Entertainment?! Fun?! Who the hell ever said that’s what professional sports were supposed to be? Well, actually, I’ve said that very often, and I’ve frequently found a place for professional sports in my criticism. Yet, sitting there Monday night watching the Boston Bruins play against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals felt all sorts of things except fun. I had spent the majority of the day overwhelmed with anxiety – funny how I always manage to keep my priorities straight when my favorite teams royally suck – not just believing, but knowing within my heart and soul the Bruins were going to take the sixth game that night, forcing a seventh game which they would also inevitably win. My prediction seemed to spend most of the night coming to fruition; Boston’s Chris Kelly drew first blood about seven minutes into the first period. Chicago’s Jonathan Toews (who else?) finally got the Hawks onto the board about five minutes into the second period, setting off a stalemate.
Sometime close to the middle of the third period, it occurred to me that whichever team scored next was going to win the game. Much to my personal disgust, the next scorer was Milan Lucic of Boston, still one of the most hated men in Buffalo for what he did to Ryan Miller. (And, subsequently, the fact that the Sabres were exposed for what they really were afterward.) Although my blood started to curdle after that, it did a lot to take away the edge I had been feeling, and I could just sit down, resign myself to the inevitable game seven and the 49 heart attacks which would accompany it, and enjoy the remaining few minutes of exciting hockey. With under two minutes left, the Hawks pulled Corey Crawford, as I had been expecting. What I hadn’t been expecting was the unbelievable sequence of events that happened next: Bryan Bickell caught a pass from Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews right in front of Boston goalie Tuukka Rask, and smacked the puck into the net with a minute and 16 seconds to go in the game. 17 seconds later, Dave Bolland shoveled another shot behind Rask, and the Bruins’ 2-1 lead was suddenly a 3-2 hole. While my rational mind was desperately trying to remind me that there was still a minute left in the game – more than enough time for things to shift again, as Boston had just learned the hard way – I was still literally jumping up and down with joy for the next minute. The deflated looks on the Bruins’ faces told the whole story: The Chelsea Dagger had arrived at the last minute and totally gutted Boston. The final minute was merely a formality; the Stanley Cup was returning to Chicago.
Meanwhile, NHL fans everywhere apparently forgot they were supposed to be angry with Gary Bettman. We only got half a season, but what an epic of a half season it was. Especially for fans of the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks had the kind of season which would, for casual fans, cement loyalties and create unbreakable bonds. They rushed out of the gate, played their first 24 games of the season – those 24 games being half of the season this year, which was 48 games – without losing a single game in regulation, playing damn near perfect hockey along the way. Their 77 regular season points netted the Presidents’ Trophy, the nice little door prize given to teams for bragging rights if they end up falling in the playoffs to some seventh seed team with no defense and a swiss cheese goalie. After beating the Minnesota Wild in the first round, they fell into a 3-1 hole against their archrivals, the Detroit Red Wings. After a roaring comeback which saw a seventh-game overtime, the Hawks then dumped last year’s Stanley Cup Champions, the Los Angeles Kings, in the Conference Finals. Finally, the Hawks became the first two-time Stanley Cup winner of the salary cap era after a series of games which gave me nails-in-the-armrest levels of anxiety.
After game five, I asked my mother if she ever had this kind of anxiety during the Bills’ Super Bowl years. Yeah, she had.
I knew I would be adopting the Blackhawks when I first decided to move to Chicago, because it might help me fit in with the local community. So what if they were unwatchable at the time? Well, when I first moved, I learned pretty quickly that the word unwatchable, as applied to the Hawks, was both literal and figurative. I try not to gripe too much about new Sabres owner Terry Pegula because I know just how bad it can get. Then-Hawks owner Bill Wirtz had a lot in common with Pegula: Both were generally highly regarded as good people and strong communal pillars, with sports acumens which could be described in the most polite possible manner as fucking godawful. Wirtz had blacked out home games while charging some of the highest ticket prices in the league and refusing to pay his stars what they were worth. When I first stepped off the train, the Hawks’ best player was a left wing named Tuomo Ruutu. Ruutu was a good, strong, reliable two-way guy who might be good enough to make the second line on a contender. He was never going to rise up and be either Fearless Leader or Mr. Clutch, though, so making him The Guy on the Blackhawks was effectively dooming them to Detroit’s doorstep. The team had basically destroyed its relationship with the community in every possible way. I had landed in Chicago hoping to use the Blackhawks as a point which would help me settle into the city among the townies better. Instead, what I wound up doing was reminding them Chicago had an NHL team to begin with.
In some cases, I mean that literally. Bill Wirtz blacking out the team’s home games did nothing to improve attendance at United Center. Instead, fans had responded in kind: They simply blacked the team out of their memory banks. Two of my earlier sports memories in Chicago are talking about my sports fandom with one curious stranger at an L stop who had spotted my Hawks shirt and took me through a list of crimes Wirtz had committed against the fans. The other happened at an underground gallery, when the subject of hockey came up with a girl I was talking to. She asked me if I was a fan of the Wolves, Chicago’s minor league hockey team. I said I guess, but I was more into the Blackhawks. She responded by asking me, without the slightest hint of irony, cynicism, or sarcasm, who the Blackhawks were. These days, when people jump on me for not suffering in the long run as a proper Hawks fan, my go-to response is that they didn’t either. Suffering with your team and blacking it out like a citizen of post-Hitler Germany are two different things. Plus, I had 24 years of Sabre-watching in my background. Yeah, just you try telling me I didn’t fucking suffer!
When Patrick Kane first laced up in 2007, there was a sense that the team was going to be competitive very soon. The Hawks managed to surprise most of the NHL by staying in competition for a playoff spot for most of the season. But the big news of the season happened very early on. Bill Wirtz succumbed to the cancer which had afflicted him. With all due respect to Bill Wirtz the human being and his family and friends, the Hawks might not be undergoing a resurgence if he was still running the team. The most striking thing about the way he treated the Blackhawks was what happened once his son, Rocky took the reins. Rocky had apparently learned about the ways to avoid running a hockey team, because upon his takeover, he started doing pretty much the opposite of everything his dad did. There were a few important things which brought about the team’s resurgence, but I think the most important was when they hired John McDonough, the PR master who helped turn the Cubs into a brand name. Flash quick, the Hawks were suddenly showing home games on TV again, throwing fan conventions, partnering with the White Sox, and welcoming their long-alienated legends – including Bobby Hull – back into the fold as team ambassadors. After years of coming off as the local oddball because my favorite sport is hockey, I was suddenly a pioneer and one of the lone straggling fans who never lost faith. After two Stanley Cups, I’m a genius.
I still hold onto the Blackhawks and wholeheartedly cheer for them. Upon their two Stanley Cup victories since I first started following them, I lost my mind. Chicago fans make fun of Buffalo fans – of course, people from Chicago have no sense of civic pride so they get off by bitching about other cities or making fun of them – but I seem to be the only one aware of the fact that, had it not been for South Buffalo native Patrick Kane, there’s a great chance the Stanley Cup drought from 1961 to 2010 still goes on. I love to shove that in peoples’ faces in Chicago. Kane scored the Cup winner in 2010 and won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2013, so it’s perfectly valid to question whether or not the Hawks would have succeeded without him. I’ve come to love the Blackhawks every bit as much as the Sabres.
You would think the recent success of the Blackhawks would quench my desire to see the Stanley Cup visit Buffalo without being brought in by a native on his Day with the Cup. It hasn’t. I’ve experienced a lot of joy with the Sabres’ successes, but nothing to ever match the feeling of two Stanley Cup victories as a Hawks fan. I was still in Chicago for the first one, and I was hit with a sense of such incredible jubilation that, despite it being 11 PM, 80 degrees and humid, and me being showered and ready for bed, I still threw on my clothes – my Hawks sweater and jeans – and ran around for a couple of blocks, stopping to talk – or shout at the top of my lungs, rather – with every fan I met on the way. That Championship means a lot to a franchise and a fanbase, no matter the team or sport. It can change the entire mindset of fans.
It’s safe to say the Sabres can now use the Blackhawks for a building model. In my years in Chicago, I watched a team which would be a forgotten backwoods team had it not been in the third-largest city in the United States rise from the ashes and soar; soar into not just success, but real relevance that it hadn’t experienced in a very long time. Meanwhile, I’ve seen my equally beloved Sabres go the opposite way: From being the pride and joy of Buffalo sports and on the verge of the Stanley Cup, they crashed and burned because their dumbass owner won’t get rid of his dumbass GM. They’ve squandered almost all the public goodwill they picked up during the Conference Finals runs of 2006 and 2007. In the meantime, I can still catch the Blackhawks regularly, since they’re a marquee team again and have taken a place among the true elite of the NHL.