‘Puckheads' documentary reveals psychology of fan insanity

The men who dared dress as Carolina Hurricanes Storm Squad dancers. The New Jersey Devils fans, turning the Meadowlands parking lot into a temporary community of trash talk and pregame brews. The Edmonton Oilers fans who used gallons of body paint to lather themselves in orange and blue.

Director Simon Dekker met a cornucopia of fans while filming "Puckheads," his feature-length documentary about the NHL's devoted masses. But the one that lingers with the viewer is Joe from Buffalo.

Dekker met him at a Buffalo Sabres game, running down the street with a huge Stanley Cup replica during the 2006 playoffs. Its base was a 45-gallon drum on wheels.

It was a beer bong.

"I found many fans that were pretty far out. It's definitely an upbeat thing that goes on," said Dekker.

He spent time with Joe, his friends and his family; which offered him the opportunity to relay one of the strangest tales to emerge from the over 40 hours of raw footage he shot for "Puckheads."

With the help of a friend, Joe was carrying the beer bong Cup contraption over his head. A girl noticed it, and told them she wanted to kiss the Cup. After doing so, she abruptly pushed the thing away, catching Joe off guard. "He thought to himself about all the time he had spent making this trophy, so he didn't want to drop it," recalled Dekker.

"So he ended up dislocating his shoulder."

That's the kind of passion on display in "Puckheads": the nonsensical devotion of fans to their favorite teams in their favorite sport. But what makes Dekker's film an interesting take on the subject -- and as you'll see in the clip he's provided us -- is the scholarly and academic approach the filmmaker takes in attempting to explain the behavior.

Dekker, 51, is Dutch born but lives in Calgary. He was a sports cameraman for television back in the 1980s, and the way fans acted and reacted at games always fascinated him.

In 2006, he finally had an opportunity to explore the subject on film. "I was doing some work with folks in Calgary, on The Red Mile," he said. "The Flames were gone in five or six games that year, so that project was done. I was asked if I had anything I wanted to do that year, and I said, 'I've had one that's been burbling in my mind for a few decades.'"

"Puckheads," which during its initial release was called "A Search for Meaning," was filmed during the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs, which allowed the filmmaker to capture fans during the most intense time of the season. Passions are on display, tears flow ... it's the essence of the fan experience at that time of year.

What Dekker's film attempts to do is find the psychological roots of those passions through interviews with professors and authors, who opine about the sports fan experience. Do fans and teams have communal or one-way relationship? How does the end of the season play into our own sense of mortality? Can fandom be considered a religious experience?

"When I started doing the academic inquiry, I had all of this information and was able to focus on a few things that had become pretty obvious," said Dekker. "What the academics bring to the film is this inquiry: What's really going on underneath the hood? What drives these people to be hockey fans?"

The following clip explores one of the true hallmarks of the fan experience: unabashed superstition and puckhead voodoo. From lucky underwear to branding a piece of Alberta beef to throw on the ice, ala the Detroit Red Wings' octopus:

Dekker said one of his favorite concepts presented by the scholars is that of "annual renewal" for fans when their teams are eliminated from championship contention. "That we renew ourselves constantly. That every year we have a clean slate, as it were. And that's not what happens in real life," he said. "But each year for the fan, it's the clearing of karma."

"Puckheads" has its analytical side, but it also has a collection of interviews with truly quirky and distinctive fans from around the NHL. The film chronicles everything from tailgating to ticket scalping to fan attire from city to city.

"The team colors ... that's your flag. That's how you identify yourself. Across the NHL, you see people aligning themselves with teams by buying those jerseys. It really is a spectacle to see an arena full of red, for example," Dekker said.

Since the film was shot in the 2006 playoffs, there's a heavy emphasis on some of the team involved, like the Hurricanes and the Oilers. But the themes Dekker explores are universal, and he believes they go beyond hockey.

"I feel that the film has great general interests," he said.

The film played in 2007, where it was given a harsh review in Edmonton's Vue Weekly. Dekker currently has "Puckheads" with Horizon Motion Pictures, and he said last month that they're "sending it around" for potential distribution. Contract Horizon (email) for more information about the film's availability. Dekker's Web site can be found here. 

Meanwhile, Dekker is proud of this glimpse into the wild world of hockey fandom -- even if one of his best leads didn't pan out.

"A guy [in Buffalo] claimed to have sold his kidney for playoff tickets," Dekker said. "He assured me this was the case, I called his bluff and of course he didn't have his kidney removed. But it was good story."

Check out the "Puckheads" trailer:

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