April 2nd. Detroit Red Wings at Chicago Blackhawks. The stands are a sea of Hawks and Wings jerseys screaming at each other. Five minutes left in the third. The puck is in play, but people have started to stream out of the United Center. It has been a sight not too uncommon for the last decade.
Hockey is a big part of my life. I haven't played competitively since midway through high school when I broke the hell out of my leg skiing, but even though I don't play, I can still notice it's effects on me. The way I think, the way I solve problems and choose to attack situations, even down to the way I make my way through a big crowd, can all be directly linked back to my years playing hockey. Socially I have a rather prominent tendency to be a loner, but being part of a team is where I feel at home.
I've been a Blackhawks fan for as long as I can remember, even before I played hockey. Like most things involving sports, it's something I got from my parents, my dad in particular, but that wasn't the only reason I was into it. My memories of childhood, especially my grade school years, are somewhat fuzzy, but I remember that after transferring in the third grade my life was generally boring, and at times horrible thanks to my well-off bully classmates. The only time I ever really felt I was okay was sitting in the Chicago Stadium (and later the United Center), surrounded by people dressed in red and black, cheering for those people skating around on the ice.
Feeling an attachment to a major sports team is something that many people simply do not understand. The comment I often hear upon a team winning whatever league is "you're not on the team, why do you care?" It's hard to explain to people like this why we feel an attachment to a team when we know few or none of the players or coaches personally. It isn't about watching the game to just pass the time, nor is going to games only an excuse to get away or to hang out with friends. It can be all of those things, but for those of us who understand, it is more than just that. Parents want their children to win their baseball games, when they often don't know anything much about the team or who is on it - how is that different than somebody wanting their favorite team to win?
Being a Blackhawks fan has always had a certain pride about it. With most professional sports leagues, there are a bunch of teams, a few of the bigger older ones that have lots of fans and recognition, rivalries... the usual stuff. With hockey, there is still a large attachment to the history of the league, namely with the steady recognition of the Original Six teams - the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks. Even though the league is far bigger than six teams, the rivalries still exist from the 1940's, and Original Six matchups are constantly the highest-attended NHL matchups.
However, the thing that makes it a little bit different for a Blackhawks fan is the embarassing decade we have had. Since losing in the final round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1994 to the Pittsburg Penguins, our team has spiraled down, and in the 2000s have effectively been the laughing stock of the NHL, the only Original Six team that nobody gave a damn about. Back in the 60s, Chicago was hockey town, but now if you tune into the ten 'o clock sports, you'll be lucky to hear of the Hawks at all, and if you do, it'll be after the Cubs, Sox, Bears, Bulls, and even the Fire. It has been hard to be a Blackhawks fan, and for years, the team was lucky to have a single game that was anyhwere near close to sold out.
But there are those of us who understand. In all those years of low attendance, there was a bit of a bond between the people who did show up. We all why we were there, and we could all count on seeing each other for the rest of the season, because it was damn sure that nobody else would show up. A lot of the games were spent getting angry and booing our own team, and yet we persisted. Cubs fans can understand this a little bit, but their team is the Chicago Freaking Cubs, one of the cornerstones of the MLB, widely recognized and always popular. The Blackhawks, nobody cared about them anymore. The team came close to folding on more than a couple occasions, and if they were not an Original Six team they surely would have years ago. But we kept on going, shitty team, horrible ownership, all of it, we kept pushing through, because we knew one day we would break through all of it. Everyone there remembers how things used to be, and how important it was to each and every one of them, and I don't think anybody who stayed with the team through this horrible decade believed it would not come again.
This season marked the most important turning point this franchise has ever seen, coming back from the brink of destruction seemingly out of nowhere. The old GM, William Wurtz, died before the start of the season, and while he was a great man and truly loved what he did, he did not know how to manage a team in the modern world, and his son Rocky taking over, the new coach, hockey legend Dennis Savard taking over mid-last-season, and the hiring of Cubs president John McDonough has made a stunning difference. The biggest change was in the acquisition of the two best rookies in the NHL, Patrick Kane and Johnathan Towes. Both are 19 years old, yet they have displayed skills that have to be seen to be believed. The entire team has come together in a way few hockey teams have. The city isn't back, but the fans are, nearly every game since Christmas has been within 1000 seats of being sold out.
It's not nearly that simple. We had a horrible January this year, and that made us miss the playoffs by just a couple of points. Everybody is looking forward to next year, it will surely be better, but we're not exactly happy, either. Videos of Savvy talking on the team and their progress this year are notably somber, he seems bummed out. It gives you a weird feeling at first, but if you think about it, it's great that we're not happily looking forward to next season. We're still all pissed off that we're not in the playoffs now, because we should be. The last two months have been the best hockey Chicago has played since 1994, in my humble opinion. We're not happy with this. To be feeling that now, when last year we were as horrible as ever, is a huge deal. It is rare to see things start back in the right direction anywhere near this quick.
I think the last game at the Chicago Stadium was in the April of 1993. It is a tradition at Blackhawks games to clap and cheer during the national anthem, and I distinctly remember the national anthem before that game being the loudest thing I have heard in my life. Maybe I'm crazy, but I thought the anthem before the Wings game on the 2nd was almost that loud, and the UC is a far bigger and more wide-open stadium than the Old Stadium was.
At the end of that game, we beat the Wings 6-2. The team comes back out from the locker room and raises their sticks to the huge crowds giving them a standing ovation. I hear the guy in front of us lean over to somebody and say "I can't believe people were leaving!" It was at that point that I noticed the stadium was still nearly full, and there was no longer one single Red Wings jersey in the crowd.
For those of us there, standing and clapping, it was a very big moment. We don't know if anybody else understands, or even notices, but that doesn't matter, does it?