Sam Fels: Chicagoan of the Week
Everyone loves the Blackhawks these days; they’re on their way to the Stanley Cup and might just win it all for the first time in 49 years. But while everyone loves to come to Chicago on a warm summer day and throw on a Cubs hat, to be a true Blackhawks fan you have to have gone through something deeper. I’m not talking about world championship droughts; we have plenty of teams that have gone through some disgustingly long dry spells. But the Hawks have been downright neglected, by the city, the media, even their own owners. Those times are seemingly over and as the team comes surging back into a new era, it’s bringing a new generation of redeemed fans and Hawks fervor. The poster boy for this fervor, and my Chicagoan of the week, is a man named Sam Fels, just another scrappy die hard fan who is upholding the tradition of scathing humorous hockey programs while also marching fans into the new age support system that is the Hockey Blog.
To understand what Sam Fels is doing we must take a small step back to “The Dark Days.” It’s a commonly referred to time period when owner Bill Wirtz made many greedy and incompetent decisions that ultimately ran the team and the organization into the ground during the 90’s. You might say the only good thing to come out of that time was an “adult newspaper program” notoriously written and distributed for $1 outside the United Center called The Blue Line. Mark Weinberg and Mark Finch wrote and sold the paper to fans outside the United Center which certainly conflicted with the large glossy programs sold inside. Their criticism and scathing commentary of the ownership guided them through arrests, two lawsuits (which they won) and plenty of fan support. But when the ownership changed and there didn’t seem too much to criticize anymore; readership of the paper began to dwindle and they eventually announced the paper’s upcoming demise.
Sam Fels, a stand-up comedian, had been reading The Blue Line since grammar school and felt a calling when he heard this announcement. So with Weinberg and Finch’s blessing, he took up the paper and began crafting his own witty, scathing, but also thoughtful analysis of the game. Day in and day out, game after game, through the freezing cold and craptastic weather of a Chicago winter he stood outside the United Center and began selling his own version of the Blue Line. As readership began to grow once more he renamed the paper The Committed Indian and thus began rebuilding something very uniquely Blackhawk just as the team itself was rebuilding.
Sam was not prepared for the upcoming success he was about to witness, for either his beloved team or the paper he was producing. He now sells enough programs to pay his printing fees and ticket costs and has met a few witty friends along the way. These friends went on to help him create a Blackhawks blog called SecondCityHockey.com, a site with a cult-like following that also distributes his programs online. The site has already reached over a million hits and die hard fans treat it as their Hawks oasis, posting comments like it’s a chat room and finding a camaraderie that seems unique to Hockey fans. Sam has even been offered a press pass but he’s surprisingly turned it down, taking an ideological stance that he’s “a fan writing about the sport, not a journalist. What they do is different, that’s not what I am.”
Sam explains that the reason there’s such a following to his site and publication is because there’s so little coverage of hockey by both national and local sports publications. “Hawks fans are way more used to surfing the Internet, twitter, stuff like that. They’re way more accustomed to the stuff I do, it’s the only place you’re going to find writing like this for hockey and the Hawks.” When asked about the media in general and how his publication fits in he explains “I think what I do is so specialized and so pigeonholed because I’m at the game… because it’s so specific, it’s that night’s game program. I think the stuff that I do can create a niche. Because it’s a program sold at the game, part of the game experience, I think there will always be a place for it.”
I asked Sam how he felt Hawks fans were different from other Chicago sports fans. He says Hawks fans “are more savvy, more protective obviously because we were there, we were the black sheep because of the coverage, because of the way our owner treated us.” Sam also points out that “more hockey fans play the sport then other sports fans,” an important point, I believe, since the average child south of Canada is raised playing sports that’s don’t require a hockey rink and so much equipment. “We like to joke we are more party centric or boozy then other fans but I don’t know if that’s the case. It’s a nice myth, but what is for sure is we’re more insular, more protective and more cultish then any other fandom you’ll find around…When you are the fifth sport for so long you have to develop this gallow humor about the way you choose to waste your time.”
With so many great young players on the Hawks, I asked Sam who he felt would leave the greatest legacy in Chicago in the end. His answer surprised me and came without hesitation. “Jonathan Toews, no question. Patrick Kane is the flashier, the more likable media wise… but people like winners and Jonathan Toews is gonna be the biggest reason they win.” He explained that Hawks fans “are probably the most knowledgeable about their sport total then any other fandom around… Hawks fans can tell you about pretty much every other team in the league and because of that Hawks fans know that Jonathan Toews is the reason the team ticks.”
But when I asked who his favorite player was, the one he’d bare the child of if he could, his response was center Dave Boland. “He’s not pretty but he’s the first Hawks prospect I followed in the minors… he’s quick and shifty and kind of an asshole like me. I think we’d hit it off well.”
All jokes aside, I tapped Sam for his city advice like where the best bar for watching the game was. He recommended Whirlaway Lounge, a Logan Square spot where the true hardcore fans gather to huddle over their few television sets. He also recommended The Bottom Lounge because the owner is a fan and Beer Bistro for their organized buses to the game. When I asked him where he likes to eat before the game Sam’s choice was a bit less accessible, “my car” was his surly response. Though Sam’s publications have proved a success, he is hardly striking it rich off his noble enterprises.
Finally, I asked Sam to give advice to those new to Chicago. “Bring lots of cash, not because it’s an expensive city but because there’s so much to do.” He explained “just get out there and see it all. Get out of your neighborhood. I think that’s a big thing in Chicago, you might love where you live but you’ve got to get out and see other places.” Wise words from a man who knows his city.
So as you bask in the current hockey glory, take a peek at Secondcityhockey.com and see what the diehards have to say. And when you’re headed into the United Center for a game, keep your eye out for Sam and purchase a Committed Indian. His sarcasm and surly commentary might seem like a novelty addition to your experience but trust me; it’s a richly unique Blackhawks tradition finding new breath with a team poised for greatness.