gingerly. Almost before she sang the opening bars, an extraordinary tumult began to erupt at the sight of Potvin standing quietly on the Islanders" blue line, a big number 5 on the back of his jersey. Considering that he was retiring from hockey after 15 years, one might have assumed that the din cascading down from the stands was a kind of ill-timed tribute. Not at all. Pure venom. The chorus of chants, insults and invective was so ear-shattering and prolonged that at the end of the anthem, which had gone unheard in the cacophony, the singer walked off the carpet with her palms turned up in a gesture of utter bewilderment.
I walked along the narrow corridor behind the blue seats. Venturing down an aisle in the blues was like walking into a Third Avenue saloon on St. Patrick's Day. The steps were slick with beer; popcorn crunched underfoot. The noise was deafening—a kind of fraternity-house atmosphere of greetings and shouts—but there was always an absorption in the game going on far below: a forest of upraised arms at a Ranger goal; a banging of chair seats; and torrents of recrimination over Ranger mistakes. Most of the fans were dressed in Ranger paraphernalia—team jerseys, hats. The girls wore Ranger trinkets on necklaces. I got into a conversation with a teenager who showed me a locket, which she snapped open. "I had a picture of (Ranger defenseman] James Patrick in here, but my boyfriend objected."
"I take it that's not James Patrick," I said.
"My boyfriend," she replied, rather ruefully. "He likes the Rangers, but not that much."