Regional high school principal Peg Regan attended the boys' varsity hockey game on Wednesday, but spent much of the contest facing away from the ice.
After fans at two recent games engaged in rowdy behavior and taunted opponents inappropriately, Mrs. Regan and high school athletic director Paul Harrison took action to ensure order among spectators and encourage good sportsmanship for the remainder of the season. Out in force at the Feb. 13 game, school officials - who had said previously that bad behavior would not be tolerated - made available literature outlining guidelines for fan conduct and kept watchful eyes on the stands. Their efforts were rewarded, as a exuberant but well-mannered crowd enjoyed a 6-2 win over Bourne.
It was a welcome contrast to the previous week's game. The boys' contest against Dennis-Yarmouth on Feb. 5 had been talked up as a tough one even before the teams took the ice. The visiting Dolphins were coming in with a 11-3-2 record and, at 11-3-1, the Vineyarders had already made the state division II tournament. Head coach Matt Mincone was looking for seamless play from his team.
But soon after the second period began, the contest turned into an athletic director's nightmare. Home fans used profane language, booed and taunted the opponents for the remainder of the game. The 8-0 Vineyard victory was far overshadowed by misbehaving Island fans - who reportedly even booed when one of the visitors laid injured on the ice.
At the beginning of the third period of play against the Dolphins, Mr. Harrison used the public address system to announce, "The conduct of the crowd is unacceptable. We want to set an example, not be an example." At the request of D-Y coach Gerry Ciarcia, the refs called the game with 35 seconds remaining on the clock.
The incident was not an isolated one. Citing similar behavior by fans at the previous home game, against Sandwich on Jan. 30, Mr. Harrison and Mrs. Regan took action to prevent further such incidents. The athletic director said before the game against Bourne he would not tolerate a repeat of the fan behavior.
"We have to educate the fans about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable." Mr. Harrison told the Gazette, saying that many fans were unsportsmanlike. "As the score got bigger and bigger, the physical aspect became more important than the game itself. [The players] responded to the crowd and not the game itself."
Mrs. Regan met with students the morning after the D-Y game to enlist their help in spreading the word about appropriate fan behavior. The principal said the school would increase supervision at games, eject violators of interscholastic rules and ban offenders from attending the remaining home games.
The stakes are high for the regional school, which is trying to secure a place for its teams in a league. "Having these types of incidents cripples our chances" of doing so, Mr. Harrison told the Gazette.
In the wake of recent violence at youth sporting events - including the death of a hockey coach in Reading at the hands of a player's father, and a recent high school basketball game at which Medway's athletic director suffered injuries trying to break up a fight among spectators - fan behavior is under increased scrutiny.
There was no violence among fans at the Feb. 5 game, but Mr. Harrison said there were multiple violations of rules against taunting. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) defines taunting as "any actions or comments by coaches, players or spectators which are intended to bait, anger, embarrass, ridicule, or demean others, whether or not deeds or words are vulgar or racist." The rules specifically cite "'trash talk'... likely to provoke an altercation."
"Some kids think it is okay to taunt," Mr. Harrison said. He arranged to distribute the MIAA mission statement to spectators attending the Bourne game "so each fan will have an idea of what is right and what is wrong."
MIAA deputy director Bill Gaine said he has noticed a statewide breakdown in athletic competition. "The coaches, the players, the athletic directors and the principals are on the same page when it comes to sportsmanship," he said. "It is the spectators, the parents and fans, who need to be brought into the fold.
"Our culture, the generation, the public and society believe that's the norm - to boo and taunt - so they do it because they think it's the norm. Our challenge is to change the norm, change the culture," Mr. Gaine added.
The Feb. 5 game was uneventful until early in the second period, when a scuffle led to the ejection of two D-Y players, one of whom, according to Coach Mincone, gestured at the crowd.
The incident "changed the whole momentum of the game and disrupted Dennis-Yarmouth," the coach said. The fans "started to channel their energy elsewhere. The cheering wasn't in celebration of what we were doing, but focused on the other team."
Mr. Harrison concurred. "I have coached contact sports. I like contact," he said. "But I like it by the rules. It is when we seek out the physical contact and we know its wrong to hit them and we play to the crowd. In my estimation, that is what happened, instead of under game situations."
Despite the physical play on-ice, neither coach took disciplinary action against their players - suggesting that they did not blame players for the incident.
D-Y's apparent strategy of incurring penalties to slow up a faster Vineyard team is a conventional one. In fact, Coach Mincone suggested that the seven penalties on the Dolphins and four on Vineyard (one of the lowest totals of the year) were not excessive; there have been games in which two teams racked up more than 20 penalties between them. Bourne and the Vineyard were each called for eight penalties in Wednesday's game.
Still, Mr. Mincone said, he does not condone penalties and in fact encourages his players to avoid them. "We were taking too many penalties in the past games," he said. The coach said he reminds his players that a game is not won with a player in the penalty box, but rather with a full strength line.
Lost amid the controversy was a strong performance by the team. "Our players were the best they have been in three weeks," the coach added. "They stayed disciplined and at full strength. The team wasn't out of control."
Mr. Mincone said he noticed the fan behavior and after the game told his players to get the word out to their friends to support the team and not focus on the opponents.
Yarmouth's head coach Gerry Ciarcia refused comment on the game, but he did say, "The athletic director was very classy and a joy to talk to. Their disappointment with their fans - [it] happens in all the rinks."
Mr. Harrison said, "It is okay to cheer, just don't cheer against the other team. That is the golden rule."