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.