I didn’t go to a Blackhawk hockey game until I was in college. You could pin me as part of the generation that Bill Wirtz lost due to his refusal to put home hockey games on television. Instead of watching Denis Savard, Doug Wilson, Steve Larmer and others during my youth I spent time obsessing on a future baseball career that would never happen. I watched the White Sox even though they were pretty bad for most of the 80s. There was Walter Payton, and that 85 Bears thing that happened. And there was a guy on the Bulls I watched grow into the best basketball player on the planet. Hockey just wasn’t that big on the radar in my house as a kid.
The 90s started to change that. One of my best friends as a kid, Jeff Easton (rest in peace), was a huge hockey guy and got me to play a little street hockey. He asked a couple times if I wanted to go to the Stadium to see a game, but for some reason I just wasn’t into it back then. I didn’t know what I was missing.
Going away to college in the mid 90s, in the middle of the Jordan era Bulls Championship run, things started to change. The Bulls spoiled Chicago. Six championships in eight years was too much. Sure the first three were amazing, then after Jordan’s minor league detour with the White Sox (no theories on why this happened surprised me) the fourth one was pretty good too. But it was during this time my attention started shifting. Was it boredom with the Bulls? Maybe. Was I starting to see things with the NBA that bothered me? Probably. Was I just looking for something new? Perhaps.
My buddy John is a big reason I started watching more hockey. We grew up together, went to school together since first grade. We both went away to college to the same school, but it wasn’t until Junior year that we ended up being roommates off campus. By this time the Stadium was torn down and paved over and the United Center was the Bulls and Hawks home. I went to the Stadium several times to see the Bulls, but not once to see the Hawks. When the United Center opened, I started going to hockey games, and it would be years after the opening of the UC that I would make it back to a basketball game.
The Hawks had a good team going in the mid-nineties while living in the shadow of Jordan. But the players they had grew on me. Chelios. Belfour. Roenick. I thought there was a possibility of another championship team over there. Those guys were what hooked me into hockey. I jumped on the bandwagon just a few years before that core was blown up and Wirtz plunged the franchise into what was voted on as the worst professional franchise of the four major sports.
But it was through Roenick Belfour and Chelios that I grew to love the game. The speed at which guys could skate, the brutality of the bodychecking, the quick releases of wrist shots and the explosiveness of slap shots, and I’ll admit at the time I loved an occasional bout of dropped gloves on the ice. John had a VHS tape of Bob Probert vs. Tie Domi fights that we would watch and go nuts over.
The early 2000’s were pretty bleak times for the Hawks. Sure there was Tony Amonte, Eric Daze (when healthy), and a few other guys to cheer for, but for the most part it wasn’t like the Hawks were all that great to watch (The A-B-C Line!). In 2002 I bought a condo four blocks east of the United Center, walking/stumbling distance. There were nights I’d get home from work, not have anything in the refrigerator to eat for dinner so I’d just walk down to the UC, buy a $15 300 level ticket, get an italian beef sandwich and go pick my seat in a half empty stadium for the game.
A lot of times John would come over and we’d go to a game, get our 300 level seats and by the end of the game we’d be down by the glass. Wasn’t often we’d see a win. We didn’t care too much, there was nothing we could do about it. It even got to the point we were going to games to see the OTHER team come to town. Then there were the Detroit games where there would be more Red Wing fans in the arena than Blackhawk fans.
Then, a labor strike wiped out a whole season in 04-05. I kinda thought that might be it for me as a hockey fan. Bad team, poorly run league, why did I bother? And hey, 2005 was a good baseball season for Chicago on the South Side. Maybe it was time to shift over to baseball and forget about hockey for a while.
2005 turned out to be a one-and-done year for the Sox. Sure, there was the 2006 hangover, but that was it. Hockey came back. In O6 they drafted some kid named Toews with the third pick. In 07 they got the first pick in the draft for the first time in franchise history and picked up Patrick Kane. Over the years Dale Tallon was piecing together a pretty decent hockey team with guys like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Patrick Sharp.
’07-08 saw the start of the Kane & Toews era with their rookie years. Even as rookies, they were fun to watch. The year started out with our normal routines of buying cheap 300 level seats and sitting pretty much anywhere we wanted. But by the end of the year, with the Hawks actually making a late run at a playoff birth for the first time in years, the UC was filling up again. Things were changing, you could feel it.
That summer I realized that by the end of the season the days of walking up to the ticket office buying cheap 300 level tickets and having your choice of seats were going to be soon over. The Hawks had three ticket plans available: full season (couldn’t afford it), 21 games (eh, still can’t really afford it), and 9 games (bingo). John & I bought our first 9 game plan in 2008-09 and have had them ever since. The first several years in section 313 Row 11 Seats 5-6. We occasionally bought other games in addition to that plan too, but we secured our seats in what was becoming a night-in-night-out full house. They even sold out Wrigley Field on January 1st against the Red Wings.
They made the playoffs that year, and the Hawks allowed their 9 game plan holders two tickets to a game in each round. That year was a blast. Kane owned Kiprusoff and the Flames in the first series. We saw Havlat with that incredible OT goal winner. We couldn’t have asked for more, but then the Hawks started their run of amazing playoff series’ against the Canucks and beat them. Then all that stood between them and the Cup Final was the Red Wings. Well, that didn’t turn out to be, but John & I did see the only game they won in the series at least. Anything more was asking too much too soon from a young team I guess.
The next year, 09-10, we knew we were watching a good team. Our 9 game plan got us a chance at Stanley Cup tickets for the first time in my life. We ended up going to Game 1, basically because we didn’t want to wait any longer than that. First row in the 200 level. Great seats. It was a wild back and forth game the Hawks eventually won. John almost got thrown out as he was standing up too much. “We know it’s exciting, sir, but can you please sit down?” said the usher who was called by the poor souls behind us.
We saw a Stanley Cup game. The Hawks would eventually win the series and hoist the Cup. But there was one thing missing. They won it in Philadelphia. We wanted to see it at home.
In 2012-13, after another work stoppage wiped out half the season, the Hawks were back in the Cup Final after a record-setting run in the abbreviated regular season. When the chance to buy tickets came about, John and I discussed it and we agreed let’s try and see them win the cup. We skipped the chance at Game 1 and 2, and against the Bruins it was unlikely they’d wrap it up in five. We had two tickets to Game 7. And if it wasn’t for that 17 second span late in the third period of Game Six in Boston, we would have gone to Game 7. Instead, the Hawks won the Cup and we got refunds for unused tickets. I wasn’t complaining.
Now here in 2015, playoffs roll around. I don’t seem to be as into the playoffs this year. Something how the Hawks played most of the second half of the season I really didn’t think they had what it was going to take to win four series. They get by Nashville. They sweep Minnesota. Anaheim takes them to seven games but the Hawks still manage to move on. I was amazed it was all happening again. Up next, Tampa Bay; and unlike previous Cup runs the Hawks would start on the road this time. So instead of 1-2-5-7 at home, it’s a choice of 3-4-6. John & I once again decide the best way to get the most out of these ridiculously expensive seats was to try and go for a possible Cup clincher. Unlikely the Hawks would sweep, which only left Game Six left at home. Sure, Game Six is when they beat Philly and Boston on the road, it could very much likely happen again this year. Let’s go for Game Six.
Every game they take the ice you hope that they win. But if you want to see them win the Cup at home, you have to hope they lose two games along the way. Tough position to be in. The teams end up splitting Games 1-2 in Tampa, come up to Chicago and do the same here. Tampa wins Game Three to take a 2-1 lead, so there’s the two games we needed to lose to get to a clincher in Six situation. But now the Hawks can’t lose another game and have to win three games in a row for that to happen.
Game Four, Win. Game Five in Tampa, Win. Here it was, Game Six, at home with a chance to hoist the Cup. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for for as long as we’ve been fans. This is the moment we’ve been paying for partial season ticket plans for all these years. The chance was finally here.
It took me two hours to drive from Channahon to the Bottom Lounge. A monsoon swept through the city, practically shutting traffic down, flooding streets in some areas. Nothing in this journey ever seems easy. Got to Bottom Lounge to meet John, the long drive severely cutting into normal pregame rituals of a couple pints and a pulled pork sammich. We jump on the shuttle bus from the bar to the UC, once again fighting a downpour from the bus to the UC doors. I thought ahead, put the tickets in plastic bags so if it did rain they wouldn’t get wet. Sure, a few hundred dollars worth of iPhone and cameras were soaked in my pockets, but the tickets were safe.
Grab a sandwich and a Labatt in Ironworks and after eating head to our seats. The Anthem is one of the loudest I’d ever heard. The puck hasn’t even dropped and the Split the Pot is over 80 grand.
No score at the end of the 1st. Chances both ways, missed opportunities both ways. Happy to be tied, actually. At one point early in the game a regular promotion on the scoreboard says if the Blackhawks win free Big Mac at McDonalds tomorrow. Yep, that’s what we’re playing for.
Late in the 2nd, tension eases as Duncan Keith puts a rebound of his own shot past Bishop. Hawks strike first. Here we go. Hawks close out the period and go to the dressing room up 1-0. 20 minutes to go for the Cup. Split the Pot over 100k.
I worried the third period would feel like a 20 minute penalty kill as the Hawks go defensive and try to protect a one goal lead. Hell, neither team has had a two goal lead the entire series. But it really doesn’t feel that way. Chances both ways, Crawford is playing well but also, that crossbar Stamkos hit… boy was he snakebitten this series. Just as much as Patrick Kane was.
Patrick Kane. Close to fifteen minutes into the third period, Saad takes the puck away in the Lightening zone skates it down the ice. He feeds a nifty behind the back pass to Brad Richards who skates in toward Bishop with Kane on his wing, stick raised waiting for the pass (almost like that OT clincher against the Kings a few years ago, you knew what was going to happen before it happened on that play). Richards with maybe his finest pass as a Blackhawk while never even looking in Kane’s direction, slides it over to 88 who buries a one-timer past Bishop. Two goal lead. In this series might as well have been 20. Even with a Desjardins penalty the only thing left was to count off the time. Hawks win. Yard sale of gloves and sticks on the ice as players mob each other. Crowd is insane, yet there’s a sense of relief in the air too. This is what we were hoping for. This is what we were waiting for. And it was finally here. Handshake line. Red carpets being unrolled on the ice for the hardward about to be passed out.
With all the crap weather in Chicago that night, the Cup actually arrived a little late. There was a little longer delay as players and coaches mulled around the ice and fans in the stands stood on their feet waiting for the silver to arrive. First the Conn Smythe to Duncan Keith. 2010 I almost thought Byfuglien should have won it over Toews. 2013 Crawford probably should have won it over Kane. No question about it this year. Keith was a work horse. And ended up with the Cup clinching goal to boot.
Then the Cup arrived. The long walk from the zamboni entrance around the boards to the benches and then out toward center ice. Bettmen says words, a smattering of traditional BOO!’s to the commissioner but not that many. Toews skates over, gets his picture with Gary and the Cup, and then hoists it overhead in front of 20,000+ cheering fans.
And I was one. Finally.
First teammate he hands it off to was Kimmo Timmonen, a somewhat expensive trade deadline acquisition in that we didn’t get a whole lot from Kimmo, but the 40 year old, 16 year veteran battled back from possible career ending blood clots just for this very moment. From there Vermette and Desjardins got to raise the Cup for their first time as well before it started going around to the Hawks that had done it before. But again, never in front of the home crowd. I just stood there, up in the 300 level watching guys in red jerseys skate around with a silver cup above their heads.
It will never be better than this. This is what we’ve waited for. Purchased tickets for. Sat in front of the tv for countless hours through the ups and downs of games, seasons, playoff series. Payoff.
After the players, coaches, trainers, front office crew, etc. all had their turn and most of the broadcast feeds left the ice the doors opened for family and friends of the team to come out and spend some time on the ice. John & I made our way down to the 100 level seats as people began to file out. Some players stuck around with their families. Keith skating around with one of his little kids. The Swedes huddled off to the side together. Occasionally a player would skate by with the Cup to bring it to their family for a personal picture. Media scrambling to get interviews with whoever they can, and Toews especially patiently taking every one. There was probably a more raucous scene in the dressing room with the obligatory champagne showers and cigars and beers, but out on the ice it was relatively calm. Maybe if it was this teams first Cup clincher instead of the third it would have been more wild, but this just seemed to be a bit more subdued of a party out on the ice.
It was a blast to witness. Something I’ll likely never have a chance to see again.
And as we started to make our way to the door and out into the rainy Chicago night, we pass by Pat Boyle and Jamal Myers doing their post-game thing. I didn’t quite line up John like I was hoping for the crushing check on live tv.