Concerns about rowdy crowds at high school hockey games are rising after a fight between two student spectators last month, and parent team organizers say they’re working to combat an “anything goes” attitude among some teenagers who gather to watch the Friday evening games at the Cabin John Ice Rink.
A club sport, hockey is not sanctioned by Montgomery County Public Schools, and games take place off campus at Cabin John or the Rockville Ice Arena. Whereas school administrators have the authority to punish a student who misbehaves at an on-campus, school-sanctioned sporting event, such as football, that’s not the case with hockey, said Walter Johnson High School principal Jennifer Baker.
“We don’t play any role in this at all from a school standpoint,” Baker told Patch. “It might as well be a Saturday soccer game with their youth soccer league. It’s not something that we oversee.”
Nonetheless, Baker has heard concerns about the rowdy crowds at Cabin John from managers of the Walter Johnson hockey team. Spectators chanting with swears and taunting the opposing team, grabbing and shaking the glass that separates the spectators from the rink, and in one instance throwing alcohol and coins on the ice following a game have left parents concerned, according to team manager Jenny Smith.
Parents are also worried that student spectators are drinking before games, which might be contributing to rowdy behavior, Smith said.
“We love it when fans get loud and cheer, but there’s certain lines you can’t cross. You can’t say ‘F you’ to the other team and hang on the glass,” Smith said. “I’ve gotten emails from people who say, ‘I bring my daughter with me, but I tell her not to leave my side. I don’t want there to be a problem.’"
Police presence and intervention
At Cabin John, crowds at high school hockey games are growing and the Maryland-National Capital Park Police have increased their presence there, according to Park Police spokeswoman Lt. Lauryn McNeill.
The Montgomery Hockey Conference is required to fund anywhere from two to six officers to police the games and work with parent supervisors, who often wear bright orange vests, McNeill said.
The Park Police have intervened when spectators have pointed laser pointers on the ice, escorting them off the property, according to McNeill. On Jan. 20, at a game between rival teams from Walter Johnson and Winston Churchill high schools, a fight broke out after the game in the lobby between a Churchill student and a Walter Johnson student, according to Smith.
“There had been some sort of verbal altercation that just broke out into a fight,” Smith said. “I looked over and there was so much movement I was kind of worried a whole brawl was going to start. The Park Police were there very quickly and it subsided, but I think it unnerved everyone.”
Park Police and Cabin John staff responded “within seconds,” McNeill said. No one was injured and no weapons were used, she said.
Cabin John Ice Rink facility manager Brian Borge called the fight an “isolated incident,” but referred questions on safety to McNeill.
“At high school hockey games, there’s a lot of energy in the air, and we work with Park Police and the hockey conference on any types of situations that arise,” Borge said.
Following the fight, the Winston Churchill team’s coach and parent representative emailed players and parents, calling the spectator conduct unacceptable, according to Churchill PTA president Geri Sapiro, whose son plays on the team. The players were warned that if they were linked to a spectator acting inappropriately, they could be suspended from play, Sapiro said.
At school-sanctioned sporting events, “you have the authority of the school behind you. We don’t,” said Joe LaCour, executive director of the Maryland Student Hockey League. “Because there’s no vice principal or teacher or athletic director there, the kids think they probably can get away with a little bit more.”
“We have to ask parents to police their own fans, because we are guests of the facility,” LaCour said.
The Park Police work with Cabin John and team managers to collect as much information as possible about rivalries or contentions between fan bases that could cause problems, McNeill said.
“We will increase [police presence] as needed so we can ensure a safe environment for everyone,” McNeil said.
Rockville Police are present at Rockville Ice Arena games, LaCour said, but the larger space and separate bleacher areas for opposing fans make the rink a bit easier to supervise. At Cabin John – which is conveniently located for students from Winston Churchill, Walter Johnson, Walt Whitman and Thomas S. Wootton high schools – limited bleacher seating means that fans from opposing teams are crowded together in a small space, LaCour said.
Park Police have had incidents of finding alcohol on game nights, McNeill said. If juveniles are found to be drinking, they are issued a citation and their parents are notified, according to McNeill. On Jan. 27, an ambulance was called for an intoxicated juvenile, who was taken home by parents, McNeill said. Though there was a hockey game that evening between the Walter Johnson and Wootton teams, it’s not clear whether the juvenile was a student spectator at the game or at the rink for Friday night open skate, McNeill said.
“We’re there and we’re addressing the situation. We’re working with ice rink management and the hockey league to try to make sure this goes over smoothly and safely,” McNeill said.
“We’re not just in the building, we’re everywhere. We’re outside and throughout the whole area to address whatever situation there is. If there were a football game or a baseball game on park property and there were issues, we would be doing the same thing.”
Teams try to decrease unruly behavior
Winston Churchill hockey team manager Nick Dourian told Patch he keeps rowdy behavior under control by developing relationships with the team’s fan base, which helps students remember to keep in line. Knowing that an adult or peers are watching their behavior and disapprove of their actions makes students think twice before doing something dangerous or embarrassing, Dourian said.
“I remind all of our fans that they have to maintain decorum, and because we are Churchill Hockey, we must lead by example,” Dourian wrote in an email to Patch.
Since games can’t be held on school grounds, Dourian said an occasional visit by a school administrator could be a “huge deterrent” for spectators behaving in a way they wouldn’t at school.
While Dourian believes that issues with behavior are “few and far between,” he advises spectators he suspects may be drinking not to engage in behavior that sheds a bad light on the program or disrupts the game. But he doesn’t have the authority to do much else.
“I can’t kick them out of the rink because we have no authority to do so. I can’t report them to school staff because that is not my responsibility nor within my authority,” he wrote.
“We’re simply parent volunteers. We’re not police officers, school administrators, nor rink staff,” Dourian wrote. “We have no leverage, other than the leverage of ‘I know your parents and I don’t think they’d be happy if they saw you or heard you like this.’”
At the Jan. 27 game, spectators said they generally felt safe, but some were concerned by rowdy behavior.
“It’s nice to support the local team. It’s a fun experience. We like to chant stuff and it can be vulgar, but it’s all part of the experience,” said Cornelius Break, a Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School junior who comes to the games to support his Walter Johnson friends. “We don’t mean it, but when rivals are playing, sometimes things can get a little out of hand.”
“I think that spirit is a big thing for our school. It’s a pride thing. We like to win,” said Walter Johnson junior Alayna Harrison, who was attending the game with her younger sister, Mayson, a freshman. “As far as the violence, I think people just get caught up in the moment and don’t necessarily understand it until it’s already happened.”
On-campus consequences for off-campus behavior
Baker said she hasn’t been made aware of students who have been cited for alcohol at the games, but there may be a possibility for on-campus consequences should she learn of any citations.
Late last year, Whitman principal Alan Goodwin caused controversy after punishing students who were cited for drinking at an off-campus party.
The difference, Baker said, is “I don’t have any names. Parents aren’t exactly lining up at the door to my office to let me know their child has been cited.”
Should she learn of a student who had been cited for drinking alcohol at a hockey game, Baker said there “is certainly a possibility that action could be taken,” though she would handle any disciplinary action on a case-by-case basis.
Smith said the Walter Johnson team is considering charging admission and checking ID’s at the door to make the games “more official and less of a free-for-all, show up and do whatever you want.”
Though students aren’t under school supervision during the games, Baker said she hopes student spectators will behave appropriately off campus.
“We want our kids to have a great time and make good decisions, and I think the hockey club would like to see the same thing,” Baker said. “I know they really like having student fans come out, but I hope our fans take note that people are concerned about some of their behavior and re-think their decisions.”