It’s commonly said that there are 17,300 Blackhawks fans in the Chicago area–no more, no less. That’s because the Chicago Stadium seats 17,300 for a hockey game, and while the Hawks have played to sellout crowds for decades (with lulls here and there), it always seems to be the same people going back game after game. Everyone knows one or two Hawks fanatics, but these people always seem to be on the fringe of society: the young man who takes legal briefs from office to office, or the guy who always wears tennis shoes and jeans with the mandatory office necktie. Hawks fans are an intense, loyal, vocal lot–borderline normal. After all, they’re the ones who can’t keep themselves under control for even a brisk rendition of the national anthem. It’s comforting to think, however, that as noticeable as they are–and noticeable they are, in their shiny black jackets and their white home jerseys with the cool Chief Black Hawk in the center–that there are only 17,300 of them.
Over the last month or so, I’ve done some research in the city’s bars, stopping in for a drink or two during home games. These games are blacked out–even on SportsChannel–by the Hawks’ money-grubbing Wirtz ownership, the city’s reigning tightwad sports dynasty ever since “Papa Bear” George Halas died. The Wirtzes have always sought, even in good years, to fill the Stadium to capacity for hockey games. The one way to ensure that, they’ve always believed, is to prevent the games from being televised, so that anyone who wants to see them must be in attendance. (There are rumblings that some home playoff games will be televised on WGN this season, but I’ll believe that when I see it.) The cable generation, however, has found ways around the blackout policy. A regular little cottage industry has sprung up around certain bars and their satellite dishes, which enable them to pick up visiting teams’ broadcasts from the Stadium. This violates the little “This broadcast is only for the use of . . .” admonishment delivered by the announcers at every sporting event, but it’s so common that no law-enforcement agency has been willing to crack down. Some bars even advertise that they show Hawks home games, and even beer companies abet the bars by giving away signs reading, “Hawks here on satellite,” “satellite” being the code that means “including home games.”
Because this practice, though prevalent, is, after all, illegal, I’ll keep my neighborhood satellite tavern anonymous here. (If any agency ever cracks down, it’s sure to start with the bars that have advertised or otherwise become notorious.) In layout, it’s a typical shotgun bar with a big room in the back. It has bands in on the weekends and a small marquee out front to advertise them, but otherwise it’s just like thousands of other neighborhood places in the city–right down to the home games on satellite. Which are very well attended, I should point out.
Last Sunday afternoon, I stopped in for a late-season matinee (they start scheduling them after the football season ends), and the bar stools were already packed at the end where the two televisions were tuned to the game. (The two TVs at the other end of the bar were devoted to the NCAA Basketball Tournament.) By the end of the first period, the stools were packed all up and down the bar, with 15 to 20 guys watching the various TVs–and I mean “guys.” The only female was a girl of about nine or ten there with her younger brother of about six. When they got bored, they’d go to their father, get another couple of quarters, and run back to the video games. Once, the boy cadged a quarter off the bartender. “Do you promise to come back in 15 years?” he asked. “Whattaya mean?” said a guy at the bar. “He’ll be back next Sunday.” Off the kids went. A fellow strolled along the bar behind all the men with their backs to him and said, “I can’t get a seat here. I feel like a hockey coach walking up and down the bench.”
The image was echoed on the screen, as Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan looked out over the ice from behind his seated players. Keenan looks and acts like a cousin of Mike Ditka’s, and they bring similar philosophies to their respective sports. Both believe it’s their personal system–and not the quality of the players–that makes the team competitive. Both are driven and demanding men with short fuses. Keenan has become the dominant member of the Blackhawks organization–from the front office, where he has assumed the duties of general manager, to the ice, where he has run out all the players who didn’t play his way. Among them was Denis Savard, a pixie-sized wizard of a hockey player, known for his dashing style and his pirouettes, dispatched to Montreal last summer for defenseman Chris Chelios.
Savard was very popular in the city, and Keenan probably would have been run out of town if the Hawks hadn’t already turned around so abruptly under his leadership, becoming one of the strongest teams in the National Hockey League this season. Keenan prefers defense and “dump-and-chase,” a style of play ugly on the surface but eminently functional when it’s played right. The puck is dumped from center ice into the corners, then Hawks forwards make chase, hoping to beat opposing defensemen to the puck, which they can pass to a teammate in front of the goal. The system attempts to put all five Hawks skaters on the offensive–even as they remain in position to shift to defense– and all five opposing skaters on the defensive. It is stripped down and unpretty, and it didn’t appeal to Savard at all. He preferred precision passing and three-man rushes up the ice, a la traditional hockey and the great Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers of the 80s. That’s why Savard was popular and that’s why he’s gone. Keenan aside, who doesn’t prefer that dashing hockey to dump-and-chase? The Hawks do, however, play dump-and-chase in a very precise, scientific manner. I’ve never much cared for it, but even I have to admit they make it work and work well, and the emphasis on fundamental defense, first and foremost, has helped make rookie Ed Belfour the best goalie the Hawks have had since Tony Esposito was in his prime.
I first stopped in at this neighborhood place about a month ago, for a game between the Hawks and their archrivals, the Saint Louis Blues. The Hawks came out storming and opened a big lead; the only suspense hung on whether Belfour would earn a shutout and stop the scoring streaks of the Blues’ Hull-and-Oates combination, Brett Hull and Adam Oates. Belfour has a nifty mask with a pair of bald eagles painted on the sides, but he has a slovenly way of blocking a goal. He frequently gets down on one knee and lays his stick across the ice, like a charwoman stooping to use a dustpan. Like the Hawks’ functional, unpretty style of offense, however, it works; while he did allow a goal, Hull and Oates were not involved, and the Hawks won handily. Unfortunately for the fans, however, the out-of-town television announcers threw a wet blanket on the Hawks’ play, complaining about uncalled penalties and mouthing excuses for the Blues. Moaned one guy at the bar, “It’s depressing watching them win with these announcers.”
Watching a hockey game on satellite is sometimes closer to seeing a real game than watching the official coverage on SportsChannel. There are no ads–this is the virgin feed going out of the Stadium–so the viewer watches the players standing around the face-off circle during short breaks and, of course, the Zamboni cleaning the ice between periods. In fact, on the night the Hawks played the Blues, the fans’ shooting contest between the second and third periods sent the guys at the bar off on a tangent. This contest, where the goal is blocked off except for a little opening in the center and fans are led out to take shots from the blue line and the center red line, is a Stadium tradition. The contestants, in fact, are always the same demographically: there’s Joe Blackhawks Fan, complete with gut sticking out under his jacket, his 12-year-old son in tennis shoes, and finally the woman in either miniskirt or spandex tights, but always in spike heels, tiptoeing across the ice. The guys at the bar started reminiscing about the infamous “Boston feed,” where a camera operator had zoomed in on “that chick in the leather miniskirt. They showed her heels, then her legs, and then the skirt, but they never went above the waist!” Hyuck, hyuck, hyuck. These Hawks fans feel the most important cold steel on ice is the nearest tapped keg.
This may not sound like everyone’s idea of a nice atmosphere in which to spend a Sunday afternoon, but when one is watching a hockey game on television it seems entirely appropriate. The bantering last Sunday began during the national anthem and went on from there. The goaltender for the Minnesota North Stars left his position on the blue line before the anthem was over and skated to his net. “Aw, ya commie,” said one guy. One particularly beat-up Minnesota player had adhesive bandages all around his lips, where he had apparently been cut in a previous game, but one guy said, “Looks like he found the wrong girl last night.”
The Hawks have developed a tendency recently to rough things up, especially at home. Their Saint Patrick’s Day game with the Blues erupted into several fights, with over four hours of penalties assessed during the 60-minute game. The referees took instant control of the game with the North Stars, however, penalizing Keenan for mouthing off in the first minute. Penalties throughout the first period kept the Hawks on the defensive and the general pace of the game excruciatingly slow. The Minnesota announcers passed on a comment from a fan within earshot: “Hurry up, I gotta go to work tomorrow.” In the second period, however, the refs let the two teams play a little more, and the Hawks exploded for five goals. Mike Hudson broke the ice with the first of two scores, including the most noteworthy goal of the day: he fanned on an open shot, barely brushing the puck, fell on his ass, then deflected it as the Stars’ goalie tried to fall on it, poking it into the net. “He assisted on his own goal!” one amazed guy said, and two others broke out in perfect timing, aping the Stadium public-address announcer, “Chicago goal by number 20, Hudson, assisted by number 20, Hudson,” and burst into laughter.
The Hawks laid back and played defense through the third period, and the Stars rallied to 5-4. With the slow pace, one guy said fearfully, “Overtime, it’s a five-hour game.”
“Hey, it’s good for business,” said another guy, lifting his glass. The Hawks, however, held on, and the bar filled with cheers before it emptied.
But the highlight of the day? Hearing Harry Caray sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the WGN TV broadcast between the second and third periods. That’s the problem with hockey: just when it’s beginning to get interesting, baseball comes along.