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Guys, I just finished a hell of a book.
The final page was a real tearjerker, the final culmination of an ending years in the making, the last vestige of the heroes’ remarkable accomplishments finally snuffed out.
We were all there for it, too. It brought us together, sometimes by the millions. We sat knee to knee in a crowded arena. We stood shoulder to shoulder in a sweaty park. We watched the heroes from afar. We sang together. We spilled beer on each other. It was great.
The heroes themselves got their names etched into history. Literally etched. And then they drank champagne out of their great prize. Ate cereal out of it. It was great.
I was in high school when I went to my first Blackhawks game, the team suddenly back from a decades-long slumber, a self-inflicted exile from our consciousness. They were good, they were young, they were worth paying attention to, and they became must-see TV.
And then they were everything,
The Madhouse on Madison was the place to be. No one was without a red sweater. No one was without one of those license plates. Everyone and their mother was imitating Doc Emrick. “KAAAAAAAANE! HOOOOOOOOSSAAAAAA! WHAT CHAOS!”
My first taste of covering sports in my hometown was an internship at ESPN 1000 the summer the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup — I know they had three before this, but it’ll always be their first to me — and I took the train in from the suburbs a few nights a week. There were makeshift merch tables everywhere inside and outside the train station. I already had shirseys of the stars. But I couldn’t resist when I saw one of Tomas Kopecky. Sometime later, I wore it to Cleveland and some drunk guy in a bar made fun of it. Dad and I watched Kane slide the puck under the net in Philly. We went to the parade a few days later, so far away from the busses going down Michigan Ave. that joining the sea of people hardly seemed worth it. We watched the rally from ESPN Zone. Remember that place?
When it was time to go back to school, we couldn’t turn away. In the middle of Blues Territory, we were having weekly meat-and-cheese parties — we always served Sharp cheddar — to watch games. It’s there we came up with the brilliant and somehow never-executed idea to have Pat Foley be the voice of the CTA: “YOU’RE ON A RED LINE TRAIN TO HOWARD!” Showing the great responsibility of trying to do homework one night, I fired up my satellite radio receiver (they weren’t doing streaming yet; I had an actual device that plugged into the wall) to hear Toews force OT and nearly complete the first-round comeback against the Canucks.
By next season, fortunately enough, one of those meat-and-cheesers got a job at NBC Sports Chicago and got us a couple kickass, second-row seats for a January game against the Blue Jackets. My friend looked at me, forlorn, when Stalberg’s empty-netter made for a hat trick and I had to jettison the lid I foolishly wore to the game. The season-ticket holders egged me on. I had to toss it. My friend went, “But that’s your hat.” No longer. It belonged to The Madhouse. That summer, still stranded in Missouri, this time as a baseball writer in training rather than a college student, I recorded every game of that Coyotes series. Oh how my access to technology had improved in one season. I somehow avoided spoilers and watched them mornings after nights spent at The K. And good thing I could fast forward through the period breaks. Five of those games went to overtime. Breakfast with the Blackhawks turned into, “It’s 1:30 already!?”
We’ll never forget our first, and I was straight up transported back to 2010 on Thursday when some Flyers fan really misread the room and strolled down W Madison St. in a Pronger jersey. But the second one. My favorite one. Our favorite one? The Streak! Seventeen Seconds! I Love Shinpads! Moments that live in our brains forever, all capitalized like they’re battles from World War I. That generation had The Somme. We had The Night Hossa Went HAM In Calgary.
I hyperbolize, of course, but to be in the 300 level when Shaw beat the hated Canucks in a shootout to keep the streak alive, when Carcillo scored in overtime in what ended up The Streak’s final game, it was incredible. Heck, Dad got Seabrook’s OT winner for his birthday.
The beginning of what would be a nearly decade-long stint at NBC Sports Chicago started during that Cup run. Still trying to be a professional person who dressed for success — that phase didn’t last long — I remember wearing my Sharp shirsey under a button-down shirt. Was I allowed to wear T-shirts in the office? Considering everyone else showed up in gear that night, I found it appropriate to unbutton the top layer when Bickell scored. It was off after Bolland’s goal.
Buy our new “Oh Captain, My Captain” shirt!
Nothing beat standing among all of you in Grant Park that summer. We formed a sea of red on the softball fields. We sweated our asses off. We were like, “Did Keith just quote Mussolini?” We were the biggest bunch of beauties in the league.
Fuckin’ right, Chicago.
Among the best sporting events I ever attended was that Game 5 double-OT winner as they nearly went back-to-back, clawing back in that series with the Kings. Handzus got the game-winner. Handzus! The place was up for grabs. I seriously thought I was going to pass out.
Even after losing that series, they did have a third run for us, and somewhere I still have the Tribune covers from every game of that series against the Lightning. When I was growing up, all six Bulls championships were immortalized in our basement. Dad had framed the Sun-Times from each win. Maybe a similar decorative statement awaits a basement of the future. I have the raw materials.
I skipped that parade, happy enough to work after not working the night they won, like I did the last time. I shared Cup No. 3 with Dad in the basement. For all the trips to the UC, for all those meat-and-cheese parties in college, that was the location of the Blackhawks’ dynasty for me. I’m sure you’ve got one, too, a basement or a living room. Maybe a dive bar or a dorm room. Maybe you dragged a TV outside for playoff games or listened to the radio while waiting for the defrost to melt the ice off your windshield.
These are the parts we played in the book I finished Thursday night, as Toews himself, the leader, The Captain, skated around the ice for the last time. He was the last man standing, the great goal-scorer Kane traded away — to New York, of all places — earlier this year. Toews was the only one left, those memories of summertimes spent glued to playoff hockey so distant at this point. I’ve needed to remind myself and others that the second Cup was 10 years ago. Ten years!
The city hasn’t felt as together since, not some sort of attempt at political commentary or anything, just a seeming fact. The Cubs won the World Series, sure, wrote their own book — one that wasn’t as long and featured far fewer triumphs — but that team belongs to only half the city. The Blackhawks belonged to everyone.
There’s the wildly memorable viral moment from after one of the celebrations, after Wrigleyville spent all night toasting another Cup. A local TV reporter is standing on Clark St., which of course by the time the morning news came on was deserted, and found a guy who just happened to be walking down the street. A Black man, he was asked what he thought about the Blackhawks winning, and he said, “This is how messed up this is. They’ve got Black people loving hockey. Ain’t that something?”
It was something! That’s what that team did, it brought the city together, however briefly, however meaningless it was, a sports team, not something with great import. But it was fun. And we celebrated. And we celebrated together, all communities that makes up this community we call Chicago.
Obviously, there was more to the story. It turns out not everything was worth celebrating, not by a long shot. And I’d be remiss, of course, not to mention that this story is not without its villains, not on-ice rivals but those who opted to put banners over all else. What happened to Kyle Beach and what the Blackhawks’ “brain trust” did to cover it up was heinous and casts everything that happened during those years in a different light. Full stop.
For all my tales of personal joy watching this team win, I must share, too, the personal wrenched gut watching Beach break down while telling his story. I must share that the first thing I think of whenever I see the classic “cartoon-head” championship shirt I bought after the 2013 win and Joel Quenneville’s grinning caricature is what could have been done.
Winning isn’t everything. And don’t let anyone tell you any different.
That’s why I refer to the last 15-ish years as a book. The Rise and Fall of the Chicago Blackhawks. There were glory days, there have been losing days since. And there were heroes and villains, inside and out. It was a ride, and rides don’t go straight up and stay there. Those wouldn’t be very exciting rides, would they?
This book was riveting for what happened on the ice. It was, at times, maddening and infuriating for what happened off it. We cheered, rightfully. We admonished, rightfully. The two can never be separated.
But we all got our sweaters out Thursday night. We all returned for the final paragraph of this 15-year-long page-turner. We said goodbye to Toews, who depending on what happens this offseason might be viewed as The Captain who went down with his ship. We got to cheer the anthem, raise a ridiculously expensive UC beer and sing together one last time:
“It’s one for the Dagger, another for the one you believe.”
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