Being a black Hawks fan
The city is committed to the Indian, when the team is winning
As a kid, I loved hockey. Not like basketball or baseball or boxing or even tennis. But living in Chicago under the almighty omnipresent auspice of the Blackhawks, every kid had to love hockey. We had no choice. A winning organization can do that to a childhood.
Understand, back then, the Hawks were it. Winning divisional championships was the norm (they won eight from 1969-70 through 1979-80). There was a seasoned Stan Mikita, a young Tony Esposito, Pit Martin, Bill White and Pat Stapleton on defense. Keith Magnusson. Bobby Hull was my Orr. The names were almost household. Enough to make a black kid wanna get some skates and wanna be like Stan.
Which I did. It was the thing to do. The perpetual-ness of sorry-ness was our existence in sports in Chicago: The Bears were sorry, the Bulls were sorry, the Sox were sorry, and the Cubs were only in their seventh decade of World Seriesless-ness. It was before Mark Aguirre put DePaul back on the map, before the Illini started fighting, before the Chicago Sting did their (brief) thing. The racial and political divide that was being established in the city at the time was superseded by only one thing: a team that established itself as a winner.
But still there were issues. As much as the city wanted to be "We Are The World" about hockey, Chicago still was a city of the times. Learned the hard way by me. Every time I went to play hockey, and almost always being the only kid of color out there, it took me awhile to figure out why people (including some teammates) were always shooting the puck at me -- especially when I was never the goalie. At 8, 9, 10 years old I had to learn how to fight the power before Public Enemy.
But that still didn't deter or distance me from the Hawks. I still rolled with them through the Denis Savard, Jeremy Roenick, Ed Belfour and Chris Chelios eras. Even met some brothas who rode with them. It was like a secret society. Like we all ate Frosted Flakes living our lives in silhouette, a witness-less protection plan. While the Bulls were winning championships, we'd stay (sometimes posing as Andy Frain employees) at the Stadium after games to see the union workers (Local 714, I think) pull the wood up to display the ice underneath. That was our show of support.
But as the winning lessened, so did the following. No resentment harbored toward the sport or the Hawks, there just seemed to be no room left to cheer. The Bears had won a Super Bowl, the Bulls had pulled down six chips and Michael Jordan became larger than life and death. The Sox won a World Series and the Cubs brilliantly turned a losing identity into one of the most lovable marketing campaigns in the history of grassroots advertising. The Hawks, even among the die-hard fans, had become close to irrelevant. And when ESPN (in 2004 on Page 2) tagged them as the "worst franchise in sports," kiss 'em goodbye.
But then, change. When new owner Rocky Wirtz and GM Dale Tallon came in and righted the wrongs that had been done by Rocky's father, former owner Bill Wirtz (including putting home games back on local television and reconnecting with heroes such as Mikita, Hull and Esposito, amongst other things), the cloud of insignificance was lifted off the city's third-favorite franchise.
And when the Winter Classic came to Wrigley on New Year's Day, I got at least four calls from brothas who wanted to know when we were going to drop the $350 required to own one of these authentic WC Blackhawks sweaters. These calls coming from cats who don't even own Jordan jerseys. Aesthetics, baby. No doubt, the Hawks were bizzack.
So when they took the Red Wings into overtime in two of the first three games of the Western Conference finals, I figured it was time to bring my support out of the dark. Fair-weathered? Maybe. But again, the history is convoluted. Sorta complicated.
To Hawkeyes I went. Of the five "official-unofficial" Hawks spots in the city (WestEnd on Madison, Stanley's on Fullerton, The Stanley Cup in the West Loop and Boundary in Wicker Park also are recognized citywide), this one came recommended as the best to "welcome yourself back into Hawkeydom."
Time to give back the love. Time to tie this series.
And just as expected -- even though there was a piece on Sunday in the Tribune about how the "new" Blackhawks were attracting more African-Americans (including Michael Jordan) and female fans -- there were more black people on the ice (Hawks right winger Dustin "Big Poppa" Byfuglien and ref/linesman Jay Sharrers) than in the bar. But it was cool. This is not Kent State or "Higher Learning," this isn't even about a post-Obama racial harmony hangover. This is about the Blackhawks. Winning again.
And for two hours I sat there, ordering drinks and food from one of the most attractive groups of bartenders and waitstaff in the city. Screaming at the screens with the rest of my fellow Hawks fans who couldn't get a ticket into the United Center. Watching the Red Wings turn hope into depression before the third period.
Then, finally, someone asked me.
"Bro, you follow hockey?"
"Yeah," I said. "Especially when the Hawks are winning."
"Lemme ask you a question," the dude followed up. "How does it feel to be, you know, a black guy that likes hockey?''
I bought the guy and his friend a shot. They had on Kane and Toews T-shirts. They're family at this time of year. We all are.
Then I answered their question.
"I feel like a Chicagoan."