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The Problem with Team Preferences

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I begin with a series of questions: If your favourite team traded away all of its players, prospects, and management to another NHL team in exchange for their entire roster, does your favourite team change? Does your answer change if your team swaps with the Islanders? How about the Red Wings?

While the offseason is a break from watching hockey, it also provides a time for reflection on our bizarre obsession with a single professional sports team. In every major team sport, almost every fan has "their team." But this dedication, while noble, is extremely problematic. Why is it that we like a team even though their on-ice performance is abysmal? Why do we subject ourselves to the pain of watching this pitiful team lose over and over again, when it is no longer entertaining?

The first response the average fan gives is loyalty, but that's hardly a standalone reason. Who are you loyal to? It's clearly not the players or the administration, because both are a rotating cast of characters that is rarely static. Is being loyal to this abstract idea of a team, held together only by its name, crest, and its participation in the same sport, a true reflection of loyalty when the players, coaches, and team strategies are constantly evolving and changing? It's hard to think of other areas where this idea of loyalty remains. The closest parallel I could find would be to political parties, but there is at least an overarching philosophy that retains followers. The same can't be said of a hockey team.

 

So, if not loyalty, then what is it? The easiest way to determine this is to start at the beginning: why we pick a team in the first place. For most fans, they like the local team, or the team that their parent or grandparent liked. While these are seemingly different reasons for liking a team, they both have their origins in the same concept: camaraderie. It's a lot more fun to be a fan with someone than by yourself, and so picking a team that allows you to cheer along with others is a natural instinct for those looking to pick a favourite team. But why then, does a Montrealer remain a Canadiens fan when they move to Vancouver? I know people who move at the age of 8 who retain their original favourite team, despite the fact that they'd have a better hockey experience by cheering for the local team, where they could see more games live and find more fans to cheer along with.

And what about those outliers? What about the few, like myself, who ignored the local team that his father cheered for (I'm using local as loose term here, as I hardly consider Vancouver, a city that is a 16 hour drive away from my hometown, to be local) and instead felt drawn towards a team in a city that he still hasn't visited? I knew of no other Ottawa Senators fans when I picked up the black, red, and gold, and chose the team because of a guy named Daniel Alfredsson who I just had to cheer for. By all accounts, I should stop liking this team after Alfredsson leaves: the team will have hardly any of the players that made me love the team initially, and will likely destined for mediocrity without a man whose proverbial glue holds the team together. Yet, it seems almost certain that I will remain a fan, if for no other reason than the fact that I have personally chosen to identify myself as a Senators fan.

This brings me back to the original question - whether I am still an Ottawa fan if they swap players and management with another team - and it's something I cannot answer. A part of me says that my favourite team would then be the other franchise that now houses the Ottawa Senators players that I've invested myself into, but it's hard to reconcile that with my second paragraph, where I admit that I will like the Senators even when the team is completely unrecognizable to the one they field today. And neither team would be local, nor offer the camaraderie of close friends or family members joining me in cheering on the team. But even without all those things, it would still be my team - and maybe that's all that matters.

 

UPDATE: thanks to user dzuunmod, here's a great video that shows the absurdity of professional sports team attachment, and an Onion article that covers similar ground. Thanks for the heads up!