In the mid-1960s, when I first started following professional sports, I was nearly as big a Blackhawks fan as a Cubs fan.
First of all, in that era, rooting for the Blackhawks was rooting for a good team that made the playoffs nearly every year (granted, not that hard in a six-team league) and made the Finals several times. I'm a little too young to remember the last Stanley Cup in 1961, but I do remember the Hawks in the Finals in 1964, and it was a Real Big Deal when the 1966-67 Hawks finished with the best record in the NHL's regular season -- the first time in their history they'd accomplished that. Meanwhile, the Cubs struggled until finally breaking through as contenders in 1967. I looked forward to seeing the Hawks on TV, mostly on Saturday nights, and of course, only in road games -- but that didn't matter to me as a kid, because I had only a rough understanding of what the non-televising of home hockey games meant in that era.
I also recall that the Hawks wore their red jerseys in road games; white jerseys (or "sweaters," in the charmingly quaint term used by many) were reserved for home games. I'm not quite sure when the NHL swapped shirts and had home teams wear the colored ones at home and white on the road, but in some ways it feels odd to me, as if the Cubs suddenly started wearing gray at home.
In 1971, with still no home television -- but rumblings from fans that they'd like some -- the Hawks made the Finals again. I don't need to tell Hawks fans of my generation of the crushing disappointment of blowing a 2-0 second period lead in Game 7 -- the Blackhawks' version of the 1984 NLCS or 2003 NLCS. And few of us saw it -- the only ones who did were the ones in Chicago Stadium or those who had paid for a "closed circuit theater telecast," another quaint reminder of the past that feels more part of the 1940s than the 1970s. I listened on my bedroom radio, stunned, as Jacques Lemaire and Henri Richard stole for Montreal the Cup that should have been Chicago's; it was the only visiting team to win a Game 7 in the Finals between 1945 and 1987.
And only a year later the Hawks let Bobby Hull go to Winnipeg. "Dollar Bill" Wirtz couldn't or wouldn't keep the man who still is a franchise icon four decades later. It would have been like the Cubs trading Ernie Banks (in those pre-free agency days) to the Kansas City Royals while he still had a few good years left late in his career. I quit the Hawks, and started getting disillusioned with pro hockey in general as the Broad Street Bullies era took hold. I went to college at Colgate University, a school with a fine hockey team, and loved watching great college matchups -- one of the greatest, in 1978 when Colgate was good but not great, they hosted No. 1-ranked Boston University, featuring Dave Silk, one of the best players of his era and a member of the Miracle on Ice 1980 US Olympic team. Colgate won 3-2 and I enjoyed watching fight-free hockey at the college level, and later that Olympic team, rather than the fistfight-laden matches that the NHL game had become.
I got more into baseball in the 1980s and 1990s with the Hawks fading into fifth place among the five Chicago sports teams in local attention. They blipped onto the radar just briefly in 1992 when they made the Finals only to be swept by Mario Lemieux's Penguins. Even then I was still bearing my youth's anger at the Wirtzes for the shabby way they treated Hull and couldn't root for them.
And then hockey pushed me away, I thought for good, when some 1998 US Olympic hockey players trashed hotel rooms in Nagano, Japan, and then refused to confess their involvement; the "code of silence" and lack of apologies finally led Chris Chelios to pay for the damage and apologize on behalf of his teammates.
This is what had become of hockey? From the Miracle on Ice to spoiled hooligans in 18 years? I quit following hockey, and with the Blackhawks in decline and the franchise still mired in a 1950s mentality with its refusal to televise home games, I left the sport behind. There were times in the early 2000s when, had I been offered free Blackhawks tickets, I would have had to think about taking them. Hawks management had destroyed, in my mind, a proud franchise and proud tradition.
And then Bill Wirtz died on September 26, 2007. The public statements about him after his death were telling -- few had much good to say, many public figures were noncommittal rather than praising him. Within weeks, his son Rocky had taken over, moved a few home games to television and hired ex-Cub marketing executive John McDonough as team president.
The timing was exquisite. Young stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were in their rookie seasons and their talent was evident from the very start of their careers; that first season Kane and Toews were together showed flashes of the greatness to come. And in the early winter of 2008, the Blackhawks team did something that, for me, completely erased my image of hockey players as jerks that the 1998 Olympians created (punctuation, grammar and spelling left as in the original):
In the middle of a grueling six game road trip where a very young hockey team is away from home, the third game of the trip ends late on a cold Canadian Saturday night. This is the only break on the trip and the three days between games allow them the only break to get back home in their own beds for a couple of days before going back on the road. A scheduled commercial flight waits for them at Toronto's International Airport for the short flight home; they could be home by midnight. This plane departs on schedule, but without a single member of the hockey team.
Back in the locker room a vote is taken after the game was complete, and a unanimous decision is made by this young team to skip this flight and stay one more day.
They make arrangements to check back in the hotel and on a frozen Sunday morning charter two buses that have no heat and begin a journey two hours straight north into a sparsely inhabited Canada, but where hockey is its passion. They arrive at their destination to the surprise of the teams general manager who is there attending his fathers wake.
After a few emotional hours, this team boards the buses and head back for a two-hour trip back to Toronto. On the way they ask the drivers to stop in a tiny Canadian town because they are hungry.
To the shock of the patrons and workers at this small hockey town McDonald's, a professional team walks out of two rickety buses and into the restaurant, which just happens to have pictures of two members of this team on its wall. The patrons know every single one of these players by sight being fanatic fans of hockey in these parts. One can only imagine their amazement of the locals seeing and entire professional hockey team sit down and have a meal in their tiny little town in the middle of a hockey season. After a while they board the buses and catch their same flight 24 hours later, giving one day to their general manager.
Have I made this up, is this an excerpt from some fictional book? No this a true story of the Blackhawks last Saturday night and they decided to attend Dale Tallon's fathers funeral. Its amazing that such a good story can be found nowhere on the internet, and not even mentioned in the Chicago papers.
Had one of the Blackhawks got into a fight and punched some drunken loser in a Toronto bar it would be plastered all over papers and the television.
This being said, its hard to imagine any professional football, basketball or baseball team doing this, but the members of the Blackhawks claim any "hockey" team would have done this. This is one reason I continue to be a big hockey fan, and another reason I am excited about this Chicago team.
I thought I would share as this story appears to have gone unnoticed.
Fine players, and fine human beings, too.
A bit earlier, when the Hawks and the NHL announced that they would hold the Winter Classic in January 2009 at Wrigley Field, they created a buzz in Chicago. I began to watch again and revel in the speed and artistry of major league hockey, although I still wished then, and do now, that they'd do something about the fistfights. Hockey's a rough game, but it can stand on its own merits without fights that you'd get arrested for if they took place outside the United Center, rather than inside.
The day of the Winter Classic at Wrigley was glorious. Here's the recap I wrote at Bleed Cubbie Blue the day of the game. Hawks management had earlier made peace and brought back, to roaring, tear-stained ovations, team legends Hull and Stan Mikita; their appearance at Wrigley along with Cubs heroes Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ryne Sandberg knitted my heartbroken childhood together in one neat little package. It was only 30 degrees at Wrigley Field on January 1, 2009, but it was one of the warmest afternoons ever at the Friendly Confines.
And now the Chicago Blackhawks stand one victory short of the Stanley Cup for the first time since I was 4 years old, too young to remember it, so it really will be the first one for me. Thank you, Blackhawks, for doing the right things as an organization for your players, your fans and the city of Chicago. Your team is top-notch from management to head coaching to its popular young stars like Kane, Toews, Antti Niemi, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Duncan Keith and many others, fine players and fine men any fan can be proud to root for. I'm an unabashed hockey and Blackhawks fan again -- and happy to say so.
On August 22, 2008, Chris Chelios and the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings walked out onto the green grass of Wrigley Field with the Cup; this was arranged by Chelios, a Chicago native and huge Cubs fan. It was cool to see the Cup at Wrigley, but the Wings got booed by the partisan Chicago crowd. Later this summer, when, hopefully, Kane or Toews or Byfuglien leads his team onto Wrigley with Cup raised high...
... we'll cheer, and dream of the day when the Cubs win the World Series on that same field.