It’s rivalry week for Philadelphia sports fans, which means we’ve grown our nails long, stocked our booze cabinets and prayed to the sports gods that we may be rewarded with emphatic victories. I can feel a quiet rage building inside as I wait for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers to hit the ice tonight. If the Flyers lose, that rage will burst into an all-consuming fire that can only be doused by an Eagles victory over the Cowboys on Sunday.
I hate the Penguins. I hate Dallas. And as the always excellent Mark Trible argued yesterday, that hate is not only okay but necessary for us sports fans. It drives our competitive spirit that in turn compounds the love we have for our own teams. Never am I more proud to be a Flyers and Eagles fan than when they beat the living daylights out of the Penguins and Cowboys, respectively of course.
Analyzing “rivalry” as a whole leaves these two match-ups in a subset that is unique to professional sports. There is nothing but disdain between the involved parties. Eagles fans never want Dallas to do well. Ever. Flyers fans couldn’t care less if Pittsburgh goes winless on the season.
But many rivalries require mutual success and even, at times, an understated level of respect. In The Game, his sweeping chronicle of his last days as a Montreal Canadien, Ken Dryden writes of the famed Canadiens-Toronto Maple Leafs rivalry following a listless tie game: “I’m angry — at the last two goals, at the game, at the Leafs, at [Maple Leaf] Gardens, at me; at people who have promised me a Leafs-Canadiens rivalry. There is no Leafs-Canadiens rivalry. It’s dead: the Leafs killed it. I feel duped.”
Dryden’s memoir came in the heart of Montreal’s greatest dynasty, which saw the Canadiens win six Stanley Cups in eight seasons. Toronto, on the other hand, was trudging through a quagmire of mediocrity. The Leafs’ shortcomings undermined the Canadiens’ successes in the rivalry. And so the Bruins and Flyers of the ’70s emerged as hated opponents while Toronto became a temporary afterthought.
College rivalries exist in a similar way. Duke fans will always hate North Carolina and vice versa, but the match-up only produces so much intrigue because both teams routinely find themselves in title contention. Should NC State suddenly rise up at the expense of the Tar Heels, then perhaps the hate on Tobacco Road would be reduced to a simmer. Consider what’s happened with Alabama football in recent years. Auburn will always be public enemy number one for the Crimson Tide, but the games against LSU and even Texas A&M have superseded the Iron Bowl as must-win affairs.
I’ve seen this phenomenon on a personal level. My high school’s biggest hockey rival was the Cloquet Lumberjacks. During my three years playing for the Duluth East Greyhounds, we took on Cloquet eight times. Regrettably, they held a 5-2-1 record in those eight games. But each game was close. Each game packed the arenas to the rafters. Cloquet’s “Lumberdome” would get so loud that my ears would ring for days following the final horn. My voice would grow raspy by third period’s end from constantly shouting over the incessant cacophony that emerged from the bleachers.
The rivalry worked not only because there was a significant white collar-blue collar distinction between the two communities, but also because we were both state powers. Once Cloquet, like the Leafs, drifted into mediocrity the rivalry went dormant. So too did the crowds. I’m not saying it no longer exists, but the vitriol that once defined the match-up is rooted in memories.
The same cannot be said of Flyers-Penguins and Eagles-Cowboys. The hatred will always fuel the fire. To paraphrase Dryden, we the fans will never be duped.
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Philadelphia born. Raised in God’s country aka Duluth, Minnesota. Give me a frozen pond and an open pitch and I’ll be happy. Follow me on twitter @noclassfriday