Thursday, June 10, 2010

Justice delayed, but not denied

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.

Except for one.

I remained a Chicago Blackhawks fan.

I’m not exactly sure when this delusion began, but if I had to put a date on it, I’d say it was sometime around 1969. The Minnesota North Stars (remember them?) had entered the NHL in 1967, and as such us Minnesotans were exposed to about 25 televised games a year. I quickly became a hockey fan, watching every game I could catch on TV, listening to many on the radio, and choosing a team that I could call my own.

Not, as one might have expected, the hometowners, but instead their rivals to the East, the Chicago Blackhawks (or Black Hawks as they were known then). Why did I become a Hawks fan? To this day I wonder about that. I think it was a combination of factors that led me to Chicago. Perhaps in another time and another place, things would have turned out differently. But they didn’t, and thus my fandom was born.

The Hawks played in a cavernous, almost mythical arena, Chicago Stadium. It was ancient and dark, latticed on the outside with fire escapes and a giant marquee, and inside it featured a cramped ice surface, old slatted boards that looked as if they were original to the arena, dim lights that hung low from the rafters, and a scoreboard that was an incomprehensible combination of dials and digits, all but impossible to understand. Even the ice seemed old, the Hawks logo looking permanently faded at center ice. Due to the fire marshals, the nightly attendance was always announced at 16,666 (I suppose the number itself should have tipped us off), but everyone knew it was closer to 20,000. I sometimes wonder if I wasn’t more a fan of the Stadium than I was the team. I’m really sorry I never got there in person, but I still can remember the details as if they were yesterday.
And there was the noise.  When the Hawks took someone into the boards with that physical style of theirs, the camera literally shook. There was the roar of the crowd, the booming pipe organ (largest in the world, with Al Melgard at the keyboard), the voice of Harvey Wittenberg on the antiquated PA mic, Wayne Messmer (in later years) singing the National Anthem, the rousing fight song "Here Come the Hawks" that boomed out at the start of each period and was reprised on the organ after every Hawks goal – for an eight-year-old, this was pretty awesome stuff.

But not all the noise came from the crowd – there was the Golden Jet, Bobby Hull, he of the 100 mph+ slapshot. There was Stan Mikita (long before Wayne’s World), one of the most gentlemanly players in hockey, and one of the few to wear a helmet. There was Tony Esposito, younger brother of the Bruins’ Phil, who logged a record 15 shutouts in his rookie season. Yes, this was a team that surely knew how to make noise. This team was a good match for the city.

And then there was the romance of the radio broadcast. We were generally able to capture the distant signal of WMAQ, the home of the Hawks, on dark winter Minnesota nights, the sound coming and going and crackling at times, crystal clear at others; the magisterial voice of Lloyd Pettit (“A shot and a goal!”) occasionally fading in and out, but the roar of the crowd rising even above the static. At 7:30 on Sunday and Wednesday evenings (the traditional game nights for the Hawks at home), Pettit’s voice would rise over "Here Come the Hawks," welcoming us to “Chicago Black Hawks hockey, live from the world-famous Chicago Stadium.” It was on the radio that I heard Bobby Hull’s 500th goal, heard Hull break the career record for hat-tricks, heard them advertise how you could get the official Black Hawks team photo and yearbook (which, of course, I ordered), heard Mikita score the winning goal in the second overtime of the opening game of the 1971 final against Montreal.

Ah, 1971. (Pause for weeping, gnashing of teeth.)  If there was ever a blacker year for Blackhawks fans than 1971, I don’t know what it would be. In 1971 it had been a mere 10 years since the Hawks had last won the Stanley Cup – almost yesterday, it would seem, in light of the title drought to come. The team was in the midst of their Golden Age, with the big three of Hull, Mikita and Tony-O, along with Bill White, Pit Martin, Keith Magnuson, Hull’s younger brother Dennis, Jim Pappin, Eric Nesterinko, and a host of others. The team had finished first for the first time in their 40+ year history just a couple of seasons earlier (ending the Curse of the Muldoon), and now they were taking on the perennial Cup champions, the Montreal Canadians, in the final – a final they were favored to win. The Canadians, behind the goaltending of rookie Ken Dryden (who had played in only seven regular-season games), had upset the defending champion Bruins in the semifinals, and came into Chicago distinct underdogs.

The Hawks won the first two games at home, a thrilling overtime battle in game 1, and a confident victory in game 2. As I mentioned, I’d heard that first game on the radio - CBS, at that time the network home of the NHL, carried only the Sunday afternoon games – but by game 2, an ad-hoc syndicated network had been established, and my fifth-grade friends and I quickly passed the word that that the rest of the series would indeed be on TV (Channel 11 in the Twin Cities, as I recall).

It was a good time to be a Hawks fan. Only once in the history of the Stanley Cup final had a team won the first two games and not captured the Cup. Even when the Canadians roared back on their home ice to win games 3 and 4, there was no real concern on my part – after all, the Hawks had the home-ice advantage, and they’d been virtually unbeatable in the Stadium. Espo shut out the Canadians in game 5, but Montreal came back to win a rough sixth game, setting up the decisive game 7 back in Chicago. And the saddest 150 minutes any Hawks fan ever experienced.

It didn’t start out that way, that early May evening. For such an important game, CBS pre-empted their prime-time schedule to carry the game live. The Stadium was packed to the rafters, noisier than ever. And when the Hawks burst out to a 2-0 lead halfway through the second period, the crowd was delirious. Hull rattled one off the crossbar, nearly putting Chicago up by three. I began counting down the minutes, squirming with every shot, every flash of the stick and turn of the blade.  And then – disaster.

Lemaire lofted a knuckling shot from the blue line late in the second period that Esposito somehow muffed, cutting the score to 2-1. And while the Hawks still led, with only a little more than a third of the game to play, there suddenly came the sense that the game was abruptly over, that this single goal, which Esposito surely should have stopped, had changed everything, cutting the heart out of the Hawks and their fans. Sure enough, the Habs had tied the game by the end of that period, and early in the third Henri Richard put them ahead (to stay, as it turned out), 3-2.

Pappin nearly tied it a few minutes later, Dryden coming up with an impossible stretching leg save (Pappin was so sure it was in he’d started to lift his stick in celebration), but for all intents and purposes the game had ended with that first Montreal goal. It was, to the Hawks fan of 1971, what the Bartman fiasco would be to the Cubs fan over thirty years later. Had Esposito made the easy save, there is no doubt in my mind that Chicago would have won that game, captured the Cup, perhaps been on the way to a mini-dynasty of their own. But no. The horn sounded, the Canadians skated off with yet another Stanley Cup, the Hawks and their brokenhearted fans left in silence. Hull and Mikita said earlier this week that this loss was the one that really hurt, different from all the rest, one that they never really did get over, and I know what they meant. That defeat crushed me. It may be hard for you to believe, but I actually took a bite out of our living room coffee table (true; when I sold the table a few years ago, you could still see the teeth marks of an 11 year-old imbedded in the wood). I might have broken something as well; I can't remember now, but I had a terrible temper back in those days.  Although I would watch many sporting events in the intervening 49 years, I’m still not sure that any loss ever affected me the way that one did. I had been so sure my team would win - dammit, they were supposed to win - and they lost. At home, in my favorite arena. In a game they most assuredly should have won.

Chicago made it back to the final two years later, again facing Montreal, but it was a different team, sans Hull, who’d defected to the WHA. The Hawks went down meekly in six, and save a sole appearance against Mario Lemieux and the Penguins in 1992 (which they lost in four, naturally), appeared to have blown their chances forever. A dramatic way to put it perhaps, but that’s the way of it when you're a Hawks fan. 

That’s not to say there wasn’t excitement in those intervening years – far from it. The Hawks became a young, high-scoring, hard-hitting team that played a very emotional brand of hockey with Denis Savard and Al Secord and Murray Bannerman. They made the playoffs for nearly thirty consecutive seasons. But in the end, whether favorite or underdog, they always fell a series or two short, disappointing us once again in the process. My old felt pennant and red Bobby Hull jersey from 1970 sat in the dresser drawer, gathering dust.

By the late 2000’s, the Blackhawks had fallen nearly off the hockey map. They’d moved out of the antique Stadium and into the new, antiseptic United Center – bigger, shinier, and frequently emptier. They slumped out of the playoffs, drawing barely 9,000 people a game. Their penny-pinching owner, Bill Wirtz, had alienated the fans, antagonized longtime stars from the past, and had seemingly done all he could to kill off the game. They had, indeed, become a forgotten team, even as da Bears won the Super Bowl, the White Sox improbably broke their 80+ year World Series drought, and the Cubs became a permanent legend, and even something of a threat to win.

Things changed. The Hawks drafted wisely, picking up young stars such as Toews and Kane.  Bill Wirtz died, passing the torch to his son Rocky, who from the outset appeared determined to undo the damage his father had done. Rocky hired smart people, put Hawks home games on television (welcome to the 21st Century!), and made amends with former stars, bringing them back into the Blackhawk family. The club began to win again, making the playoffs, hosting a memorable Winter Classic in Wrigley Field, advancing to the conference finals against the Red Wings in 2009. As more than one commentator remarked, this was a team that now believed it could win – and win now. My interest, which had never really gone away, was revived.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, they made it to the final, taking on underdog Philadelphia. As in 1971, they won the first two games at home, lost the next two on the road, and bounced back to win the fifth game, giving them two chances to take the Cup. In 71 they’d never really had a chance to win game 6, but last night the hockey gods seemed to be looking favorably on them. They took the lead in the first, fell behind in the second, but then rocketed out to a 3-2 lead, and held in with barely five minutes to play in the third. They’d never been this close to the Cup in 71!  I was squirming and fretting as much as I had 39 years ago. Then the Flyers tied the game late, and I began wondering if we weren’t looking at another seven, another series where the home team won the first six games, another replay of – well, you get the picture.

As you probably know by now, such was not the case. Kane scored early in OT on a seeing-eye shot that only he saw enter the goal, setting off a confused, start-and-stop celebration that somehow was appropriate, given how long this team and its fans had waited for this moment. The picture of Toews hoisting the Cup, in his road whites, is eerily reminiscent of what it would have looked like back in 1971, with Mikita and Hull and Espo in their home whites, holding the Cup high.

I’m not quite sure it’s a Simeon moment – “Now I can die in peace Lord, having seen the Hawks win the Cup” – but it is plenty good enough. Does this victory take away the pain of 71? Perhaps not entirely; maybe it’s a case of too little too late, for 49 years, after all, is a long time. But on this day, this year, it is good enough. If 1971 is not completely buried, it is still surely dead and gone. For it has happened, the Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup, and in this moment there is no talk about yesterday, about what might have been, even about what may be to come. There is only today, and it is a day to celebrate.

Oh, just one more thing – YAHOO!

1 comment:

  1. Having been in what most people would not call a hockey "market" but having been in what many in the minor leagues call one of their "traditional" markets (Charleston, SC, which starts its 18th year next fall), I must say Chicago assistant Mike Haviland truly deserves to be honoured in this traditional East Coast market.

    The irony of having Haviland, a native of Middletown, NJ, win the Stanley Cup in nearby Philadelphia came as the NHL noted it was his third championship ring in hockey, even though he never played in the NHL because of injuries early in his professional career, and even ten years ago was not even known. As a head coach, two ECHL titles (2003, Atlantic City defeating Columbia SC, and 2005, Trendon defeating Fort Myers) led to Chicago calling him for Norfolk's assistant job, and the rest, as they say was history. No wonder Chicago found something in him that has made NHL teams want him. The Trenton Web site noted the 2005 ECHL title when congratulating him.

    Years of bus rides from Boardwalk Hall to Frank McGuire Arena, North Charleston Coliseum, Bojangles Coliseum, Germain Arena, Pensacola Civic Center, James Brown Arena, Cambria County War Memorial, Toledo Sports Arena, the Scope, Hersheypark, Times Union Center, Dunkin Donuts Center, MTS Centre, Copps Coliseum, all as a coach, led to this.

    And the irony is the Stanley Cup has been crowned, but the oldest continuous professional hockey title -- the Calder Cup, since 1936 (remember I said continuous), is at a crucial Game 5 this weekend between Hershey and Austin. Because of the circus in Hershey, they had to delay the AHL Calder Cup a week instead to keep a 2-3-2 instead of letting the series start in Austin with a 2-2-1-2 final (which often happens in minor leagues when arenas have other events).


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