A Personal Testimonial: 25 Years of Blackhawks Fandom
Flickr Credit: Matt Lilek / CC BY 2.0
It has been just about one week since the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. For a life-long Hawks fan (25 years and going as of the writing of this article), that is a mind-blowing thing to type. One week. In that time, hundreds of articles have been written about the Hawks — their journey from shamed and irrelevant Original Six franchise to Kings of the Hockey World and the hottest ticket in the city, their dynamic young stars, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the brilliant marketing of team president John McDonough and owner Rocky Wirtz, coach Joel Quenneville’s moustache… These things all deserve ink. Or pixels and server space, whichever. This isn’t going to be a breakdown of “dunking and rimming” or of free-agent acquisitions and salary cap issues. That stuff is all out there and certainly not hard to find. This is a personal testimony: reflections and memories from one Hawks fan that hopefully other die-hards can smile at and the bandwagon jumpers (I say that with much love, glad to finally have you) can pull a nugget of perspective from.
My earliest memories of the Blackhawks are of lying in the bottom bunk of the bunk bed I shared with my younger brother, listening to Pat Foley call road games on the radio. In what I felt was a cosmic injustice, my eight year-old bedtime fell at around the same time the puck dropped when the Hawks played on the west coast. As Foley’s voice would build to a machine gun crescendo when the Hawks forwards broke towards the net, I’d be clenching my sheets and knocking at the underside of my brother’s mattress to alert him of a possible scoring chance. When a puck found its way past the opposing goaltender my cries of joy would betray my consciousness and bring about a somewhat sympathetic scolding from my parents. Yes, my mother would concede, it was awesome that Jeremy Roenick connected with Steve Larmer on a breakaway, but it was also important to get sleep because it was a school night.
Jeremy Roenick was my favorite. Of course he was; he was everyone’s favorite. He had the shot and the touch to be a prolific goal scorer, but played with a manic grit that seemed perfectly suited for Chicago sports. On the blue line, local prodigy Chris Chelios seemed to have accomplished what every kid I played alley hockey with secretly yearned for, to grow up and play for his hometown team. Bob Probert, the steel-knuckled goon, was as loved when he wore the Indian Head sweater as he was hated when he played for Detroit. Eddie “The Eagle” Belfour was the reason my brother decided to play goalie. Whenever we’d play roller hockey in Dunham Park’s tennis courts he loved to imagine I was Mario Lemieux or Jaromir Jagr or some other hated Pittsburgh Penguin, and he, as Belfour, would make that extra save or two that would have won us the Cup.
The Penguins. The Stanley Cup. That was the first time my heart had been ripped out. I think when most people think back on their earliest experiences with cataclysmic emotional pain they think of a breakup with their first love, or a rejection, or maybe the death of a relative or loved one. Not me. The Pittsburgh Penguins absolutely ripped my heart out in a four game sweep of my Blackhawks in the 1992 Stanley Cup finals. Years later, playing street hockey in Niles, I found myself berating a friend for daring to play on my team with a Jagr-model hockey stick.
The early 90s were an amazing time to be a sports fan in Chicago. The White Sox had excellent teams, one that may have won a World Series if not for The Strike (but that’s another story). The Bulls were in the middle of the dominant Jordan-era. It just seemed natural that the Blackhawks, with Roenick and Chelios, Amonte and Daze, would be contenders for years to come. Sure, we didn’t win in ‘92. But ‘93 was coming. And ‘94 after. I’d see tons of Stanley Cups. It’d start to get old. Maybe Belfour would have to play baseball for a year or two ala Michael, just to give someone else a to chance to win.
Bill Wirtz had other plans. It still stings to type his name, let alone say it out loud. He’s dead now, the Hawks have won a Cup, and it still hurts. “Dollar” Bill, a man so cheap Charles Comiskey would blush, destroyed one of the premier franchises in the National Hockey League. In 1996, Wirtz signed off on a trade that sent Jeremy Roenick to the Phoenix Coyotes for Alexei Zhamnov. Phoenix? That was hockey Siberia. Hell, they probably played more hockey in Siberia. During the ’96-’97 season Eddie Belfour was shipped to the San Jose Sharks after turning down a low-ball contract offer from Chicago. In 1999 Cheli was sent to none other than the hated Detroit Red Wings, where Hawks fans were forced to watch him win a Stanley Cup in 2002.
Memories of Wayne Mesmer belting out the Star Spangled Banner over the apocalyptic buzz of a packed Madhouse started to fade. The Hawks failed to make the playoffs in 1998, the first season without such an appearance in 29 years. In 2004, ESPN named the Blackhawks the worst franchise in professional sports. Wirtz, who had refused to show home games on TV in a misguided (at best) effort to increase attendance, continued to raise ticket prices for what was a terribly lousy team. The Hawks stars were replaced by the likes of the brutally slow and often disinterested Alexander Karpotsev, an aging and troubled Theo Fleury, and youngsters like Tyler Arnason and Kyle Calder who never seemed to live up to their billing. I remember watching a news report in 2003 of an incident that took place in a Columbus, Ohio strip club after a Hawks/Blue Jackets game — players were drunk and fighting with each other as well as the club’s bouncers. From what little I can remember of those years (much has been blocked out, thankfully), that was the most fight the team had shown all season.
The 2004-2005 season was lost to a lock-out. Not many Hawks fans noticed. The less they played, the less they could lose. I almost swore off my Blackhawks fandom when the team announced in 2006 that Pat Foley would no longer be calling games. Having long been critical of front office moves, as well as play on the ice, Foley had aggravated Wirtz one too many times. For me, Foley was the only link to the Blackhawks of my youth that remained. The team had a recent history of alienating fan favorites, from getting rid of all the 90s-era stars to past bad break-ups with Hall of Famers Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. The sting of losing your favorite players and personalities had become as much a part of Blackhawk’s tradition as the Indian Head, and it felt like losing Foley was just another shoe dropping.
2006 saw the team finish last in their division. The first sign of a potential turn-around came when they won the Draft Lottery and were awarded the number one pick. They used that pick to select Patrick Kane.
September 26, 2007. Bill Wirtz finally, finally died. I’m not normally the type of person to cheer death, but in the case of Dollar Bill I made an exception. A big one. My inbox was filled with emails from friends congratulating me as if I’d just won some kind of prize. In a way, I had. I was one step closer to getting my Blackhawks back. Within hours of his death I was fantasizing with friends about the possibility of home games on TV, of Pat Foley coming back, of maybe, just maybe, the Hawks winning more games than they would lose.
On October 6th of that year the Blackhawks planned to honor Bill Wirtz in a pregame ceremony. During what was supposed to be a moment of silence, the crowd erupted into an astounding drone of boos and catcalls. Wirtz’ family, including his son and new chairman, Rocky, stood silently, clearly uncomfortable but probably not surprised. That season Rocky began televising home games, he hired Cubs president John McDonough to run the team and he reached out to former stars Tony Esposito, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, naming them “team ambassadors.”
That season also saw the rookie years of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Watching these two kids — I can say kids, that’s how young they were — was electrifying. The chemistry was something tangible, something you could feel hanging in the air between them. Kane, with all of his flash, and Toews, the steady two-way competitor, were perfect compliments to each other. The next two seasons began to stir memories of the early 90s. Again, we had dynamic players. Duncan Keith was becoming a better defender with each shift. Brian Campbell turned breakout plays into figure skating exhibitions. Dustin Byfuglien stalked the ice like a gliding rhinoceros. Pat Foley was hired back. The “roar” started to build up at the stadium again. When the Hawks hosted the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field during the ’08 version of the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day it was a celebration. No one remembers that the Hawks lost that game. What mattered was that things were falling into place. That year the Hawks made the playoffs, turned in a classic performance against the Vancouver Canucks and eventually lost to the Red Wings in the conference finals. Out of the moment, coming that far and losing to Detroit should have been devastating, but it was just an impossible time to be down.
With their core of young players, Kane, Toews, Keith and Brent Seabrook, as well as free-agent additions Campbell and Marian Hossa, the Hawks stormed into the ’09-10 season. Their slogan, “One Goal,” summed everything up. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to what Yankees fans must feel all the time. I knew, just knew, that the Hawks would win. The regular season, in all its splendor, seemed a formality. I thought I was losing my mind in December when I awoke to news that Kane, Toews and Keith had been locked into multi-year extensions. You mean I wasn’t going to lose them? I wouldn’t have to watch them hoist the Cup in another city? In another jersey?
When the playoffs finally started, every game became a party at my house. Friends, some fans, some watching their first games, piled onto my couch, cracked open beers and lived and died with every shot on goal. The overtime comeback stunner against Nashville had us all checking to see if anyone had had a heart attack. Byfuglien’s frat-boy chorus line goal celebrations against the Canucks had us all fist-pumping and drink-spilling. When the Hawks finished their four game sweep of the San Jose Sharks, the Cup seemed a foregone conclusion.
The only let down of the Stanley Cup Finals was that, with the games being televised nationally on NBC and Versus, Pat Foley wouldn’t get the chance to work the mic. During the games I’d take moments to close my eyes, try to shut out the game audio and the background chatter and imagine Foley sitting somewhere on the edge of his seat, heart racing, cheering like the fan that he ultimately is.
Byfuglien’s hit on Chris Pronger during Game 5 has been a YouTube addiction of mine. Even in real time it happened in slow motion. Buff cracked him with the force of every fan behind him. More drinks were spilled.
The final moments of Game 6 are strange to recall, even so soon. As Kane darted up the boards and fired a seemingly harmless puck toward Flyer’s goalie Michael Leighton, I went deaf. Play continued, but I just kept staring at Leighton. He wasn’t moving. He was frozen in an awkward one-knee position against the post as Kane swooped behind the net and dashed towards the other end of the ice. As the Hawks bench jumped over the boards to mob him, my mother panicked and yelled “Too many men on the ice! Too many men on the ice!” I was sitting on the floor, eyes still locked on Leighton, and all I could think was that he had once been a Hawks goalie. During the team’s awful stretch, pre-Death of Wirtz, Leighton and Craig Anderson seemed to take turns losing the title of starting goaltender to each other. To watch him stuck to the post, dumbfounded and humiliated was a special kind of vindication. The last demon exorcised.
Kane flung his gloves off. He flung his helmet off. I was waiting for a full-on Slap Shot-style strip tease. I tried to stand but my knees just buckled and I crashed down to the floor. My brother blasted The Fratellis’ “Chelsea Dagger” from our stereo and we hugged like we’d just won the lottery, like we’d found the Golden Ticket. I cried. I cried more than I cried back when I saw the Hawks downed by Pittsburgh a decade and a half earlier. I cried more than I cried when I had my first female-induced heart-ripped-out-experience. I spilled Maker’s Mark on my Dustin Byfuglien jersey as we all sang along, “Duh-duh doo, duh-duh doo, duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh doo…”
When I could see again, Jeremy Roenick, now working as a commentator for NBC, was crying. My jaw dropped as I listened. “For the kid that was there in 1992 who was crying when I came off the ice after we lost Game 4 in Chicago Stadium, you waited 18 years, I hope you have a big smile on your face.” I wasn’t that kid, not exactly, but I still felt like a little of that was for me, a little for my brother. Another commentator, Dan Patrick, asked Roenick if he could explain his emotions. Struggling for words, Roenick got it right when he said, “Um… it’s the Chicago Blackhawks man.”