Monday, May 24, 2010

Provenance of a sports fan

As the Blackhawks are about to enter the Stanley Cup Finals, we come upon the rare prospect of a Chicago sports team entering a championship series. With that comes the uproar over who is a real fan and who is a Johnny-come-lately, a gate crasher, a poseur, or to put it in hockey terms, someone who thinks that icing is just something you put on a cake. This is akin to church at Christmas and Easter time when the regulars grumble over the gall of people who only show up during the holidays, taking up precious seating and parking spots.

I suppose there is something to all this. The die hard, be it a sports fan or church goer who pays his dues day after day, year after year suffering through losing seasons, or sermons, being inconvenienced by people who only turn out to reap the spoils. Or to use another hockey term, the cherry pickers.

Sadly I have to admit to being mostly a fair weather sports fan myself. My philosophy is that life is too short to put all one's emotional energy into a lousy team, especially one whose members are multi-millionaires whose loyalties lie with the highest bidder. The Sunday in fall when it becomes clear that the Chicago Bears have no chance always brings great relief to me as I no longer feel obligated to waste a perfectly good day off in front of the tube watching over-paid grown men play a kid's game.

The same is true for baseball, hockey and basketball, all sports for which I have a great passion, but not enough to live and die for a particular team as some fans.

Of course all that is out the window when one of my teams shows promise. I lose all perspective about the business of sport and concentrate on the drama, the beauty and the pure joy that sports brings to my life. Call it love of the game if you will. Few things are as exciting or as beautiful to watch as great athletes doing what they do best, whether it be a perfectly turned double play, an ally-oop pass, a sixty yard bomb, or a goalie stopping a 100 mph one timer from the slot.

So am I worthy to be aboard the Blackhawks' bandwagon now even though until last year, I admittedly had not given them much thought for well over a decade?

I asked myself that same question back in 1986 when the Bears won the Super Bowl, in the nineties when the Bulls won all their championships, and most recently in 2005 when the White Sox won the World Series. Those years I followed my teams closely, my life practically revolved around them. I shared in their ups, and died a little with the downs. Today in leaner times I still keep up with them but mostly only to listen for the score following a game.

I can't recall the exact time when I became a Bears fan, I remember listening to them in on the car radio in the late sixties and early seventies when broadcasting "legend" Jack Brickhouse and former player turned gossip columnist Irv Kupcinet were the announcers. Their scintillating commentary make today's counterparts sound downright Shakespearean. Every year the great Gale Sayers would have a few 100 yard games before getting hurt. Quarterback Bobby Douglas could throw the ball 90 yards but couldn't hit the side of a barn from 20. The immortal Abe Gibron who liked to give interviews while sitting on his throne behind closed doors (if you catch my drift) was one of the more memorable head coaches. I can't say I ever seriously followed the Bears until late in the Walter Payton era in the early eighties when they were a truly great team for one year at least. I became a Bulls fan in the early seventies when they made several serious attempts at the NBA championship. And as I mentioned in this space earlier, I became a White Sox fan in high school simply because they were way cooler than the Cubs.

In all three cases I came to these teams entirely on my own, I didn't inherit them.

This is definitely not the case with the Blackhawks. Thinking about it the other day, my very earliest memory is being in my first home, a small apartment on Humboldt Boulevard, watching the Hawks (back then they were the Black Hawks) on our black and white Zenith TV. For years that was our Saturday winter evening ritual as the Hawks played their five NHL "original six" rivals. Any worthy Blackhawk fan will have no trouble dating me as I mention the names Kenny Wharram, Pierre Pilotte, Ken Hodge, Phil Espositio and Glenn Hall, all Black Hawks at the time. Of course the real stars of that team back then and for many years to come were Bobby Hull and my first and perhaps greatest sports idol of all time, Stan Mikita.

Ice hockey was THE game in our house as my Czechoslovak father could not tolerate baseball or American football. To him those sports consisted of standing around, scratching and spitting, very briefly interrupted by moments of fleeting action.

My father loved hockey more than any other sport, especially the kind of game which was rare at that time in the NHL. He loved fast skating, crisp passing and skilled stick work, the kind of game he grew up with back home. Here hockey was much more physical, lots more body checking, dump and chase offense, and of course the fighting which he couldn't stand. Nonetheless my dad rooted for the team of his adopted home town and passed on a love of that team to his son. He was not in any way a home team booster, he called it as he saw it and was not at all interested in making excuses for them. None of this nonsense about blaming a loss on a blown call or bad bounce. If the other team was better, he'd say it point blank, even if the Hawks won the game. To him style and sportsmanship were more important than the score.

We'd go to maybe one or two games a year, almost always standing room in the much missed Chicago Stadium. It was there that we witnessed Bobby Hull's 499th and 500th goals, among other great moments. In those years, the Hawks were the toughest ticket in town. Unlike other sports franchises in Chicago in those very lean years, the Black Hawks consistently fielded a good team. They always made it into the playoffs, and made it all the way to the Finals in 1971, 1973 and 1992. Unfortunately they were never quite good enough to win it all. Then in the mid-nineties, their tightfisted owner "Dollar" Bill Wirtz decided to cash in and sell off all their stars. Wirtz's son Rocky took over the team upon the old man's death a couple of years ago and brought a new spirit and commitment to the team ending 15 years of misery for their loyal fans.

As I look at the current Chicago Blackhawks, my father certainly would have loved this team. They are the fastest skaters and the best puck handlers in the NHL, hands down. And by and large they are an admirable group of guys who are great team players.

My dad had very particular reasons for liking or disliking particular players. He'd certainly admire up front guys like Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith. He'd no doubt be a big fan of both the skills and personality of the tacitern captain Jonathan Toews. He'd have reserved Slavic pride in the Slovaks Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky but certainly would not fail to lament that the Czech Martin Havlat, traded away a year ago, was better in his opinion. While he'd be an admirer of the skills of Patrick Kane, he would bemoan his habit of wearing his mouth guard on the outside as well as some of his off ice behavior. Conversely he'd no doubt like the gentle giant Dustin Byfuglien as a person, but not like his style of camping out in front of the net screening the opposition's goaltender and waiting to be fed the puck.

I can just hear our argument:
"He reminds me of Phil Esposito who I never liked." he'd say.
"But 'Big Buff's' intimidation in front of the net was the key to the Hawk's success in the playoffs up to this point, besides he's just doing what's asked of him" I'd say.
"It is selfish to just wait in front of the net for someone to pass the puck to you" retorts Dad.
"So what if it helps the team?" I'd remark.
At which point he would stop speaking to me for about a week.

The Blackhawks' opponent in these Stanley Cup finals will be the Philadelphia Flyers. Back in the seventies their dirty play earned them the nickname the "Broad Street Bullies". This version of the Bullies was only a .500 team in the regular season but have played impressively in the playoffs, most notably coming back from being down three games to none against Boston, and a 3-0 score in gave seven to win the series. They have just beaten the Montreal Canadiens who had a magical playoff run of their own upsetting both the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the team with the best record in the NHL this year, the Washington Capitals.

Still the Blackhawks will be huge favorites to win the Cup, which makes this lifelong Chicago fan more than a little nervous. Last season no one expected anything of them and they surprised everyone by making it to the Conference Championships. This year their motto has been "One Goal", clearly stating that anything short of bringing the Cup to Chicago for the first time since 1961 would be a tremendous disappointment.

But win or lose it has been a great ride and the team's success has given this city a reason to celebrate after a few dismal years of a terrible economy, an increase in violent crime and an overall feeling of discontent.

I'll be watching intently as this potential championship would mean more to me than the Bears', the Bulls' and the White Sox' championships combined. The Blackhawks are still my team as they have been my entire life. It would mark the first time that I share a Chicago championship with my own son who is now a huge sports fan, something I was never able to do with my own father. If in a week or two Messers Sharp, Toews, Byfuglien, Hossa, Kane, Niemi and the rest of the team who proudly wear the Indian Head sweater hoist Lord Stanley's Cup over their heads, we'll put "Chelsea Dagger" on at full volume, and looking toward the stars, I'll tip a glass of Czechvar in honor of my dad, toasting him with a hearty "nazdravy, Tati."

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