Monday, May 31, 2010

Chicago


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.

15 comments:

hunter1909 said...

Amazing that you can't simply jump back aboard and cheer the team that looks like it's about to win the cup.

I more or less stopped watching hockey in the early to late 90's because I never saw Doug Weight and Bill Guerin as anything more than Walmart versions of Messier/Anderson - let alone Gretzky/Kurri.

Even now Oilers are that girl with the great personality - despite people thinking it's all about to blossom.

Black Dog said...

Hunter - well I am cheering for them to win it all but its not the same, they're not my team anymore, can't pretend that they are something that they are not

Sure hope they win though. It would make my old man pretty happy. Next year will be fifty years married for him and Mom and the last time Chicago won the Cup was only a few days before they got married.

A lifetime ago.

Darren said...

I just want Chicago to win so I can have my last name on the Cup!+
And would piss my brother off that Hossa won.

Doogie2K said...

Your trajectory of 'Hawks fandom is running dangerously close to my own with the Oilers. Just missed the good times, came aboard during the mediocre times, saw the '06 run, then had it all shit upon time after time, and slowly falling out of love, the bitter taste of defeat all the stronger after the sweetness of true, if fleeting, success.

Maybe that's why I'm hoping the Flames leave Kelly Kisio alone: I saw what happened to the Rebels after Sutter left and don't want the same fate to befall the Hitmen. I need a team that won't betray me sometime in my life.

shepso said...

Pat,
I know this is a few days late, but my life has been a bit of a gong show since returning from Europe...

I just wanted to express my most heartfelt sympathies to the loss of this page's namesake. Your tribute to him was as well written and heartfelt as a eulogy to any friend could have been, and I know all of your friends, real life and virtual, are mourning the loss of what sounds like the best dog a man could have had.

In terms of matters of hockey, that first game was a heck of a way to start the series-this is going to be a fun ride. I hope the 'Hawks are able to do it, but despite the loss, Philly has a lot of good going for them right now. I'm glad you're getting to have this last dance with your lost love. Hopefully she won't let you down this time.

Baroque said...

Chicago is my second team, too - it's the team that my mom grew up cheering for. They won a Cup when she was in high school in the northern suburbs, and half the girls in her class had crushes on Bobby Hull, and she hated Bill Wirtz with a passion.

It would be a wonderful thing for all the fans who have followed the team for decades, or decades ago and then lost touch.

I want so much to see a championship banner go up next year, and have the Stanley Cup spend time around Chicago this summer.

Black Dog said...

Thanks Shepso, I appreciate the kind words.

Hawks are halfway there and Hossa has probably been their best player so far in the series, although Niemi was pretty damn sharp tonight. Flyers certainly have looked like anything but underdogs so far though.

Hawks win on Wednesday pretty well ices it, interesting to see what sort of game they come up with. They still haven't played their best imo.

macaotim said...

This post scared the shit out of me. I thought that after the - - - you were going to say that the Oilers have broken your spirit too, and that you were once again a Hawks fan and that your blog was changing forever.

That would suck.

God bless whoever scored on that fateful day in 1999! Was it German Titov...oh please God, tell me it wasn't Titov!?!?!?

speeds said...

BD, I also want to pass along belated condolences; it's never easy to lose a pet.

*****

When I think of the Blackhawks, my memory goes to Roenick breaking into the league. I guess he's an example of a player who peaked early, at least offensively, he averaged over 100 pts per season from age 20-23, and never topped 80 after that. Although, if I recall correctly, the league was higher scoring at that time

Must have been something to see him play his 28 games for Hull in the Q, although again that league was higher scoring at that time. Puts it into perspective how good Crosby really was one year younger, in his draft year. Pretty similar PPG, but the league environment was quite different.

Roenick's post draft year

Crosby's pre draft year

Scott Reynolds said...

Good stuff Pat. I've been really impressed with the Flyers so far, truth be told. They certainly haven't been the push-overs one might expect from a not-quite-90-point team in the Eastern Conference. I do hope the Hawks win though. The league is in an odd place right now with the cap. Most of the best players on this team are barely twenty but this is probably their best chance to win as a group. But my hope is more for Hossa than the young guys. I just think he's a great player.

Black Dog said...

Tim - no worries ;)

The Oilers were my second team over the years, I disliked the Habs and the Isles and with the Oilers they were a Canadian team and they were a wonderful club to watch so every year once Chicago bit the dust, usually quite early, then I would cheer them on.

And Smyth became my favourite player once Larmer retired and he began to become a player so it was a pretty easy fit.

Black Dog said...

speeds - thanks Speeds, I appreciate it

It would be interesting to look back and find out who Roenick was playing against those first few years. The Hawks could run Brent Sutter and Dirk Graham on one line and Matteau and Noonan on another and they could check the other team into the ground but Roenick's wingers were Goulet and Larmer (hall of famer and a guy who is borderline afaiac, at least in the HHOF definition of HOF) so he had two guys who could really flat out play. Certainly helped. Don't know if Chelios and Smith would have played with him although those two played half the game so he probably got some time with them.

Roenick was an unbelievable player, just reckless as hell. Not only the dead puck era but injuries, the quality of his team and I suspect a penchant for the nightlife all conspired to make those early seasons impossible to replicate.

Black Dog said...

Thanks Scott. I have been foloowing your scoring chances work, btw, and while I don't comment often, kudos on that. Its great stuff.

I have really been surprised by the Flyers as well. I really didn't think that they would be this competitive and at this point it seems that goaltending may be the difference. It certainly was last night.

They're not homefree yet but now the Flyers really have no margin for error. They can only run four D out there and I wonder if they are starting to tire. Hawks can throw a lot at you - its not like the Habs or Bruins or Devils, all teams with not a lot of depth and a little smaller too.

And I think up front there are depth issues for the Flyers too. JVR has already been dropped and Giroux has looked like a rookie and you have Asham and Carcillo in your top nine as well.

Not great.

I hope the Hawks finish them quickly. I have not been as engaged in a playoff year like this for a long long time, excepting 2006. I just hope it ends well for them.

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