There is nothing quite like the camaraderie of hockey fans. Understand, I’m not insisting it’s superior to the camaraderie of Cubs fans in the Wrigley Field bleachers, or Bears fans tailgating outside Soldier Field, or White Sox fans watching a road game from Puffer’s in Bridgeport. But it’s extraordinary and unique, especially in Chicago, where hockey fans are so mistreated by the Blackhawks ownership. The people who continue to come out to the United Center to see the Hawks–drinking in the stadium bars beforehand, smoking in the corner enclaves between periods, bringing their kids along to instruct them in the ways of the hockey aficionado–are among my favorite fans in the city. But they suffer from an inferiority complex, and they’ve been given yet another bad team to root for this season. It’s raw and young, as owner Bill Wirtz hunkers down for next year’s labor war with a roster that’s short on big-name free agents and has been decimated by injuries to boot.
Under stern coach Brian Sutter, the Hawks nevertheless came out of the chute well prepared, and they were tied for first place in the NHL’s Western Conference Central Division about a month into the season. But then they fell into a 14-game winless streak. The team’s turmoil was not only on the ice but in the executive suites, as the Wirtz family sacked general manager Mike Smith and gave the job back to Bob Pulford, who didn’t seem to want it, even as he took umbrage with reports that he was just keeping the seat warm while Dale Tallon, a former player reassigned from the broadcast booth to the executive branch, was groomed for the position. In short, the team was in chaos from top to bottom, and attendance, even among the Hawks’ faithful, showed it.
So if I wanted to wait for a halfway decent crowd to be in the stands before I went out to a game, I was forced to take drastic measures–that is, go to a game when the UC would be halfway filled with fans rooting for the opponents, namely the Detroit Red Wings, who draw as many people to Chicago as the Cleveland Indians used to when they were selling out Jacobs Field by the season. In fact I went to last Thursday’s game with a Detroit fan, my friend Weeza, a dedicated Wings backer who landed in Chicago several years ago. She’s now a regular Section 8 rooter at Fire soccer games, and she suffered as much as anyone over the Cubs, but she can still gush about the beer-and-vomit ambience of Joe Louis Arena. (Not coincidentally, Weeza is a computer maven who passed me the name of one Steven Bartman, through one of those six-degrees-of-separation connections so common to the Internet, before even the Sun-Times had posted the name on its Web site.)
Weeza is tall and can seem intimidating. As we had a drink in a ground-level bar before moving to our seats in the upper deck, she pricked up her ears at a conversation between a Hawks fan and his date. The guy kept insisting he was five-foot-ten so his girlfriend couldn’t be, even though he was looking up at her.
“He’s five-eight,” Weeza said. “She’s definitely five-ten in heels.”
“The natural insecurity of the Hawks fan,” I said.
“Not pretty,” Weeza decided. By the time we left the bar a few minutes later the guy had gotten a chair for his date but made sure he had to stand, so that he now towered over her. We had a laugh at that as we headed upstairs, where we found we were seated in the last row of stands in a corner, right next to four-year-old Josh and his dad.
“Now we have to watch what we fucking shout,” Weeza said.
“We’ll move down later,” I said, “after we see what’s open down below.”
Josh and his dad turned out to be good company. Right before game time, the dad slung the boy smoothly over the back rail, then stepped down a row to meet him at the aisle so that no one would have to get up to let them pass to go to the bathroom.
“You’ve done this before,” I said.
“Nope, it’s his first game,” said the dad, and I had to admire both his agility and his consideration. When they got back, Josh was awestruck throughout, even though he did have trouble determining which team he was supposed to root for. The fans didn’t make it any easier for him, as there were almost as many Wings fans in Wings jerseys as Hawks fans in Hawks jerseys. To complicate matters, Weeza, like many Wings fans, was wearing a red sweater to show her support; but the Hawks wore their red road jerseys. A woman in a Wings jersey somehow hooked a ride on one of the two Zambonis resurfacing the ice, and when she was shown on the stadium TV Hawks fans booed. For the first few minutes of the game Wings fans cheered their team’s every shot, prompting Hawks fans to boo even more.
That changed when the Hawks’ Tyler Arnason scored on a nicely redirected pass from Brett McLean on the left wing less than four minutes into the game. The first-place Wings, who came in 17-10-3 despite injury problems of their own, were playing patterned hockey while the Hawks slung the puck at the goal whenever possible. The Wings’ Jason Williams skated in, drew the defense, and passed back to Kirk Maltby, who got off a good shot from just inside the blue line. But Chicago goalie Michael Leighton made the save and the Hawks turned the puck the other way. While I was making notes on the Wings’ stylish play, Arnason scored.
Unwilling to pay for good players to take the ice, the Hawks have tried to interest fans–male fans, anyway–with the Chicago Blackhawks Ice Crew, a team of nymphets who skate out during breaks in play and make a lame, Paris Hilton-esque effort at scooping up piles of loose ice shavings with shovels. Weeza quickly took to calling them the T & A Patrol. I have to admit, they were prettier than the Hawks’ next goal. This time it was Igor Radulov deflecting a pass from fellow Russian Igor Korolev on the left wing. Detroit goalie Curtis Joseph, the renowned Cujo, looked distant and distracted, perhaps the result of his being demoted when Dominik Hasek returned. With Hasek injured, Cujo had been pressed into service, but he didn’t look fully prepared to play.
“He’s disgracing the Stephen King nickname,” I said.
“Not to mention his own,” Weeza said. “I mean, come on, he’s a fucking legend.”
After taking a smoking break at the intermission, we moved down to lower seats in the 300 section, as the attendance of 18,489 left plenty of places to choose from. Yet even there we found ourselves surrounded by kids. There’s something heartening about parents paying $25 a ticket to hook their kids on hockey, something that almost makes up for the kids running around, burning off film on their disposable cameras without a flash, and getting scolded by their moms while the play rages below.
With the Hawks up 2-0 in the second period and looking good, the first chant of “Detroit sucks!” broke out. Weeza immediately shot a general finger at the crowd.
“It’s really the Wirtzes they’re mad at,” I said. “It makes them angry that Detroit is willing to pay for good players and the Hawks aren’t.”
“That’s no excuse,” Weeza said. She was barely mollified when Detroit fans began the chant “Let’s go Red Wings,” although as an opera buff as well as a sports fan she appreciated the way the two chants locked in a nice counterpoint.
The Wings had played the night before, but one could see them getting their legs back under them and finding a rhythm in the second period. That paid off when Kris Draper picked off a pass in the Hawks’ zone and scored late in the second frame. At the end of the period the Wings peppered the Hawks’ goal during a power play, but Leighton fended off the shots to preserve the 2-1 lead. It was a tense game, and the crowd packing the smoking area was thicker than usual during the second intermission.
“I didn’t even need to have a cigarette. I could have just stood there and breathed,” Weeza said as we settled back into our seats for the third period. “I feel like I’ve been swimming in nicotine.”
The Hawks squandered a power play early on and the Wings grabbed the momentum, scoring on a flurry of shots that ended with Pavel Datsyuk poking the puck past the sprawling Leighton. It trickled in with all the pace of a well-aimed rock in curling.
“You could see that coming in slow motion, like a car crash,” I said. “I could have run down from here and stopped it.”
“Well, why didn’t you?” Weeza replied.
Both teams picked up the pace, and the play swung back and forth from end to end. Set up by a lovely pass at center ice, the Wings’ Jiri Hudler broke free between the Hawks defensemen, but he slapped the puck instead of trying to deke Leighton, and it sailed high. Moments later, Leighton made a nice save with his chest, the puck fluttering over his shoulder and the back of the net.
The Hawks kept flirting with danger. Tuomo Ruutu, the 20-year-old Finnish phenom who’s their hope for the future, lost a face-off just to the left of his own goal, and the puck went straight to the fearsome Brett Hull, who whistled a shot at Leighton. His splendid glove save kept the game tied. Moments later, Ruutu atoned. Line mate Scott Nichol dug the puck out behind the Detroit net and centered it to Ruutu deep in the slot between the circles. Ruutu gathered it behind him and then swept it in with a crisp long wrist shot that beat Cujo on his glove side. Weeza was furious, and the Hawks were up 3-2.
At first they did a sturdy job of defending the lead, with Nichol at one point nailing Hull with a lovely hip check at center ice. Leighton made another nice glove save with 1:40 left. In the final minute Cujo went to the bench to give the Wings an extra attacker, and the tactic worked. Datsyuk made a marvelous cross-ice pass to Brendan Shanahan, who swatted the puck past Leighton before he could swing over to cover the far post. The game was going to sudden-death overtime.
All 15 seconds of it. Johnny-on-the-spot Nichol dug the puck off the boards in front of the benches and slid a pass ahead of Mark Bell skating up the middle. Bell had to stretch with all he had to capture the puck at the blue line, then fought off both Detroit defensemen with one arm before flicking the puck one-handed toward the Detroit net at the last instant. That flick altered the puck’s course just enough to slide it past Cujo into the net for the game winner.
Weeza waxed eloquent on Cujo’s deficiencies as we took the steps down to street level. It didn’t help matters that outside on the sidewalk, Chicago fans once again broke into the chant “Detroit sucks!”
“Just give me five minutes,” she said. “I’ll be all right.”
And minutes later, having crawled out of the parking lot and up Damen to the Rainbo Club, where there was the balm of a little therapeutic whiskey and a commiserating text message from her sweet friend Phineas, she was as good as her word. Blackhawks backer or not, that’s a hockey fan.