Monday, May 31, 2010
I have talked many times about being a fan and with the Blackhawks being now three wins away from a Stanley Cup I have been reflecting quite a bit on the notion of being a fan.
I was a Chicago fan until around 1999 I believe. My Dad was a Blackhawks' fan and so I grew up the same. I cannot remember 1971 or 1973 and while Stan Mikita was my favourite player as a kid I never saw him when he was probably the best player in the NHL in the late sixties nor even when he was one of the best players in the league in the early seventies. I probably saw him play a few times on Saturday nights when Chicago came to Montreal or Toronto but the aging Mikita with back problems that I saw was a far cry from the guy who Jean Beliveau called his toughest opponent just recently.
The Chicago teams I grew up on were relentlessly mediocre. They made the playoffs every year and they got knocked out in the first round pretty well every year. Bobby Hull was a Jet by then and as the core of the club aged (Mikita, Pit Martin, Dennis Hull, Bill White, Stapleton, Magnusson, Tony Esposito) the Hawks treaded water through the seventies. The seventies belonged to the Habs anyhow, with the Flyers' blip in 74 and 75, so its not like I ever felt like I was missing anything.
The eighties brought a new cluster of talent to the Hawks, another decade of playoff appearances and another decade of clubs that, for the most part, were one round and out. When they did progress further then they, like the rest of their Norris brethren, the Jets, the Flames (except for 86), the Flyers and the Bruins, pretty well everyone in the league, had their heads handed to them by the Oilers.
These Hawks' teams could score and they had some nice talent. Denis Savard and Steve Larmer, Al Secord, Eddie O., Troy Murray, Tony Tanti up front, Doug Wilson and Keith Brown on the blue. Yes sir they sure could put the puck in the net. Problem is their goaltending was usually brutal and their blueline was thin and most of their forwards couldn't check their hats, Murray and Larmer being notable exceptions.
Steve Larmer was a tremendous hockey player. Thirty five to forty goals a year, outstanding defensively, killed penalties. Think Hossa although in terms of their styles they certainly were different. Total package though. Plus he never missed a damn game.
I remember one playoff year the Hawks met the Oilers and scored six goals on them in one game. Oilers doubled that number.
Quality D being played. ;)
The problem the Hawks had was ownership. Bill Wirtz was awful and the guy who had his ear for thirty years, Bob Pulford, was a terrible manager. The nice cluster they put together in the early eighties was never augmented and the problems the club had were never addressed and so when Mike Keenan came to Chicago in the late eighties the Hawks had been dying on the vine for nearly two decades.
Keenan's arrival marked a new beginning for Chicago. In 1989 they made the playoffs at the last possible moment when Murray stripped poor Todd Gill of the puck in overtime and scored on a breakaway to put the his club though and knock the Leafs out.
Poor Todd Gill. Never did a more heart and soul player make more obvious brutal mistakes than that guy.
Playing the style that Keenan had brought to Philly, hard driving, physically punishing, crazy forechecking, the Hawks won two rounds before falling to the Flames in the conference finals.
The next year they returned to the conference finals where they fell to the Oilers in six games.
Keenan was putting together the best Chicago team in two decades. In net were Ed Belfour and Dom Hasek (this was before Hasek was Hasek of course) with hotshot junior Jimmy Waite in the wings. He brought Chris Chelios and Steve Smith in on the blue to join the reliable Brown and up front there was young hotshot Jeremy Roenick, the dependable Larmer and the veteran Michel Goulet, Brent Sutter and Dirk Graham and a host of big grinding forwards who pounded on their opponents, guys like Brian Noonan and Stephane Matteau, who would later, along with Larmer, win a Cup with all of the old Oilers on the Rangers.
The Hawks were fast and they played the game with an edge. They were a fun team to cheer for. In 1991 they finished first overall and they managed to get upset in the first round but the following year they marched through the playoffs, only to get swept by the Pens in the final.
Regardless they had arrived. A powerhouse club with some great young players and a wonderful core of veterans. The future was bright.
And then Pulford reared his ugly head.
A year later Keenan resigned, forced out by Wirtz's man, and the long sorry decline began. Larmer soon followed, the ultimate professional, as the Hawks refused to pay him, and the same fate would befall Roenick and Belfour. The club fell into disarray and the remaining veterans were shipped out. The club sank back into mediocrity.
And that's where they lost me. I could accept the years of so-so teams, the playoff failures, the obvious holes in the roster. There were the Habs and then the Islanders and then the Oilers. Far better clubs than the Hawks were getting pummelled. What the hell could you do?
Ironically it took the club becoming good to drive me away. The taste of success made Pulford's return to prominence in the front office impossible to take and as the nineties wore on and the club descended into the mire and management did nothing but make the team worse, well, then I had enough. Enough of the best players going away. Enough of the terrible drafting (in one era spanning over a decade they drafted a total of two forwards who scored over twenty goals in a season). Enough of Pulford's sullen visage.
I had been a fan for all of my life and the only time the team was any good was when Pulford was not in charge. And then he got himself put back into charge.
It wasn't a conscious decision, to stop cheering for Chicago. I stopped caring bit by bit and then one day I was watching the Hawks play the Oilers (I believe it was 1999 as until 2006 I had never seen the Oilers win a playoff series as 'my team') and the Oilers scored and I was happy. And then I realized that I was not a Chicago fan. I was an Oilers' fan.
When Bill Wirtz died and his son took over one of the first things that happened was that Bob Pulford was retired and at that moment I knew the Hawks would be back at some point and it really didn't take that long.
With the Oilers being out of the running by Halloween I have been hoping for a Chicago run all season and as the playoffs have progressed I have been watching more and more and I have been getting more and more excited.
Its not the same of course. Its nowhere as close to 2006. Its like meeting an old lover and seeing that she is doing very well and realizing that any of the pain from the past is long gone, there is no bitterness there and so when you part you smile and you wish her well and you mean it.
Three more Chicago wins would be awfully nice.
Posted by Black Dog at 2:25 PM