When I was a kid the one sport that my entire family would go and watch together was hockey. My grandmother worked for the Wirtz family, which still owns the Chicago Blackhawks. She could get tickets as one of the perks for working for the family. I remember going to the old Chicago Stadium and the roar of the crowd being so loud that I had to cover my ears. When I got older, I remember screaming so loudly my voice would go hoarse. I remember Blackhawks goalie Murray Bannerman in his mask, looking mean and stopping the puck. When he missed one, I remember screaming at the ice.
In the city of Chicago, there are times of the year that the city is divided. This is during baseball season. You are either a White Sox fan or you are a Cubs fan. I am a White Sox fan. However, I grew up on the north side of Chicago where most of the Cubs fans live and my own father, and much of my family, are Cubs fans.
There are certain things that unite the city, however. The first, and the biggest, is, of course, the Chicago Bears NFL team. During the winter months the city lives and dies by the Bears. The Bears always dominate the news and they are the lead story no matter what they are doing or what other teams are doing. One of my very first words was Butkus, who played for the team during the 60s and early 70s.
However, I never cared much about sports. I was never a big watcher of baseball when I was a kid. I did not watch the football games, as I do now, with my father. If there was one sport that I bonded with my father over it was the game of hockey. If there was a sport that I probably fell in love with first, it was hockey.
You have to understand the sport of hockey as it relates to the city of Chicago. While there have been times the sport dominated the landscape, it has always been a kind of second tier sport. Sure, during the time the team last won the Stanley Cup, in 1961, the city was crazy for the team. Yes, there were hugely famous names here like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito. However, there was one thing that always seemed to hamper the Chicago Blackhawks and that was owner Bill Wirtz.
Wirtz was cheap. He was famously and notoriously cheap. During the time when the sport of hockey was finally starting to gain some ground nationally and become a real first-tier sport, he was lamenting the increasingly high salaries of the players. As such, he decided he wasn’t going to pay them. As such, the team was unable to get the truly quality players that were out there. As such, the quality of the play from the team, during the 90s, began to decline.
Wirtz was not done, however. He began to take out his frustration at the fans. Since the fans had stopped showing up to the games, he felt that it was a good move to remove the games from television. So now, it was his theory, if there were true Blackhawks fans out there, they would spend the money, and the increasingly high ticket prices, to come see the games in person.
All of this slowly turned the Blackhawks from a storied NHL franchise into a league joke. The lockout that shut down the NHL for a year did not help. Whatever fans the team had began to dwindle. The Chicago Wolves, a minor league team, set up shop in the nearby suburb of Rosemont and began doing everything the Blackhawks seemed to refuse to do. They made ticket prices cheap. They made the events family friendly. The got quality players. They got quality coaches. They put their games on television and radio. So, for years, in Chicago when you were talking hockey you were probably talking about the Wolves.
The best thing, as it turned out, that could have happened to the Chicago Blackhawks was when owner Bill Wirtz died and his son Rocky took control of the team. Almost immediately Rocky made a deal with local television and put the team back on the air. He then hired key people who had made sports teams popular in the city as part of his staff. The team reached out to older players and older fans. Before too long, the Blackhawks were not a contending team. They had exciting young talent, were winning games and suddenly the local sports pages and local sports newscasters began talking about the team again. Hockey was back.
It was during the time of the Bill Wirtz regime that my love of the Blackhawks vanished. I could watch the Bears every Sunday with my father. So, we bonded over that and forgot about the team on ice. The team got worse and worse and worse and they became a joke and it was easier to ignore hockey all together than remember those days when I was a kid and the Stadium was so loud it hurt.
However, when I was living in St. Louis and going to college there, I met a guy who loved hockey. He loved the St. Louis Blues. He had loved hockey his entire life. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I endured long, seemingly unending, dissertations over videotape from this friend of mine about how great hockey was. I would get to witness saves and great scoring chances over and over again in slow motion while he slowly turned a wheel on his VCR remote. There was a time when this particular friend declared that hockey should be the only team that anyone was allowed to play or watch. Was he kidding? Probably, but the bigger sin was that he was dissing the sport I had grown to love: baseball.
I am the kind of guy who believes in variety. I may not like a sport and I may think a particular sport is ridiculous, but there are people out there who love things like NASCAR and who am I to deny them that? I live in a country that is free and full of choices. Just because what some people like is not what I like, doesn’t mean the people who like those things are anything less than me. This was my argument. My friend and I would have long and silly debates over which sport was better: hockey or baseball.
So, when I started writing professionally in 2006, the first article I wrote and got paid for was a humorous piece that, in my mind, was aimed directly at this particular friend. That article was called “Why Hockey Sucks” and it can still be found on this very website. It has been there for years now and it continues to get comments. I have been insulted more times with that article than anything else I have written. I have written articles since then revealing that the article was meant as a joke and not to be taken seriously and still hockey fans choose to insult me.
Well, here I am again, trying to right the wrongs. I am admitting that hockey, when it comes to sports, was my first love. I am admitting that the first Chicago professional sports team I fell in love with was probably the Chicago Blackhawks. I am admitting that I am actually, when you cut right down to it, a big hockey fan.
I love the game. The game is fast and exciting. At times it is heart-stopping. The players are classy and they do not engage in the NBA-style trash talking that has made basketball all but unwatchable. The players play hard and they are low key and they are intense and they are tough. They have to combine the grace of a figure skater with the toughness of a football player and then they get even tougher. During the recent Stanley Cup playoffs one of the Blackhawks had seven of his teeth knocked out including one that went down his throat. Then he came back, in the same game, and played. Now a football player gets a sore toe and he is out for six weeks. That is tough.
Now the city of Chicago is a hockey town again. We love our Blackhawks because they have shown that they, once again, love their fans back. They have learned from the dark and lean years and now understand how much the fans are a part of the team as the goalies are. They have brought home a Stanley Cup. They have done it with grace and class and quality play and that appeals to the hardworking, blue collar attitude of this town. They have made me love the game and the team all over again and it reminds me of my days as a little kid, clutching my father’s hand and cringing at the sheer loudness of the stadium.
Welcome back Blackhawks. Thanks for the wonderful memories this season. Thanks for bringing me back. Thanks for reminding me how and why hockey really is the greatest sport.