Commentary

Chi-Town and Motown, facing off again

Originally Published: May 14, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

When you say Detroit, a romantic man thinks of that sweet Motown sound. A sane man thinks of Motor City, Henry Ford and his Made in Michigan assembly line, a bastion of good days gone forever. An educated man thinks of the Big Three groveling before Congress, and the death of the American Dream. A gambling man thinks of new downtown casinos and crossing the border to Windsor for some gentlemanly fun.

When you say Detroit, a sporting man from Chicago thinks of the Bad Boys, the Jordan Rules, split lips, cheap shots by Dennis Rodman and John Salley -- before they were saved -- and of Chicago exile Bill Laimbeer, who will forever live in perdition.

[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan and Joe Dumars
Andrew D. Bernstein/ NBAE/ Getty ImagesDetroit was MJ's big obstacle. Will it be the same for Kane and Toews?

You think of Pippen's migraines and Jordan's last roadblock, Zeke walking off the court, pure validation, and recently of Daddy Rich (RIP), who watched the mayhem in fine Italian knit and a perfect coiffure. You learned to hate Detroit during its goonish heyday, gesticulating wildly at every Dodge Dart on the Dan Ryan. Then the Pistons faded out with the 1980s, suddenly unfashionable like pegged jeans and cassette tapes. The Jordan Rules simply became Jordan rules.

What else? Barry Sanders tap-dancing in the backfield, old Bobby Layne, reading "Paper Lion" and wondering whether that Plimpton guy wanted to try out for the Bears, the Pontiac Silverdome, which eventually landed on top of Soldier Field; if you're an AL guy, Tiger Stadium, that grand old bandbox, Ty Cobb if you're (very) old-school, Hank Greenberg if you're Jewish, Kirk Gibson if you're a jerk, Denny McLain and Al Kaline, Sweet Lou and Trammell, and Jimmy Leyland's guys stealing the White Sox's thunder in 2006. If you're into college sports, you focus your bile on Bo Schembechler, the Fab Five or the "Flintstones" from East Lansing.

As major metropolitan cities, Detroit and Chicago went opposite ways a long time ago. When people talk of Detroit, they talk of the past, sadness and poverty. When people outside of Chicago talk about our fair city, they talk of deep dish pizza (slightly better than Little Caesars) and Wrigley Field (still standing).

[+] EnlargeBarry Sanders
Tim Broekema /Getty ImagesOne of the rare eras when Bears-Lions tilted toward the Motor City.

When you ask someone where to go out in Detroit, they say to go out of Detroit. The suburbs, where there's life. When you ask someone where to go out in Chicago, they say step outside your hotel and you're there.

After the Red Wings' Game 7 win over Anaheim on Thursday, the battle of I-94 was set. Starting Sunday, the upstart Blackhawks travel to Joe Louis Arena to start a Western Conference finals matchup that will captivate two of the biggest hockey markets in the world and delight Original Six fans across North America.

In Chicago, Detroit expat bars such as the Avenue Tavern on Broadway, Tin Lizzie, Duffy's and the immortal John Barleycorn will be full of young Detroit exiles who fled Michigan, Michigan State and the directional schools, waved goodbye to their parents in Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham and Grosse Pointe, to settle where you can work and play within the city limits.

And, as you know, they do play hockey again in Chicago. Hockeytown USA? Some would argue that's on the West Side of Chicago now, even if the Red Wings have hilariously trademarked the phrase. If you're a hockey fan from Chicago, Detroit to you means the Norris Division, and now, perhaps, the final barrier to the greatest turnaround in Chicago since Northwestern's Rose Bowl season or, if you want to back a little further, the origins of the Second City moniker.

The Blackhawks and the Red Wings have met in 14 previous playoff series, and you might be surprised to know that the Blackhawks have an 8-6 edge over Detroit. In the first series, way back in 1934 when Chris Chelios was just a young Greek boy pushing an applecart, and a former Blackhawk (or Black Hawk, if you were so inclined) named Teddy Graham was the Detroit goat in Game 1. Just eight weeks after winning his second Vezina Trophy for his performance in those playoffs, Chicago goaltender Charlie Gardiner died of a brain hemorrhage at 29. Twenty-seven years after that, the Blackhawks beat the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals again, and they haven't won since, the longest drought in the NHL.

[+] EnlargeChris Chelios
Michael Sackett/US PresswireThat's a sight that doesn't please Chicagoans.

Chelios, who isn't really 75, played for the Blackhawks for nearly a decade. He was on that 1994-95 team that lost to the Red Wings in the Western Conference finals, the last Blackhawks team to make it this far. Detroit won three overtime games, and the Blackhawks managed just one win. Two years later, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, ending a 42-year drought. If you're at the United Center, you can ask their old coach Scotty Bowman about it. He works for the Blackhawks now, which bodes well for Chicago. (Mr. Bowman respectfully declined to talk about the rivalry before the Red Wings' win Thursday night, out of respect for Anaheim.)

Three years later, Chicago's streak of 28 straight playoff appearances ended and the Dark Period began. Chelios, chili and all, was traded to Detroit, where he still lugs his 47-year-old body up and down the ice. (Just as amazing, Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom has been on the team since the 1991-92 season.)

As the American automakers struggled, and as the once-proud Blackhawks faded into irrelevance, Detroit's hockey team started winning. A lot. Seafood stores were running out of octopi. Four Stanley Cups in 11 seasons? Blackhawks fans who remember the 1961 Cup are few and far between, but I think most can recall Detroit's 2008 championship. And who can forget the Red Wings' win in the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field this January? Wait, that game counted? I thought it was just a marketing exercise.

[+] EnlargeChris Chelios
Elsa Hasch/Getty ImagesOK, that's more like it.

There is the obvious train of thought that Anaheim would've been a better opponent. Even though the Ducks are the hotter team, they're still a No. 8 seed and Cinderella doesn't dance all night. Detroit is the most consistent, the most seasoned and the overall favorite to repeat for the second time this decade. But the fans still want Detroit.

"Detroit and Chicago have a tremendous rivalry in place," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Thursday. "Playing in the Winter Classic [which Detroit won 6-4] rekindled a lot of that, as well. You can tell when the fans began chanting after our last game about Detroit, that [rivalry] is something that's definitely in place."

And although the Blackhawks themselves weren't overtly saying they wanted a rematch with Detroit before the other series was decided, no one was itching to go to Disneyland until after the Stanley Cup. No, it's a short ride to Detroit, and, like Bobby Hull trying to whistle in 1966, these guys like a challenge.

Maybe there's some symmetry at work here. If the Jordan Bulls had to beat the Pistons, maybe the Patrick Kane-Jonathan Toews Blackhawks need to fly by the older, wiser and tougher Red Wings. It would be quite a story, a movie in the making. A team that can't even grow proper playoff beards goes from irrelevance to dominance in two years? Sounds too good to be true, but it happened once before. They made this movie already; it was called "Miracle," and my wife cries every time she watches it. But that doesn't mean it can't be reality again.

In Chicago, we piss and moan when our sports teams don't win, as if it's the end of the world. In Detroit, the concerns, such as the auto industry, the economy, the existence of the city itself, are a little weightier.

So, depressed and downtrodden Detroit might need hockey, and another Stanley Cup, a little more than we do, but hey, sympathy isn't really the Chicago way, is it?

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

ALSO SEE