A few Saturdays ago, I was sitting in the lower bowl of the SAP Center among San Jose Sharks fans, watching the Dallas Stars in a winning effort. Sitting in an opposing team's arena is an interesting experience as a fan of a "non-traditional" team.
Not only do you celebrate alone (or in small pockets of joy, depending on how many of your Stars fans friends you have convinced to attend with you) when your team wins, but you also get a wide variety of opinions on your team.
In Los Angeles, my friends and I got several comments about putting real men's names on our sweaters (because that's not sexist or anything).
In New York, we were told that we would get no respect for following our team on the road and being a big fan of hockey, regardless of who the team is -- unless that team is the Rangers, of course.
Calgary had the nicest fans we've ever met at an opposing arena.
In Vancouver, we had bread thrown at us and then, upon learning we were from Texas and went to Canada to see our team play on the road, were offered a round of drinks on the bread thrower's loonie. Typical Canadian.
San Jose was a bit different. The jabs were generally of the "what has your team down lately" variety, to which we pointed to their number of Stanley Cups (oh wait, that's zero) and their participation banners (like those Western Conference regular season championship ones where they got plastered in the playoffs).
But the best part was the raw hate one Sharks fan had for Antoine Roussel. He said, and I quote, "&*)$ that guy!" To which I responded: he feeds on your hate. And as the exchange happened, I realized that the Stars may have one of the most hated players in the league.
Opposing fans dislike Roussel because of the hard way in which he plays. He's physical, gets up under guys skins, and can throw opposing teams off balance by creating chaos wherever he is on the ice. Even tougher to swallow for opposing fans is the fact that Roussel isn't just some goon -- he can make you pay with his fists as equally as he can on the scoreboard. He's potted a half dozen game winning goals this year alone.
In years past, even many Stars fans would say that some of his antics hurt the team more than they helped. Late or ill-timed penalties for doing something rash were a common occurrence seasons ago. There were hits that were borderline or even stepped across that line between hard play and dirty play. But in the last two seasons, Roussel has reined in a lot of those issues and has come to play a hard game that toes the line but doesn't cross over it all that much. (I say "all that much" because he's not exactly an angel out there at time still.)
There aren't many players that I can think of that have so many fanbases that hate him these days as Roussel does, especially as goons have phased out of the league. Chicago Blackhawks fans have hated him for years, most likely due to the pinnacle of pestiness he achieved in this memorable moment:
New York fans didn't like him at any of the three stops I made earlier this year when watching them play the Rangers, Islanders and New Jersey Devils. Nashville Predators fans don't like him. Minnesota Wild fans don't like him. Colorado Avalanche fans don't like him.
After the tough, physical game Roussel played against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday, he can add another fanbase to his growing list of admirers. Something tells me he thrives off knowing he can get under the skins of not just opposing players but their fans as well.
When the intensity of playoffs ramp up, Roussel will find a bigger stage to display his brand of hockey. He'll endear himself further to Stars fans that have always gotten behind the blue collar types like Steve Ott, Brenden Morrow, and Roussel. And he'll likely find a new fanbase to garner hate from.