Thursday, April 17, 2014

My New Team

Long time readers of this blog, (five years old and still going strong thank you very much), know all about my affection for the Chicago Blackhawks hockey club, a team I have rooted for literally since the crib. I owe that affection to my hockey-loving Czech father; some of my favorite early childhood memories revolve around Saturday nights at home watching the team playing their "Original Six" rivals on our Zenith console TV set in living black and white. Usually once or twice a season we'd go to games at the old and sorely missed Chicago Stadium on the west side, usually in the standing room section at the top of the second balcony to watch my heros, Bobby and Dennis Hull, Pit Martin, Pat Stapleton, Keith Magnuson, and goaltenders Glenn Hall and later Tony Esposito. My greatest hero of all was Stan Mikita the great Czechoslovak-born center. The Black Hawks, as the team's name was officially spelled back in the day, won the Stanley Cup in 1961. I was around then, but at just over two years old, I have no recollection of the event. The Hawks were a very good team throughout most of my life, but wouldn't hoist the cup again until 2010. In most of the intervening 49 years, I deeply cared about the team and its ups and downs;  probably the only time I truly lost interest was when their tightwad owner William "Dollar Bill" Wirtz also lost interest. He sold off all the good players and things got so bad at the new United Center, that even the New York Times took notice. Then the old man kicked the bucket and before they laid him in the ground, his son Rocky said that things were about to change.

Rocky Wirtz was true to his word. In one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history, within a couple of years, the Blackhawks went from what ESPN described as the worst franchise in American sports, to winning the Stanley Cup. Last year, three years later, they won it again.

Then the unthinkable happened, I stopped caring. 

Well not entirely, This year I catch the Hawks whenever I can, but I no longer set my clock by them or hang on their every move. If they win I'm happy, but not ecstatic; if they lose I just shrug my shoulders and say "oh well." Some might say: "thank God, the old fogey has finally grown up and given up his childish obsession with sports." Unfortunately that's not the case. In reality, after fifty plus years as a Blackhawks fan, I have found another hockey team to root for. 

The seeds of change were planted a few years ago during a fund raiser for my daughter's pre-school. My wife was on the fund raising committee and her job was to organize a raffle. Among the local institutions she contacted to donate items for the raffle were all the local professional sports teams. Some simply ignored the request, while others sent token items. The Chicago Bulls for example sent several copies of the team yearbook. Not bad until we checked them out and discovered they were about four years old. They obviously used the request to facilitate their spring cleaning, The Blackhawks sent an autographed 8 x 10 photograph of forward Bryan Bickell who at the time was an obscure fourth line forward. Since then he's gained some notoriety as he scored a few big goals during their last championship run, but at the time, no one bothered to bid on the photo or the yearbooks, and my son by default got to keep them.

The only sports franchise that sent anything of value was a minor league hockey team, the Chicago Wolves. They sent tickets and a jersey. My guess is that hardly anyone at the auction cared much for ice hockey, let alone the Chicago Wolves, so we bid on the tickets and the jersey and won both, at a price well below their face value. From the time I took my son to his first game three years ago, he has been a dyed-in-the-wool Wolves fan.

I might add much to my chagrin at the outset because he came out and told me that since the Wolves were the farm club of the Hawks' despised rival, the Vancouver Canucks, he would root for that team whenever they played my beloved Blackhawks. That cut me to the core, even more than when my contrarian son years earlier proclaimed his loyalty to the Cubs. But I "manned" up to it; hockey is hockey after all, still my favorite sport to watch and to play, if badly. Since tickets to Wolves games cost a fraction of what tickets to the big league team cost, we can afford to go to five or six home games every season. We've even gone on the road with the team up to Milwaukee and Rockford, where the Blackhawks' farm club the Ice Hogs play. During those Rockford games, it was tough for me to pick a team to root for, especially since with the exception of their logo, (as ugly as sin), the Ice Hog uniforms are identical to the ones the Blackhawks wear. Rooting for the Wolves against the Hogs felt like cheating on my wife.

But not anymore. Over one million folks, the vast majority of them under 25, wearing the beautiful red, white, and black Indian-head sweater, showed up to the Stanley Cup victory celebration in the Loop last June. Due to their recent success, the Hawks have become the most talked about team in this town. My guess is the vast majority of the folks who showed up at the rally could not have cared less about the Blackhawks a few years ago, before they started to have some success. Truth be told, I have absolutely no problem with that. However, since contrarianism runs in the family, I've begun to switch allegiances.

Unlike the Blackhawks, the Wolves are barely ever mentioned in the media. Even on a local radio station whose sportscast is sponsored by the Wolves, the results of their games are never mentioned. It's not too hard to understand why. In a city with big league teams in every major sport, there's little time or interest to cover a minor league club, even a successful one. In their twenty years of existence, the Wolves have won four championships in the two leagues in which they belonged. They have never had a losing season and have missed the playoffs only four times. Given the history of Chicago sports teams, that's remarkable.

Because it is the feeder league for the NHL, the best hockey league in the world, the American Hockey League to which the Wolves belong, has to be considered one of the premier hockey leagues in the world in its own right. The quality of hockey found in the AHL, while not quite up to NHL standards, is still exceedingly high. While NHL ticket prices can be five to ten times higher than those of the AHL, the quality of the product is not proportionally that much higher.

One of the charms of minor league sports is that the players are much more accessible. After a game you can wait around the gate to get autographs or just shoot the breeze with them. More often than not, the players will oblige, especially for kids. Like players in other minor sports leagues with major league affiliations, there are several categories of AHL players. There are the young, big league-bound players who are just biding their time in the minors before they get the call from upstairs. There are aging NHL players who no longer are up to competing at the major league level, but aren't quite ready to hang up the skates. Chris Chelios and Al Secord, two former Blackhawk stars ended their careers with the Wolves. Then there are the AHL lifers, the guys who for one reason or other, will never get the chance to land a steady gig in the big show. While most of the Wolves tower over me, it was surprising to see that even with my five foot eight inch frame (on a good day), I could look over the heads of some of them. Despite all of the players being great athletes, at times situations beyond their control, (such as their size) prevents them from making it in the majors.

You can't get too attached to minor league players. Minor league clubs are constantly in a state of flux, at the mercy of the big league club who can bring players up or send them back down at will on a moment's notice. What's more, a team can switch affiliations which happened to the Wolves this past off-season. That means all the players that are under contract to the big club, which is most of them, suddenly belong to another team. In our case, the players we were rooting for as Chicago Wolves last year are now playing for the Utica Comets, and the most of the players from the Peoria Rivermen, last year's chief rival, are now playing for the Wolves.

This year the Wolves are affiliated with the St. Louis Blues, another rival of the Blackhawks, a team even more despised than the Canucks. It so happens that as the NHL regular season has just concluded, the Blackhawks' first playoff opponent will be none other than the Blues. The biggest Wolves star this season was a Czech player of Russian descent, named Dmitrij Jaskin. In the last couple of months he's been shuttling between St. Louis and Chicago and now is a regular member of the Blues.

This past Sunday as my boy and I attended our last regular season Wolves game, we discovered two stalwart players were also missing from the lineup. "Where's Keith Aucoin?" I asked my son. Aucoin, at thirty five is an old man for hockey. He's a highly skilled American born center who spent most of his hockey career as a journeyman AHL player with some stints in the NHL. Listed officially at 5'8", Aucoin is one of those players whom I could have eaten the proverbial bowl of soup off his head. For obvious reasons I have an affinity for him.

My son missed Ty Rattie, a 21 year old forward with a bright future, when he failed to show up after the game to sign autographs. It turned out both players had been sent up to St. Louis the night before as the Blues have been decimated by injuries.

That means three of our favorite players who on occasion played together on the Wolves' premier line at the beginning of the season, will likely be playing for the Blues against the Blackhawks in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Which is a bit of a dilemma for me.

Honestly, it's a nice problem to have. While the Blackhawks were competing for the first Stanley Cup in my memory four years ago, I was in a perpetual state of pins and needles and can't say I truly enjoyed the experience until the final moment when Patrick Kane's ridiculously impossible sudden death overtime shot found its way into the back of the net in game six of the finals in Philadelphia. Last year's run when they beat the Boston Bruins was much more enjoyable for me, I was so calm I even managed to miss seeing the two goals scored seventeen seconds apart that won Chicago the championship. I can now go to my grave having seen my favorite team in the world winning not one but two world championships. We Chicagoans have set the bar ridiculously low as far as sports expectations go. Cubs fans should only be so lucky.

As the NHL playoffs begin for the Blackhawks this evening, I'll be rooting for them for sure, but this year I'll also be rooting for old man Aucoin and the youngster Jaskin. Rattie for the time being is back with the Wolves, at least he was as of yesterday and we'll be rooting for him as well as the Wolves have also made it into the playoffs, and my boy and I will have at least one more hockey game to go to this year.

Hockey is hockey after all and in my humble opinion, there is nothing more exciting in sports than playoff ice hockey. Honestly could life get any better than having your two favorite teams in the playoffs?

I hardly think so.

Go Blackhawks.
Go Wolves.


Dmitrij Jaskin, Keith Aucoin and Ty Rattie didn't end up on the Blues' playoff roster and were back with the Wolves for the playoffs. The Blackhawks in a tough series beat the Blues in six games. When that series was over, another former Wolf, centerman Adam Cracknell also came back to Chicago. Despite the return of the NHL players, the Wolves were swept in the second round of the 2014 AHL playoffs by the Toronto Marlies.

The Blackhawks, despite coming back after being down 3 games to 1 in the NHL Western Conference Finals, lost in heart-braking fashion in overtime of game seven to the Los Angeles Kings.

Which leads me to chant the mantra of any true Chicago sports fan: "Wait 'till next year!"

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