Jets' playoff run taps into 'our evolutionary roots' and takes emotional toll on fans

The Jets' playoff run has brought Winnipeggers together, uniting them through elation to the point that strangers hug, sing and cheer together. But have you noticed a mood swing on those days after a loss?

'It is a game but it touches on something so much deeper, on who we are,' says Sudbury psychologist

Winnipeg Jets fans have gathered by the thousands in a street party outside the arena during every home game of the playoffs. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

The Jets' playoff run has brought Winnipeggers together, uniting them through elation to the point that strangers hug, sing and cheer together. On the nights the team wins, at least.

Ever notice a shift on those days after a loss?

Does it seem that pedestrians stare more at their shoes than looking for a friendly connection in the eyes of a passerby? Do bus passengers sit in glum silence rather than engaging in animated chatter? Does it take longer for someone to let you merge into traffic?

"It is not at all your imagination," said Dr. Michel Larivière, a clinical psychologist and professor at Sudbury's Laurentian University. The university's bachelor of arts in sport psychology program is the only one of its kind in Canada.

Jets fan Matt Rueckert stood in the concourse of Bell MTS Place after a Jets win in Round 2 against Nashville, high-fiving everyone that was willing — and most people were. 'This is the greatest thing for this city ever. It brings everyone together,' he said. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"There is something about sport, and certainly when the stakes get higher, that draws real deeply into our evolutionary roots of teams, of armies, of combat, of victory and loss. Those kinds of things really do affect our emotions."

Sure, the Jets and their fans experience plenty of wins and losses during the regular season and they adapt to the emotional wave.

There is something about sport, and certainly when the stakes get higher, that draws real deeply into our evolutionary roots of teams, of armies, of combat, of victory and loss.- Michel Larivière

But in the playoffs, when more weight is placed on the outcome of every game, every win is celebrated like a championship, and each loss is a crushing defeat and a step toward elimination.

"Emotions certainly run very, very high and there's at least a little bit of research to show just how impactful these times are for people," said Larivière.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that "viewing a stressful soccer match more than doubles the risk of an acute cardiovascular event."

Michel Larivière says being a sports fan draws deeply on our evolutionary roots of teams, of armies, of combat, of victory and loss. (Michel Larivière)

While some people will dismiss a sporting event as simply a game, that's a simplification of something much more significant, said Larivière, who is also assistant coach of Laurentian's varsity men's baseball team.

"It is a game but it touches on something so much deeper, on who we are," he said. "And who we are, really, are social creatures that emerged from small groups and clans and then villages, usually around some task that needed to be completed as a group.

"I think these are the strings that it [sports bonding] is drawing on. So the more people there are with the same common goal and hope and expectation, who rally together over a common cause, it is absolutely exhilarating."

But when things go bad, for some people the response will be the exact opposite — to turn away from others and isolate themselves, he said.

Obsessive passion

Ben Schellenberg, a post-doctoral fellow in the school of psychology at the University of Ottawa, conducted research on people's passion for their favourite activities and how that affects their lives.

He said there are two varieties of fan passion — harmonious and obsessive — and they handle the impact of a win or loss differently.

For those with harmonious passion, "losses aren't great and victories are awesome" but "their emotions are balanced and in control," Schellenberg said.

The obsessive passion, however, is overpowering and dominates a person's sense of self.

Ben Schellenberg has conducted research on people’s passion for their favourite activities and how that affects their lives. (Submitted by Ben Schellenberg)

"They really experience the highs and lows of supporting their team," he said of the latter. "Their self-esteem and life satisfaction changes depending on how that activity is going."

Research in Quebec has shown that obsessive fans also tend to have conflict at home as their passion gets in the way of their personal relationships, Schellenberg said.

He was involved in a study of hockey fans during the 2012 lockout-shortened NHL season. It revealed that obsessive fans really struggled without their teams playing, perceiving it as a threat to their identity, he said.

And it was those fans who were more inclined to use drugs and alcohol during the lockout "to get through this time," Schellenberg said.

Coping with disappointment

Sometimes the emotional connection can be so intense, it leads to things like the Vancouver riots that followed that city's loss in the 2011 Stanley Cup final, Larivière noted.

"It can get to extremes and in those cases, there's a lot of social psychology involved. There's group dynamics that evolve and groups of like-minded people who may be prone to aggression, or sadness or disappointment to act in similar ways."

Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien celebrates after scoring against the Nashville Predators during the second period of an NHL hockey playoff game in front of a hometown crowd. Winnipeg was already gripped by playoff fever. Now, with the Jets in the Western Conference final, the temperature is rising further. (Trevor Hagan/Canadian Press)

If people can identify that they're prone to experiencing an emotional crash, there are ways to cushion that plunge, he said.

"In the world of psychological treatment, what we try to do is help people reframe situations that they find distressing and help them maybe understand the situation in a way isn't quite so harmful," Larivière said.

"For instance, the narrative might sound something like: 'Well, we do have a young team so we'll be as good a team next year.' Or, 'there's no other fan like a Winnipeg Jets fan,' for instance.

"It's about how we frame things in our mind and the words that we use to explain things. It helps people cope with whatever disappointment might emerge now or after the season."

Time is also a great healer, although some emotional injuries can last a long time for certain people, Larivière said.

"We just have to think about the Chicago Cubs and how long they went before tasting victory again," he said, referring the the Major League Baseball club, which won the 2016 World Series, ending a 108-year championship drought.

To better prepare for the immediate roller-coaster of emotions, Larivière suggests people do the following:

  • Try to eat well ("Even though pub fare may not be always the best").
  • Try to exercise and keep active.
  • Be with people you enjoy being around.

For the record, Schellenberg — who is from Winnipeg and will join the faculty at the University of Manitoba later this year — has been cheering the Jets from afar.

"It's been amazing to watch," he said.

Larivière — being of a French background — admits he was indoctrinated into being a disciple of the Montreal Canadiens.

"But for the rest of the playoffs, it's go Jets," he said.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?