2013 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five

I’m not a Blackhawks fan.

People often assume I am. Sometimes I talk about hockey and they catch the accent, and, when I confirm my Chicagoan heritage, they congratulate me- the Haws are terrific; you’re so lucky. It’s a reasonable assumption: lady from Chicago, hockey enthusiast, how could she not be on that glorious bandwagon? But no, I’ve never been into the Hawks. My mom is, now, my dad and a few of my further relations. Me, though, it was Montreal where I was born again in hockey, and I (tragically, self-flagellatingly) bleed bleu-blanc-rouge. Sorry, man, just another Habs fan, nothing to see here. I’m sure my face falls as the unspoken revelation passes between us- if only I had gotten into hockey the natural way, in the place where I was born, I would have a Stanley Cup in my recent past. Two, now.

I try not to look disappointed, but I can’t hide it entirely. I should have been a Hawks fan. But I’m not, because when I lived in Chicago, the Hawks didn’t exist.

***

It’s difficult to overstate how invisible the Haws were when I was growing up. They weren’t in the news, they weren’t promoted on billboards, there were no commercials calling for commitment to the Indian. There weren’t people wandering the street in orangey-red jerseys. If they were mentioned in the papers, it was two paragraphs in the most obscure corner of the most obscure page of the sports section. They weren’t even on goddamn TV. I’m serious: there was a local blackout on Hawks games in their own f*#ing city.

From zero to 22, I met exactly one hockey fan, a belligerent boy who was famous in elementary school for nearly losing a finger in a skating accident. He was the only person I knew who ever mentioned the game. You might say that was because I was not a jocky-ish personality, which is true, but being completely uninterested in sports didn’t prevent me from being caught up in the athletic obsessions of a the city. Chicago was, and is, a town defined by its teams.  I was subjected to endless dull recitations of Cubs lore and snarky retorts from Sox fans. Friends spent hundreds of hours trying to convince me of the merits of the Bears. Heck, I- 5’2” of bespectacled suburban bookworm- played basketball for a few years, because that was what people did in Chicago in the nineties. My God, I probably knew more about the freakin’ Chicago Fire than the Blackhawks.  At least they had ads.

And it was the work of one man. “Dollar” Bill Wirtz, owner of the Blackhawks from 1966 until 2007, and quite possibly the worst owner in the entire history of the NHL. Oh, you think Jeremy Jacobs is an asshole for locking out the NHL for half a season? Bill Wirtz made a policy of virtually locking out his own f*#king market for 41 f*#king years. You think Charles Wang is insane for refusing to invest in players? Bill Wirtz not only wouldn’t invest in players, he wouldn’t invest in a f*#king television broadcast. I don’t care what dickish things your owner has done, and I know he’s done lots of them, Bill Wirtz did worse. For Chicago, he was the Grinch Who Stole Hockey, except his heart didn’t grow at the end. It just kept withering and withering, and the sport withered with it.

In my family, the Blackhawks were spoken of as a thing in the long dead past, an artifact of the 60s gathering dust on the city’s mantlepiece. Once upon a time, when my uncles were boys and Stan Mikita was pouring Sunday coffee for the regulars at Jim’s Butterhill Grill, there were the Blackhawks, but then Bill Wirtz killed them and they were entombed in the Mausoleum on Madison, where for 82 games a season they were mourned by a wheezy organ and a smattering of tomato-clad grievers.

I went to a game at the Mausoleum in the last year of Daddy Wirtz’s rein, and to this day it remains the saddest hockey game I’ve ever been to. It was just before Christmas 2007, and I was home from Montreal, newly converted to the sport and anxious to pick up tickets wherever I could. My dad spent maybe $30 for a pair of seats on the upper tier, and we watched the Hawks lose to the Maple Leafs in an echoing cavern. The United Center is one of the largest buildings in the NHL, and that night it was just over half-full, and half of that was Leafs fans and people in assorted third-party garb. I was anxious about the ethics of wearing a Habs jersey to a game with no Habs, but I oughtn’t have worried. There were tons of Habs jerseys, Avs jerseys, national team jerseys from Sweden and Finland, hundreds of people just like me, in town of a few days and looking for a cheap ticket. The stadium barely belonged to the Hawks at all. It was the Land of the General Hockey Fan.

The next day, in the two bored paragraphs in the bottom corner of some middle page noted that it was the best crowd the Hawks had drawn all season.

***

I went to Montreal and I fell in love with hockey on about the 5th game I ever saw. That’s all it took. If I’d been exposed to hockey as a child with even a quarter of the frequency I was plopped down in front of Sunday football or dragged out to a baseball field, I’d have been obsessed before the first grade. Maybe I would have started playing; maybe I would have been good. Maybe I would have benefited from the unique sense of camaraderie that sports fanaticism easily builds between strangers.  Maybe I would have benefited from coming of age familiar with the grinning, toothless courage that is particular to hockey.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Don’t think I’m unhappy that I turned out a Habs fan. It’s a nice thing, I’m sure, to be a fan of your hometown team, but it’s better still to be a fan of your soulmate team. The Habs, long musty history and defiant cultural specificity, suit me about as perfectly as a franchise could, and I regret nothing of my love for them (except the Gomez trade).

But I regret the decades of my life I spent with a hockey team playing not ten L stops from my house, never knowing it was there.  Bill Wirtz took something from me, from all the might-have-been hockey fans of my generation, who never got to know the game because he refused to share it with us.  The pain and suffering that dedicated fans of a losing team in a great market experience is sad, sure, but sadder still is the pain and suffering people don’t feel in a dead market.

So no, as a fan, I’m not especially happy that the Hawks won.  They’re not my primary team, nor even my secondary or tertiary one.  But as a Chicagoan, I couldn’t be more overjoyed to see the Madhouse packed and the streets overflowing with jerseys, because with the resurrection of the Blackhawks comes the resurrection of the game.  Chicago kids are going to grow up with hockey now, not just on their TVs but in their driveways and playgrounds.  Sure, two Cups in four years might seem like a bit too much favor from the hockey gods, but that city has four decades worth of atrophy in its hockey heart.  It deserves every bit of healing it can get.

Comments (14)

  1. Agreed. Dollar Bill killed the market and fan base. But in his absence his son Rocky Wirtz has done wonders to revive the team. Rocky who sits with the fans and not in his box is the exact opposite of his father and should be commended with equal amounts praise as Bill deserves criticism

  2. I grew up watching hockey in the Bill Wirtz era and it was rather awful, to say the least. I was ridiculed as the weird kid that thought hockey was better than football/basketball. Basketball was understandably popular since it was the Jordan era, but it was Roenick, Larmer, and Chelios that inspired me. I don’t mind Chicago (and some bandwagoners) embracing the Hawks in the good times, because they deserve the support of a city that Bill Wirtz punished for all those years. It saddens me though, because it took a man’s death for the Blackhawks to thrive once again.

    • Those Roenick teams were something special. Savard, Larmer, and Goulet before him as well. Chelios, Belfour, Brent Sutter, Gary Suter, Dirk Graham, what a team. And then Wirtz blew it all up for no good reason. Oh, and he gave away Dominick Hasek too. What a jerk.

      • I’m reading the Roenick book and Bill wirtz’s complete disregard for the players was astounding. Slightly unrelated, but I was pretty happy to see Roenick breakdown in joy when the Hawks won in 2010. Hawk pride.

  3. Ellen,

    This was my childhood too. I grew up in the 90s, just in time for Dollar Bill and Bob Pulford to give away Roenick, Belfour, Chelios, and everyone else in their primes on what could have been a Stanley Cup winning team. I remember the commercials for “Hawk Vision,” where for the equivalent of buying HBO for a year, you could have the privilege of watching the Hawks play on TV. And I remember how Dollar Bill couldn’t care less when the Blackhawks were nearly being outdrawn by the minor league Chicago Wolves as they spent a decade of ineptitude that would make today’s Calgary Flames look like a model organization.

    The day Dollar Bill died, hockey was reborn in Chicago. Night and day. I came back to the Hawks after I moved to Boston (how ironic) for the 2008-09 season and have been hooked ever since.

  4. Despite growing up an hour away from Detroit during the Yzerman era, I honestly can’t recall ever seeing the Wings on tv either (granted, we didn’t have cable and my immigrant Chinese parents have never cared about sports). I did know the Wings existed though, which is more than I can say for the other teams in the league until I started working in NY with a bunch of Rangers fans in 2007 – then, I knew two NHL teams. It’s an easy sport to fall in love with when you have access to it, but if you don’t have access..

    I have to say this – as much as everyone complains about NBC, at least the general population now has a chance of randomly coming across a hockey game on tv. Bill Wirtz might have screwed Chicago out of the Hawks for years, but any American my age who didn’t live directly within an NHL market and didn’t have friends who were hockey fans were in pretty much the same boat.

    • Could someone answer a question for me?

      With the Hawks season and the conversation that surrounds it, I keep seeing people complain about having to pay to watch Hawks games in Chicago under Dollar Bill. Is this not normal? If not, why is there no stir about not being able to see Jets games without Jets TV? I’d LOVE to just be able to turn on the TV and watch them for free… I only started paying attention to the regular season once they came home, so I thought that was standard.

      Anyways, fantastic article as always Ellen, you’re one of the best hockey writers around right now.

      • Rook,

        Even the pay TV service, Hawk Vision, was only around for one season. It cost $29.99 in 1992-93 dollars, which was beyond outrageous.

        Jets TV sounds like a really stupid idea. The Jets would make more money with a contract with a local cable sports channel. Hopefully they realize the error of their ways.

        • And that’s $29.99 per month.

        • From what I recall, the Jets have their games broadcast on a regional TSN channel… I’m not sure if it’s a pay network or not, but it’s likely not on “basic” cable. The Canadiens are much the same – they have a region-specific TSN network for their games.

          As far as I know, LeafsTV [which broadcasts about 10-12 games per year] is the only “pay channel” which shows games. Even if you have upgraded cable package, you’d have to purchase LeafsTV seperately.

          • I get Leafs TV as part of my package – I don’t have the sports pack, but I do have the HDTV one. So it’s not the “basic” level of service, but it’s not beyond that.

            As for the Jets, I think the issue is that there’s no Sportsnet Regional that could take the games, and TSN was already filled with programming (I don’t see why they couldn’t do something with TSN2 and just black the game out in the rest of the country, however – it’s not as though we need to see Caddyshack for the millionth time. And I LOVE Caddyshack.)

      • It wasn’t normal in 1992, that’s for sure. The concept of a regional sports network didn’t come around until cable TV expanded a few years after that.

  5. It’s funny since they battled for so much of the 80s, but the Leafs and Hawks wound up being mismanaged in very similar ways, and both only turned around when the evil owner (Ballard in the Leafs’ case) died. Both teams’ leadership suffered from the same lack of vision, but different circumstances meant that they wound up turning off the fanbases in different ways. A lot of kids in Toronto wound up bailing on the Leafs for other NHL teams (as, in the pre-NBA days, there wasn’t any winter sports competition), while kids in Chicago grew attached to the Bulls.

  6. When Dollar Bill passed away, and they asked for a moment of silence during the game at the UC, there were boos echoing around the stadium. That tells you all you need to know.

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