While covering my first Tri-Cities Fever game as an intern in 2007, I witnessed a local phenomenon when Cotton Eye Joe came twanging over the loudspeakers:
Feeling like it summed up the raucous, beer-fueled atmosphere of a Fever game, I made a cutout of the gentleman on the left and turned it in to be used as a plugger on the front page, informing readers that coverage of the final regular season game was on page D1.
It was promptly vetoed, but memories of bare-chested fans swinging shirts and stomping to the irritatingly infectious beat are slow to fade, and this year I covered the most hockey games I ever have in a season. In every game, during the third period break, the shirts came off like clockwork. Fans of all ages and sitting in all sections take part to the amusement or chagrin of their neighbors:
It's a ritual learned before bowel control, as senior photographer Paul T. Ericksons photo shows:
I'd always wondered how it started, but the practice seems to have become so interwoven with Toyota Center sports that to most people I asked, its longevity predates their memories.
Curt Cartier, who served as the voice of the Americans from 1993 to 1999 and 2002-08 and has been the Fever's announcer since 2005, remembers its inauspicious start, however.
"We would try to have a file of songs called clappers," he says of the musical interludes meant to rile up the crowd. "Cotton Eye Joe always seemed to be a song that the fans could get in to." He credits its stompable beat and country twang. Then, some time in the 2003-04 season, somebody took off his shirt.
"I dont know if it was a dare or what, but I remember calling attention to it from the public announcer's booth," Cartier says. "It was just one person that time. The next time we played it, there were about six. Then there were 20."
Cartier says the phenomenon really took off in 2005 when Fever fans adopted it. "It's kind of attained a life of its own now," he says, although he never misses an opportunity to get involved.
"If it's a guy who's not in the greatest shape, I'd point out, 'Man boobs in section, whatever the section is,'" he says. He also remembers a woman joining in during a hockey game, though she had a sports bra on underneath.
"Think Brandi Chastain from the U.S. Women's soccer team," he says.
While they used to play the fan favorite several times per game, Cartier says a visiting WHL official disapproved of the wanton toplessness and while there's not hard and fast rule, generally they only play it once per game now and always during the media break in the third period after calling the 50-50 raffle numbers.
"The whole thing is to keep the fans in it," he says. "I'm just here to help reflect the mood of the crowd."
And what if that crowd includes his own son, 10-year-old Cannon Cartier?
"He prides himself on being the first to get his shirt off," Curt says. "He's got his shirt half off when they call the 50-50 numbers."
With fans of all ages taking part, I asked Americans marketing director Dan Mulhausen if Winger would ever participate. The team introduced a new mascot suit during the 2008-09 season that allows Winger to take his helmet off during the national anthem and I thought I was being clever by asking if he'd ever be able to take his shirt off.
Apparently he already can and does, depending on who's in the suit on any given night a devastating revelation to me not only because my once clever idea turned instantly stale, but also because I have never had the pleasure of witnessing the topless bird.
I couldnt resist being a smart ass and asked if he has nipples.
"Nope, just a lot feathers," he says.
There's always next season.
Until then, maybe you should practice some distinguishing moves like YouTube's MikeCosta:
That way you can really set yourself apart when the shirts start swinging.