These days, when the Flyers play there, the Wells Fargo Center is loud in a peculiar way. It is loud from the hair-metal and ‘90s-club music that is pumped throughout the building. It is loud from an in-game host appearing on the brand-new giant video board and screaming at all the early arrivals settling into their seats to GET PUMPED FOR FLYERS HOCKEY. It is loud when the Flyers introduce or acknowledge an old former player or a young military veteran. It is loud when Gritty … gritties. It is loud for reasons that don’t have much to do with hockey.
It was loud for those reasons even Thursday night, when the Flyers beat the Montreal Canadiens, 3-2, on an overtime goal by Sean Couturier, for their third win in four games. Carter Hart made 22 saves, and the Flyers swarmed Canadiens goaltender Carey Price for most of the game, and they’ve now won six of their first eight home games this season. Yet people remain unpersuaded that hopping aboard the Flyers’ train will result in an enjoyable ride. The attendance Thursday night was 16,788, well below the 19,500 the Center can hold, and swaths of seats remained empty from the opening faceoff to the final buzzer.
Two nights earlier, when the Flyers scored three third-period goals to knock off the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-1, the official crowd was 16,172, which wouldn’t have been enough to fill the Spectrum back when its capacity was a number everyone in and around Philadelphia had memorized: 17,007. Back then, the notion that it was necessary to use artificial measures to excite a Flyers home crowd would have been anathema to everything the franchise represented and those who loved it held dear. Flyers fans were always low-maintenance in that regard. They didn’t need the Phanatic tooling around the outfield after the fifth inning or acrobats soaring off trampolines to dunk two basketballs at once or any between-period entertainment beyond a few adorable mites on the ice.
They loved their team, and they loved the sport, and they loved those things because those things were affordable and accessible, because they connected with those things on an emotional, near-molecular level, and no one -- least of all a man in an orange shirt screaming into a microphone -- had to remind them to love those things. It was all they needed, and it’s understandable if the die-hardest of die-hards might stay home now because the whole exercise of attending a major pro sporting event can feel so contrived – and because it will cost a couple hundred dollars for tickets, parking, and grub, to boot.
That shift is part of why the atmosphere here is so stale now, but it’s not all of it. It’s probably not even most of it. The atmosphere at the Wells Fargo Center is stale mostly because the team playing inside it has been stale. Three playoff appearances in seven seasons, a lengthy and gradual rebuilding process, a team that over that time has lacked (for good and obvious reasons) any pizzazz or even a discernible identity: After all those years of knowing that the Flyers would be pouring all their resources into trying to win a Stanley Cup, many fans seem to have reached the point that they have to be convinced that this team will be worth following. And a hot start at home isn’t enough to reach that threshold, not yet.
“This is obviously a great market, and the fan base supports the team through thick and thin,” said forward James van Riemsdyk, who scored the Flyers’ second goal Thursday night. “Certainly, you see it in all sports, that when you have a winning team, tickets are tougher to get. Maybe there’s something to be said for that. Ultimately, we know what a supportive fan base we have. They’re always loud.”
They were at the end Thursday, when Couturier’s wrist shot crept through Price’s pads and crawled across the goal line. It was the loudest moment of the night, in fact, and it was over a hockey play. Imagine that.