Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Zach Bogosian sat in the penalty box in Ottawa on Sunday after being given a misconduct penalty. Directly behind him were a section of “Sickos” wearing Senators gear, laughing heartily and reveling in his frustration.
“We may not be the best team all the time, but our fans are engaged like few others,” said Brad Weir, senior director with the Senators Community Foundation.
Even when those “fans” are cardboard cutouts, purchased by actual Senators backers because they reference a popular Internet meme — but also because they’re helping the fight against cancer.
The “Sickos” behind Bogosian were illustrations of a leering man with 2-day-old stubble, populating seats at Canadian Tire Centre as COVID restrictions keep the flesh-and-blood fans away.
“I love it. I love the passion of the fans,” said Ottawa coach D.J. Smith after his team defeated the Leafs 4-3 in front of the Sickos, “and I gotta say to them: ‘YES … HA HA HA … YES!'”
(This was, in fact, an actual quote from an actual NHL coach.)
Yes … ha ha ha … YES! pic.twitter.com/dpRgwjPE3H
— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) March 14, 2021
Understanding the Senators’ “Sicko” movement begins with Ward Sutton, a freelance cartoonist who worked with The Onion. In 2006, Sutton created a character named Stan Kelly who was the publication’s editorial cartoonist. Just as The Onion was a satire of print journalism, Kelly was a parody, too.
“The whole concept is that Kelly is a crackpot and all of his ideas are off-base,” said Sutton. “A motif that reoccurs throughout his work is people peering through windows. In this particular cartoon, the subject was what would happen if drugs were legalized. And Kelly’s doomsday scenario is that TV crime dramas wouldn’t have any material anymore, and the family watching TV is all sad. But the Sicko in the window is looking in through the window and saying, ‘YES … HA HA HA … YES!’ This is what he wanted all along, to make people sad because their TV shows are canceled.”
Sutton isn’t sure how “the Sicko” became a meme, calling its growth “a complicated and weird thing.” He’s seen it referenced everywhere from political commentary to financial reports. He hadn’t seen it referenced in the context of pro sports until Ottawa Senators fans began using it last season, in essence to troll their own team.
Ottawa last made the playoffs in 2017 and has been in a gut-renovation rebuild for the last four seasons. They were headed to the draft lottery again last season when a Twitter user and Ottawa fan named @brochenski published an edited version of the Sicko leering through the window wearing Senators gear.
“The whole idea was basically that we must have been a sick and depraved fanbase because we were cheering for the Sens to lose to increase our lottery odds, along with being fueled by the Schadenfreude of bad things happening to other teams,” explained James Mellish, a Senators fan who participated in the movement with a parody of the Ying Yang Twins’ “Say I Yi Yi.”
The Sens Sicko Anthem is here! Let’s put a quarter in the Pukebox and get hyped for tonight’s game#SensSickos #Sens #GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/IilmJRSsi1
— James Mellish (@SilverSeekerMTG) February 23, 2021
Over time, the “Sickos” movement morphed into something different for Senators fans. Yes, their hockey team was bad, as evidenced by their 10-20-2 record this season. But the real losers? Those Canadian rivals that allow Ottawa to get a rare victory against them.
“It was originally used as a reaction pic whenever something happened that improved the Sens’ draft odds. But it’s changed now. It kinda represents the fact that Sens fans are realistic about the state the team is in, both on and off the ice, but are just cheering for them regardless. We’re enjoying any small victories we can find, whether it’s a rookie having a big week or the Sens upsetting an opponent,” said Chris, aka @brochenski (he preferred to keep his last name anonymous).
The Senators couldn’t help but notice the growing number of “Sickos” in their fan base. They played Mellish’s parody song in the arena during a game. Last week, when the team began selling cardboard cutouts to fans that would populate the stands, someone asked via social media if “Sickos” would be one of the templates.
So Weir called Sutton to find out if the team was allowed to use them, with an added enticement: Proceeds from sales of “Sicko” cutouts would go to charity.
The Senators are donating proceeds of Sickos sales to the Senators Community Foundation in support of mental health initiatives and Canadian Blood Services to pay homage to Brian Fraser, a 26-year-old Senators fan who died of leukemia on Feb. 26. Fraser was a radio producer at CFRA in Ottawa and a prominent voice in the Senators’ fan community.
“In a period where so many of us feel — and often are — miles apart, Brian’s passion brought a sense of togetherness. That unity in the fan base has been admirably carried forward by the organization and their donations,” said Mellish.
Sutton grew up around hockey in Minnesota. While he didn’t play, he was a devout fan of the state high school hockey tournament.
“My head is spinning. My mind is blown by the whole thing. It’s been a totally bizarre thing,” Sutton said about an NHL team asking to use the “Sicko” in their stands. “If it brings joy to people and it’s a way to have fun with following the team, that’s all good. And the charity part of it, I’m humbled it could serve a purpose in that way.”
Fans ordered a bunch of “Sickos” for the Senators’ game last weekend against the Leafs. At first, Weir wanted to scatter them around the building, but due to the tarps over the stands, he felt it would be better to cluster them. So he placed the Sickos behind the opponents’ penalty box. “Because then it’s like all of these guys are looking down at the person in the box,” he said, “and it’ll get on TV as well.”
The team is due to add more “Sickos” to the crowd in upcoming games, with Weir hoping to have them on the glass along with behind the penalty box.
“It’s kind of a delicate thing when the fans are running with something. When the team gets involved, it can go bad quickly, if it’s viewed as trying to commercialize something. So we wanted to just give people the outlet to do it if they want to,” he said.
Sutton has enjoyed the next iteration of his unexpected meme. The more he’s learned about the Ottawa Senators, the more the relationship between his creation and the NHL team makes sense.
“As I understand about the Senators, they’re sort of an underdog team,” said the cartoonist. “If they’re underdogs and the other team loses to them, you’d figure the Sicko would be loving it.”