by Jonathan Clark on June 12, 2010 at 12:48 pm
This week’s spectacular (and satisfying) Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup win, ending a 49-year drought, has caused me to pause and think about my own following of this team and franchise dating back to my freshman year at college.
During the past three or four weeks, and particularly Wednesday night, when Patrick Kane slipped in the Goal That Nobody Saw and began his solo celebration of winning Lord Stanley’s hardware (at least five seconds before anyone else in the building, including his own teammates, realized what had happened), I realized how much a part of my sports soul the Hawks were at one time, and in a sense, have always been since those early years.
My first-ever in-person hockey game was Game 6 of the 1965 Stanley Cup finals. My friend Jerry Derck and I had taken the train from campus into Chicago to see a late April Cubs Sunday doubleheader at Wrigley Field. It was wet and raw, but ever hopeful, we stepped off the Howard Line at Addison Street. We learned the games had been postponed.
What to do? We were already in Chicago, and the whole day lay ahead of us. We remembered the hockey game at Chicago Stadium, and we bought standing room tickets that afternoon and witnessed the Hawks evening the series at 3-3. The series would return to Montreal for Game Seven, where the inevitable happened. The Canadiens of the 1960s were like the Yankee dynasty streaks. The hockey gods ordained much of this in the original six-team league by giving Les Habitants draft rights to the best player in French-speaking Canada every year. Players like the Richard brothers and Jean Beliveau ensured a steady stream of great players to augment an already-great roster.
The next fall, I was hooked, seriously. I found a group of Wheaton College hockey fans who were eager to travel into Chicago for home games. Some had cars; others didn’t. Sometimes we took the train. But we always bought standing room tickets in the second balcony (for the exorbitant price of $2.50).
The games started at 7:30, and the gates opened at 6:00. A mad dash up six flights of stairs (we were young then) ensued, and we would stake out our positions on the rail right at the center line for a great view of the action. Not all of my friends did this. We were the Center Line fans; they were the Rink End fans. They liked to stand right behind the goal the Blackhawks shot at for two periods. They claimed it was more fun to see the plays develop as the puck went up and down the ice. My group maintained we’d rather see the action well at both ends.
But we yelled at each other (no one with a ticket for a seat would arrive for at least a half hour). When Al Melgard, the legendary Chicago Stadium organist, began to play, we would call out songs we wanted to hear. One was always the Wheaton Fight Song. He knew it because our college basketball team usually played one game a year as part of a big-school/small-school doubleheader. He usually accommodated us.
My junior year, I blew big bucks and bought second balcony season tickets. They were on the top row just before the corner, and not at the end where the highest row was at least 20 rows higher than we were. I was just in front of the standing room crowd then, and it was fun to arrive just before the puck dropped, push a way through the standees, and slide under the rail to the seats just before the national anthem.
The Hawks were popular in those pre-Chicago Bulls (1967-68 was their first year) days, and always filled the building: exactly 16,666 seats, according to the official attendance announced at each game. I learned that was a maximum attendance allowed by the Fire Marshal to be in the building from a safety standpoint. I also had a friend whose uncle was involved the last time they painted seats in the building. He said they painted more than 20,000.
Smoking was commonplace in the 1960s, and if the person next to you smoked, too bad. By the third period, it was sometimes difficult to see across the building through the layer of smoke that had risen up to where we sat. The public address announcer would always say (just once, before the opening face-off), out of consideration for the player (!!!), please refrain from smoking during the game. That was always the signal for a couple thousand lighters and matches to suddenly go off all over the building. The request was never enforced.
My senior year I came to my senses and let my tickets lapse. But I still went to many games, and in the season following graduation, when I still lived in the Chicago area, I bought them again. They were still in the second balcony (to this day, my all-time favorite spot to have watched hockey), but down near the other end by the face-off circle, and only four rows up from the balcony rail. The official scorer’s nest was attached at center ice to the front of the second balcony, and in the pre-instant replay days, was where the scorers assigned goals and assists.
Many years later, when I could afford it, I saw a Blackhawks game from an expensive lower level seat. It wasn’t the same, and the last time I ever saw a game in the stadium, I bought a pair of tickets for me and my wife Susan from guys in the street, between the first two periods. The price had come way down, and I paid only $10 each because I wanted the second balcony, to show Susan what I had seen all those years earlier. Amazingly, what we ended up with was exactly one row behind those seats I had 20-plus years earlier. I think this was late in the 1993-94 season, the last year of Chicago Stadium.
What a team the Blackhawks put on the ice in the 1960s! Player movement was limited in those days, and most teams retained the bulk of their rosters year after year. The Original Six of the NHL played 70-game seasons, meaning they played every other team 14 times a season: seven home, and seven away.
Hardly anyone wore helmets, either, and I knew the players in the entire league so well I rarely bought a program. I could recognize many of them by face, or by the way they skated.
With teams playing each other that often, significant rivalries and feuds developed. Gordie Howe was in fights that often lasted for weeks, breaking out time and again whenever his team met the team with the player he was still angry at. The Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings often played home-and-home weekend series: Saturday in Detroit, and Sunday night (the Hawks’ best attendance night) in Chicago. Howe and a Blackhawk would have at it Saturday, and we all waited in eager anticipation for the rematch that would occur sometime in the Sunday game.
The Wings also had a pesky role player, Bryan (Busher) Watson, whose only job was to tail Bobby Hull and harass him. Often he took it a little too far, and a fight would break out during the Saturday game. We couldn’t wait for Sunday, because we knew Watson would get it.
Glenn Hall played goalie, at one time logging an NHL record that will NEVER be approached, playing 502 consecutive complete games. That’s right: every minute of every game for a stretch of more than seven years. The Hawks didn’t even suit up another goalie, and few teams did then. The backup (if there was one) often watched the game in street clothes from the press box, and if an injury necessitated a change of goalies, the games would stop until the substitute could dress and warm up. Hall played the entire streak (as all goalies did then) without a mask.
Pierre Pilote anchored the blue liners, along with Doug Jarrett. The first two forward lines played intact for several seasons: the “Scooters” of Kenny Wharram and Doug Mohns, centered by hall-of-famer Stan Mikita, and the “HEM” line of Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito (who began his career as a Blackhawk) and Chico Maki. The third line was less fixed, but usually included Hull’s younger brother Dennis.
A few other flashback memories from those impressionable pre-adult years:
When a player scored a hat trick, REAL hats cascaded onto the ice. Businessmen’s hats. Expensive hats. No one would have dreamed of throwing anything as tacky as a baseball cap (which you only wore if you were playing baseball). I think the team collected them and kept them somewhere after the game, where people could go to retrieve the merchandise they had tossed in exuberance onto the ice.
I recall one fan with big lungs who, several times a game, would wait until a quiet moment, and then yell out BOBBBBBBY HULLLLLLL! as loudly as he could. Another fan, annoyed by Jim Pappin’s unproductive season after the previous year had suggested potential star status, would yell, “What Happin to Pappin?” when the winger came over the boards.
When the fans disagreed with an official’s call, or non-call, they would throw things onto the ice. Programs. Beer cups. I never liked this, and it always caused a stoppage while maintenance people with shovels and baskets came out to clean up.
The lady in front of me one year hated Dennis Hull. Dennis was a fine hockey player whose only mistake was being Bobby Hull’s brother. He wasn’t as good, and he didn’t claim to be. But this leather-lunged, foul-mouthed woman hated his guts. He could do nothing right. She also liked Howie Young, a journeyman defenseman who had wasted his career to alcoholism. Near the end he turned his life around, sobered up, and still had enough to play a regular shift on defense. It was a good story. Anyway, this woman loved Young.
In one game, she had been on Dennis Hull relentlessly. The puck came to the right point, and Young fired a slapshot toward the goal. Dennis skated through the face-off circle and deflected the puck into the upper corner of the net—one of the prettiest deflections I have ever seen.
My “friend” hadn’t seen the deflection, of course. She was certain her beloved Howie had scored a rare goal. She jumped up and down and screamed, “Howie! Howie!” I tapped her on the shoulder and she turned around. “You’re going to be surprised,” I told her.
A few moments later, the official announcement came: “Blackhawks goal scored by Number 10, Dennis Hull…” “WHAT?????” she screamed. I leaned over and said, “Told you it would be a surprise!”
I left Chicago in 1969 and have never lived there since. My enthusiasm for hockey has cooled. Sometimes it has warmed again (Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers did that for me in the 1980s; the early days of the Phoenix Coyotes, when I was a season ticket holder), but it has never captured my attention like the Hawks of the 1960s.
Except for this week. That’s a fine team that won this year’s Cup, and I could get attached to them. Again.