Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Cult of Yost: A Case For Michigan Hockey

The exterior of Yost Ice Arena can only be described as ancient. Originally built almost 90 years ago as a field house, the arena resembles an old-timey factory building: the crimson bricks, the endless line of long, rounded windows, the protruding chimney. But what I remember so vividly, four years removed from stepping foot in the arena, is grasping the cold iron handles, swinging open the heavy wooden doors of the side entrance and being immediately greeted by the cool breeze of ice, followed soon after by the sweet aroma of candied almonds.

As a kid, I never went to ice hockey practice, nor did I ever properly learn how to ice skate. Had I ever had the experience of waking up a the crack of dawn and stepping into the local ice arena, I imagine it would be strikingly similar to the feeling of entering the hallways of Yost. Take away the swarms of maize and blue sweatered crowds and you're left with a relatively simple interior: A rectangular building with fairly wide hallways speckled with decorated columns along the way. The outskirts of the hallways aren't littered with endless counts of merchandise and concession stands. Instead, you'll find long sections of hallways marked only by Yost's trademarked red brick occasionally interrupted by a display case or two. But Yost's endearing infrastructure is only small part of the equation that makes the gameday experience of a University of Michigan Men's Hockey game not only superior to that of their football program, but one of the best home sporting experiences in the country.

To be clear, I am a football fan first. If the name "Detroit OnLion" isn't evidence enough, I also was a Lions season ticket holder for over 10 years. My passion for college football is almost as strong. I am much more committed to Michigan's football program than their hockey program (this is made infinitely easier by television). But give me the option of going to a football game at the historic Big House or spend a Saturday night watching the hockey team, and I will gladly don my Michigan sweater and head to Yost.

One of the most impressive things about Yost is the intimate feeling of the arena. There is no bad seat in the house. Yost's seating chart only has 21 sections and each section has no more than 25 rows. And, unlike football tickets, if you choose to get season tickets, you are pretty much guaranteed to have a great view of the game. As a four-year football season ticket holder, I never got below row 60 in the corner of the stadium. My first year as a hockey season ticket holder (sophomore year), I was row 10, directly on the away blue line. No upper deck for seating for students. You can literally feel the chill of the ice beneath you. And the entire student section is on the bench side of the ice, meaning no opposing team was safe.

The intimacy of the seating made for an unmatchable game-day experience. Not only are fans treated to a great view of the game, but they are so close that they are actually part of the game. Let me explain. One popular thing among fans is to yell at the refs to check the net when they first take the ice. The idea is that the fans are ordering the refs around, even though the refs are mandated to check the net anyways. Once the ref complies, the student section goes nuts. On several occasions, the refs would tease the crowd into thinking he was about the check the refs resulting in a collective "BOOOOO" from the fans followed by a relieved cheer after the ref finally complied. Lately, this tradition has been taken a step further. Now candy is placed in the netting before the game and when the ref checks the net, not only does he find the candy, but he throws it in the crowd. The playful relationship between the fans and the referees is unheard of and 100% awesome.

In fact, one evening my roommate decided to take his heckling of his favorite (or maybe least favorite) ref to a new level. Once the linesman took the ice, he started shouting "SHEEEEEGOS! PICK YOUR NOSE!" I'll be damned if moments later, Sheegos wasn't playfully sticking his index finger in his left nostral. As a reward for his compliance, next Halloween my roommate dressed as a fellow referee (known only as "Porno Mustache" to the Yost crow). Point being: you're close enough to the action that they can hear you and will occasionally react to you.

Yes, that is me as Prince. No I do not still have that jacket,
and I definitely don't wear it every morning in front of the mirror with no pants on.
When the Yost fans aren't heckling refs, they're getting zamboni kids to dust dirt of their shoulders or harassing the opposing teams' family. Which brings me to one of the best part of the Yost experience: the chants. I've never been a part of so many different, creative chants than I have at Yost (the least of which is the infamous C-YA chant). My favorites being the different variations of the "Warm up the bus" chant. ("warm up the tractor" for MSU, "warm up the sled" for Alaska-Fairbanks). But it was more than chants. Being a part of the Yost crowd was almost like being part of a Maury audience. Each fan was trying to out-wit the other by yelling something clever out at the quietest moment in the game. A successful attempt would result in uproarious laughter, while a miscue would result in a shaming, but deafening silence. All part of the fun.

Then there's the dancing, perhaps Yost's greatest tradition. My sophomore year, the dancing tradition was simple: Once a Michigan victory was all but assured, the band would crank out "Can't Turn You Loose" (the Blues Brothers theme) and the conductor would jirate wildly, sending everyone in a frenzy. However, after getting some terrible PR over the aforementioned "C-YA" chant, the powers that be deemed that this tradition was too unprofessional. Yost's reaction was, at first, denial. They would start yelling for the band to dance, and then boo when their demands were not met. Then they would just chant "Dance!" to no one in particular and everyone would look around hoping that someone would step up to the plate. More often than not, no one did, or someone tried for a few seconds until they got too embarrassed and sat back down in defeat. But the fans would not be denied. Instead, the dancing tradition was handed off to a superfan known only as "Water Buffalo" (seen here doing his trademarked dance). But in the true Michigan spirit, the tradition continued to adapt and improve. Soon, there were dueling dancers. Then, something amazing happened: the father of a Michigan Defenseman Jack Johnson (or JMFJ as fans endearingly call him) joined in and became dancing king of Yost. Here he is dance-battling Water Buffalo:

While his dance moves may have been lacking, his ability to rev up the crowd every second intermission was not. After Jack Johnson headed to the NHL (and was cruelly traded to Columbus), the dance tradition had to evolve again. And as Yost always does, they met the challenge. Now the dance tradition has developed into a full-on choreographed student section dance-a-palooza. Perhaps the best part of this new tradition is that it is clearly influenced by Mr. Johnson's dance moves (a move in which I will call the "double train-conductor"). The dancing tradition is a perfect example of the innovation and enthusiasm that Yost has to offer that is unmatched anywhere else.

Football games have their own traditions and chants. But with a student section hovering around 20,000 fans, creativity and innovation have given way to LOUD NOISES and swear words. Whether it was the recent addition of "you suck" to "Temptation" or the fun, but overdone, "Seven Nation Army" chant, the energy in Michigan Stadium is much more frat party than it is devoted fanatics. The feeling at a Michigan football game is that every drunk student off the street piled into one corner of the stadium. And while that's a win for attendance records and noise levels, it's a loss for creativity, intelligence, and fun.

Where football is hindered by its excessive inclusiveness, hockey excels because of its exclusivity. When you step into the halls of Yost, you are not just attending a hockey game, you are joining a cult. You are witnessing a secret society known only to few. While football is an all-but-mandatory experience for a Michigan student, attending Yost gets you inside one of Ann Arbor's best kept secrets.

It means being one of the few who knows why there's a huge, homemade Swedish flag in the student section, or knowing who "Bork" is, or understanding why screeching "Yip" in a high-pitched voice is hilarious. It's training your ear to catch the occasional faint ringing of a phone somewhere in the building. It's knowing what comes after "you're not a sieve, you're a funnel...". It's hoping that after thanking the PA announcer for telling us there is only one minute left in the period that he will announce "YOU'RE WELLLLLLCOME!" It's reminding the opposing goalie every time he takes his mask off that he is, in fact, ugly, and cheering him when he puts the mask back on.

And then there's the actual...you know...game. While it is easily apparent that the players don't possess the talent of their NHL counterparts, it is equally obvious that these athletes play with a physical abandonment that is hard to find in any sport in these wuss-ifying times. The hits seem harder, the rivals: more hated. And where the NHL suffers in the name of being more "professional", college athletes have no problem wearing their emotions on their sleeves. And don't get me wrong, the Michigan hockey team has a history of great talent. There are currently 17 players in the NHL who spent their collegiate years at Yost, and Michigan has made 21 straight NCAA tournaments, the most by any team ever. The actual product of college hockey is more than enough to satisfy any hockey "purist".

While Yost cannot boast the history and fame of Michigan Stadium, it has more passion per square inch than any sports venue I've ever attended, and it will always remain that secret rendezvous for the pure sports fan in me.

[Michigan plays Notre Dame at Yost in the second round of the CCHA tournament on Friday and Saturday (possibly Sunday, too). If you're a sports fan and near Ann Arbor, grab your Yost guide and get yourself a ticket. You won't regret it]


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  2. Excellent writing, and what a great performance by Mr. JMFJ and Water Buffalo on youtube

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