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Resurrection...Easter at a Blackhawks Game: 2008
Easter at a Blackhawks game... 2008
The Chicago Blackhawks, in recent years, have become the NHL's marquee team, but hockey fans know; that wasn't always so. Watching the team play now, and reading the chat comments referring to “Bandwagon fans,”I'm reminded of a less glamorous time, and the conditions that brought it.
During a March 23, 2008 Chicago Blackhawk home game, Kelsey Conway sat in the upper deck of the United Center with her father and three sisters. It is Kelsey's 10th birthday, and this game was her birthday wish. Kelsey's three sisters, 12 year-old-twins Mandy and Emily, and Coleen the oldest at 14, all with long blond hair resembling a cheer-leading squad, are dressed in their own white Blackhawk jerseys complete with their heroes' names and numbers on the back.
Kelsey, however, wears a white tee-shirt over her jersey, the number 88 drawn on the back, and a crude rendition of the Blackhawk logo drawn on the front in black dry-mark pen. "She wanted Havlat at the beginning of the season, but now she's in love with Kane," says Bob, the girl's father referring to the jersey she wears under the tee-shirt with Hawk's, then, star Martin Havlat's name, on it.
"I can't afford to buy another sweater every time these girls get another crush." Bob says as Kelsey breaks in, "I am not in love with him, he's our best player." Emily and Coleen start to chant, "Kelsey loves Kane," as Kelsey stomps her foot yelling, "I do not," as she turns her back on her sisters and focuses her attention on her over-sized soft drink and shakes the strands of long blond hair from her eyes.
With her eyes focused on the ice, Kelsey jumps from her seat every time she sees number 88 skate past yelling, "Patrick, Patrick," with a peculiar familiarity, considering the age of the young fan.
The first period ends in a scoreless tie, although with nine penalties and a fight; not uneventful. The Conway clan seems pleased with their teams' performance as they shuffle off single file, uniformed, and standing out amongst the crowd en-route to the concession stand.
For the past 20 years professional sports has had no greater example of futility than the Chicago Blackhawk hockey team. The Blackhawks were to the National Hockey League, what the Washington Generals are to basketball's Harlem Globetrotters... a joke. But, while the Globetrotters would barnstorm the country with the paid-to play-patsy Generals, the NHL, a serious business with image problems of its own (due to the sports detractor's claims of its "violent nature") could only look upon the once proud Blackhawk franchise with an incredulous aversion.
Poor management, tight pockets, and lackluster marketing had forced the Hawks to play second string to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League, the affiliate of the NHL's, then, Atlanta team, and the Blackhawks had become known in hockey circles as the city's other team... until now.
The team's newfound commitment to excellence began drawing the fans back in larger and younger crowds. A combination of smart draft picks, and free agent signings showed that the team no longer was content to be the leagues ice rink doormat, and the fans began to take notice.
During intermission a vendor named Joe stands outside the aisle on the concourse selling beer. Joe is happy with the direction the team is taking. "This is great; no one wanted to work the Hawks games before, a half full house, with a losing team here... we work on commission it just wasn't worth it."
Pouring beer after beer non-stop for the full 15 minute intermission Joe is smiling, "The tips I make today alone might be more than what I would make in a whole night last year; yeah, Rocky's doing a great job."
Rocky Wirtz took over the Blackhawks in October of 2007 after his father, club owner, William Wirtz passed away in September. William Wirtz had been regarded by Hawk fans as a tyrant over the years for his frugal spending, inability to hold on to star players, and most of all, his refusal to televise Hawks home games. ESPN ranked him as the 3rd greediest owner in all of sports, and at the home opener during a moment of silence for the late owner, he was booed.
Be he the tyrannical owner, or just a misunderstood executive officer trying to run a business, Wirtz was still largely responsible for the team on the ice that day. When Rocky took over, he inherited an up and coming team and won back the fans by bringing old-time heroes such as Hawk legends Hall of Farmer's Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Tony Esposito back into the organization. He later hired ex Chicago Cubs president John McDonough to run the team, and announced that all home and away games will be televised in the future.
In a November 2007, Blackhawk press release Wirtz said, "We have moved rapidly in the last several weeks to assemble a group focused on bringing the Stanley Cup to Chicago, by hiring John McDonough, we are adding one of the top talents in sports management and marketing. I am thrilled we found a guy who grew up in Chicago, stayed here, and achieved outstanding success here. There are 81 years of history with the Blackhawk franchise and John understands that."
"While it takes a special group of athletes on the ice to win a championship, we need those same star qualities of creativity, vision and leadership in the front office. John has those qualities and will compliment the talents of General Manager Dale Tallon and Coach Denis Savard," Wirtz added.
The Conway's' made it back in time for the start of the second period. The scent of nachos and pizza replace the air of stale beer as fans settle in for the start of the second period. Kelsey oblivious to everything else around her keeps a hawkish eye on the rink, hoping for a sign of her hero.
Eddie Gustin sits with two companions two rows behind the family and smiles, "It's good to see this again..." referring to the family enjoying the game together, "...a full house, a guy and his kids; it's been a long time coming," as the puck is dropped to start the second period.
Eddie describes himself as "just an old time hockey fan," taking a sip from his beer and adjusting the baseball cap that covers his graying hair. At 60 Eddie remembers the glory years of the Hawks in the '60s and '70s. "This is just like when Hull and Mikita were kids," he says, "Kane and Toews are going to bring us the cup."
Gustin's enthusiasm for the rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews seems to be shared by the 20,000 plus fans at the UC this day, the 10th sell-out of the season (more than in the past 6 seasons combined).
The Stanley Cup is the oldest trophy in North American sports; it is awarded to the NHL champion each year. Unlike in other sports where a trophy is given to the team, the Stanley Cup remains in that team's city only for that season or until a new champion is crowned. The Blackhawks last won the cup in 1961 at the old Chicago Stadium, which sat across the street between Madison Street and Warren Boulevard; it was torn down in 1994. As the game progresses the home team Hawks seem to play with the intensity of a team that wants to forget that past and create a legacy of their own.
A St. Louis goal, followed by a Patrick Kane penalty a minute later, quiets the crowd. Gustin uses the opportunity to seek out a beer vendor and dishes out the $19.50 for three beers. The Conway twins are quiet, while Coleen and Kelsey entertain themselves thumbing through a program. Father, Bob, follows the game intently checking on his daughters at line-shift intervals.
With a little over two minutes left in the period Blackhawk Adam Burish takes a pass from line-mate Troy Brower and fires the puck past the St. Louis goaltender to tie the game. The crowd comes back to life, but Kelsey remains unaffected. It wasn't her hero who scored the goal.
The Blackhawks have a long and esteemed history in Chicago. One of the original six teams to form the NHL, they played their first game here in 1926. Major Frederick McLaughlin purchased the Portland Rosebuds, and moved them to Chicago. Three years later he built the Chicago Stadium where they played for over 60 years.
The Blackhawk name was taken from McLaughlin's World War I, 333rd machine gun battalion, who named themselves after native Sauk warrior Black Sparrow Hawk, whom, according to the Library of Congress is the great grandfather of American sports legend and Olympian Jim Thorpe.
The crest upon the team's jersey remains one of the most recognized in professional sports; a depiction of a native American warrior, originally designed by McLaughlin's then wife, famed dancer Irene Castle. The history goes on. In 1943 Toronto sports writer Jim Coleman wrote that after the Blackhawks first season McLaughlin fired then Coach Pete Muldoon, and Muldoon in return put a curse on the team saying they would not finish in first place until the end of time. The original Chicago sports curse. The Hawks finally finished in first place in 1967 for the first time in 40 years, supposedly breaking the curse. Coleman admitted after that season he had made the whole story up.
The second period ends with the score tied at one. The crowd files out to the concession stands, many scurrying about to beat the last call for beer or trying to beat the restroom rush. Others just stretch their legs anticipating the final period upcoming, and exchanging second balcony coaching expertise. The Conway's wait patiently in line at the concession stand, as people pass, point, and smile at Kelsey and her homemade jersey.
Jenny Barnhart, a Chicago elementary school teacher, looks and smiles. "That's so cute," she says to her boyfriend as she points to the shirt, "she's young enough to be one of my students." Her companion glances over and offers a disinterested, "oh... yeah," as his attention returns back to his main focus of the beer line. The third period buzzer has sounded, soon the game will resume and beer sales will halt. The Conway's pay for their concessions and head back to their seats, and $26 later with two beers apiece, so do the school teacher and her friend.
Midway through the third period of the tied game, Blackhawk defenseman Dustin Byfuglein takes a precision pass from Patrick Kane and scores a goal to give the Hawks the lead. Young Kelsey cannot contain her excitement. Spilling her drink, she jumps up when Kane's name is announced, taunting her older sisters, "I told you, I told you, we couldn't have got that goal without Patrick." The young fans admiration for the young player, just eight years her senior, is shared by the packed house, as well as her sister Coleen who says, "Still, Buffy got the goal," referring to Byfuglein, whose name is proudly displayed on the back of her jersey. Kelsey smiles, it was her hero that made it possible, and she knows it. But, two minutes later the Blues D.J.King tips in a pass to tie the game once more, again the crowd is quieted.
With two minutes left in the game, Keith Tkachuk scores the go ahead goal for the Blues. The girls, as well as the rest of the 20,000 at the arena sit in a dejected shock. Young Kelsey cradles her head inside her arms, elbows resting upon her lap; her sister Mandy tries in vain to comfort her little sister offering words of encouragement, "It's OK, we still got two minutes Kel, Patrick might get a goal," but two minutes is not a lot of time, and poor Kelsey just can't bear to watch.
The beginning of the 2007-08 season showed promise for the Blackhawks. Granted the No.1 pick in the NHL draft, they picked the 18-year-old "phenom," Patrick Kane. Kane paired with the first round pick of 2006, 20-year-old Jonathan Toews (also in his first season), and the team showed signs that it might be coming back to life. Toews scored his first professional goal on the first shot he took, and while missing a month with an injury, still managed to lead all rookies in goals scored. Kane, healthy all season, managed to lead the Hawks, as well as all rookies in total scoring (goals and assists combined). Both were front runners for the Rookie of the Year award; Kane won it
Coaching the team, then, was Blackhawk great, hall of famer, Dennis Savard, known by fans for his ice skating and puck handling prowess as "Savior Faire." Old time Blackhawk fans were leery though, they've been fooled before, but this was a new approach, a new top executive, a new president, and a new youthful team. Fans ask, " why should we keep coming back." By November of the next season, he would be replaced by current manager Joel Quinville.
With 55 seconds left in regulation time Hawks defense-man James Wisniewski takes a slap-shot from 35 feet out and scores a goal to tie the game. Emily and Mandy start to jump up and down, while Kelsey and Coleen are hugging each other and screaming in each other's ears. Their father Bob, laughing, just shakes his head in disbelief, while Eddie Gustin sits and takes in the moment with a satisfied smile on his face.
Kelsey, face now aglow, grinning from ear to ear, expected nothing less. This day was, after all, the 23rd of March; her birthday. On this particular March 23rd, however, it was also Easter Sunday, and Kelsey expected a miracle.
Years ago Chicago sports writer Bob Verdi tagged Hawks owner William Wirtz as "Dollar Bill," on account of Wirtz's frugal nature. What Wirtz failed to take into account in all his bean counting efforts was what we might call the Kelsey factor. That factor being a new generation of Hawk fans, made to order-right out there begging to be let in, but denied the opportunity for lack of television exposure and worthy talent to expose those fans to.
In the 20 years plus that has passed, two generations of young prospective hockey fans were denied the chance to decide for themselves from the comfort of their living rooms, whether hockey was the sport for them or to change the channel and watch something much more violent than hockey's reputation had ever dared to be.
One minute and five seconds into the overtime period the Blackhawks score a goal to win the game in sudden death by a score of 4 to 3. The crowd of 20,000 plus erupts as the goal is scored. Before the public address announcer can accredit the goal's owner, a host of eyes fix upon the four young girls in a small section of the balcony. The little girl with the home made number 88 on her tee-shirt breaks away from the other three and starts a sort of victory dance all by herself. Her arms raised to the air with index fingers pointing to the rafters, she screams unintelligible cries of obvious approval. Her father looking back at the crowd, smiles, shrugs his shoulders and throws his palms up to the air.
Bob Conway had given his youngest daughter the greatest birthday present she could have asked for. She had wanted to go to a hockey game to see her hero play, and her hero, number 88 Patrick Kane, had backhanded a rebound into the net to score the winning goal in over-time. A young Blackhawk team was starting to generate a new younger variety of Blackhawk fans, and as Eddie Gustin so eloquently put it, "It's been a long time coming."