Thursday, June 10, 2010

From Classic to Cup

So, while watching the past 72 hours unfold via phone, TV, and internet, I've had a lot of time to bemoan my current location in sunny California and decided I should try and turn my self-pity into something pithy and share a bit about why I'm so happy the Hawks are Stanley Cup Champions, even though, I will OPENLY ADMIT, the Mark of five years ago might not have felt as I do now. It's been a crazy story spanning a few years years, lots of games, and three time zones in which I think I have changed and grown, as have many Chicagoans, to be a true fan of hockey and the Chicago Blackhawks.

It was while driving on one of many trips between Glen Ellyn and Chicago while shooting "The Station" in the fall of 2007 that I heard one of my favorite Chicago sports radio personalities, Dan McNeil - of "Mac, Jurko, and Harry" - take time out from talkin' Cubs' playoff prospects to discuss for a few moments his feelings about the death of Bill Wirtz.

It was crazy, because the Cubs were playing pretty good baseball, and all Mac could do was barely contain his joy about the fact that the long-time owner of the Chicago Blackhawks was dead. "Sorry for the family, happy for the city" pretty well summed up his feelings.

I remembered that moment as the weeks went by (and the Cubs, as they're prone to do, lost in a humiliating sweep) and I saw the winds of change blow around Madison Avenue, just as Mac had predicted. Rocky Wirtz took control and a new marketing campaign - RED RISING - pushed a new image for the Hawks and the team's new stars, Kane and Toews, and became the PERFECT analogy for what would be a massive change in Chicago sports.

It was the start of a big change for me, a guy who answered "Couldn't care less" when a 2004 poll question asked "Do you miss the NHL?" during the NHL lockout.

I cringe thinking of that now... how young and stupid I was! But can you blame me? Mac was right - Bill Wirtz was a TERRIBLE owner and the Blackhawks often found themselves listed as one of the worst pro sports franchises on the continent. And, as a kid growing up in Chicago in the 1990s, I wonder what sports team / figure was going to capture my imagination?

Hint: NOT Curtis Enis....

CUT TO 2008, Cubs Marketing guru McDonough is named President of the Blackhawks and the Hawks are tapped to face the rival Red Wings in the Winter Classic, which would be my own magnificent introduction to live Blackhawks hockey. (I'd been to a game or two before, but that was the "Couldn't Care Less" Era)

But, seriously, how's this for a way to kick off a fan-team relationship: Wrigley Field, New Year's Day 2009, a rooftop with all the beer and mashed potatoes a man could want - and at center stage an age old rivalry between the Red Wings and the mighty Blackhawks. It was an amazing time, one that I didn't really cover here on the blog because it was during the "Dark Ages" of blogdom that happen when I go back to Chicago.

It was PERFECT - (sans for the final score, 6-4 Detroit) - the cold weather and the fun, boozy, sports-crazed atmosphere of Wrigleyville acted as the ideal cure for my maLAise from the City of Angles - notoriously "too cool" for real sports fandom or daytime highs below 50 degrees.

As 2009 got going I strove to become a better fan. I attended a Kings-Hawks game at Staples with some USC buddies and we started to form our own West Coast Hockey Club as a bit of anti-LA rebellion. Is there anything less "LA" than hockey? It's cold, the players are usually far from pretty (mullets, scars, and missing teeth) and with the so much drama happening in the last period its really hard to "Dodger" the end of the game.

The Hawks lost to the Kings, but it was a blast to watch and I was proud to be representin' CHI in a whole new way than just wearing my Cubs hat to Angels games.

Watched as much of the 2009 Playoffs as time would allow and saw the Hawks disappointing fall to the Red Wings, but all could agree that the team had played exceptionally well considering where they were coming from. Red was rising. Chicago took note.

As a Winter Classic took priority in Boston in 2010, the Blackhawks were rolling beautifully along. Got to see the Hawks in-person just once this season, but it was a great game. With seats just a few rows off the glass on Marian Hossa bobble-head night, dad, my brothers and I got to see a great game between the Hawks and Anaheim Ducks in which Hossa scored 2...falling just short of a hat trick on his own bobble-head night but player of the game nonetheless.

After the games we headed through some blistering cold to the warming glow of the Billy Goat Tavern for beers, cheeseburgers, and hopeful talk about how great the team is and what could lie ahead for the exciting young team.

Returning to LA, the hopes got even higher as I watched the Hawks split up and play for national pride in the Olympics with my ever-growing West Coast Hockey Club. After watching the amazing two USA-Canada games and eventually suffering some American defeat, I couldn't help but feel more civic than national pride, as I knew two of the best players in the Medal games would be returning to Chicago to seek a different type of hardware than a mere gold or metal disc...the CUP was all that was left for Toews, Kane and the rest.

With a little bit more free time this semester end than last, I got to follow the Hawks through every series, and even made it back to Chicago for the victory against San Jose.

Chicago was great, and no moment summed up my own grown-up Blackhawks fandom and the complete transformation of Chicago to HAWKeytown, than heading to the Billy Goat for Game 2 of the Finals in hopes of getting a ticket.

Tickets were as scarce as Cubs playoff victories, and my buddy and I were S.O.L., but it was such a testament to how hockey-crazy the city had gone. So we sat at the bar, pounding Old Styles and cheeseburgers, cheering on the Madmen from Madison Street, and I couldn't help but think back to when we went to the Billy Goat after the Ducks-Hawks game that winter and how far the team, the city, and myself had come.

Now that the Cup has come to Chicago - and I won't even pretend that my little LA-based party of one is even 1/1000000th the good time that is being had in the City of Champions right now - I decided the best way I could spend my time was to look back and track the amazing ride that I've had in just two years to get to this point now - getting choked up like JR and streaming CHI sports radio for so long I'm hearing SportsCenter updates every twenty minutes in my head at night.

Its been a one-of-a-kind journey from Classic to Cup for myself and the Hawks, and even though I haven't been able to witness the bulk of it in person in Chicago, I've been able to enjoy this ride in my own, strange, transcontinental way. Even with my family and friend Hawks fans back home, I don't know if I'd be quite the Blackhawks fan - and I do believe that even after just two years I can call myself a true fan - without my West Coast Hockey buddies to watch and talk shop with out here on LaLa Land.

I'd like to say I wouldn't have it any other way but that might not be entirely true.... but I've already got the perfect solution.

Let's just do this again next year!

I'll make sure to plan more accordingly next time.