Commentary

Hawks' Kind of Town

As the Stanley Cup finals get under way, Chicago is rediscovering its hockey team

Updated: May 28, 2010, 11:07 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- For starters, the Stanley Cup finals media day could be eaten whole by the Super Bowl's version, which is held in huge football stadiums while the NHL's version Thursday was cozy and quaint and housed in a curtained-off section of the United Center concourse.

Someone wondered aloud if anyone had asked Brian Campbell if he was a tree, what kind of tree he would be, or had proposed marriage, and Campbell looked confused by the question itself. But naturally, because he's a hockey player, he was utterly polite and charming while doing it.

"They ask those questions?" he said. "What kind of tree? I haven't had that yet, no. What kind of tree? No. Marriage proposals? No. Maybe when I go to bed tonight before I fall asleep though, I'll be thinking of that."

Thankfully, no one told Campbell about the "reporters" who dress up like Lady Gaga for Super Bowl media day, or those who come bearing questions from MTV and Jimmy Kimmel and Out Magazine.

When the Bears were in the Super Bowl in Miami, someone asked Chris Harris which member of the old television show "Saved by the Bell" he'd like to be stranded with on a desert island. Another asked him what his favorite horse was.

The NHL has a long way to go.

As for the Hawks, they seem thrilled at the new level of fame this postseason has brought.

"It's fun to do the commercials at the start of the year and it's fun to see cameras here covering us because I remember the first few years we were here, we only had one or two reporters covering the team," said Hawks winger Patrick Sharp. "I don't feel any added pressure doing it, I enjoy it. Not as much as [Adam] Burish enjoys it, but I enjoy it."

Burish, the affable winger and Hawk most likely to be made fun of by his teammates, is a great example of why those who are still resistant to the idea of hockey taking a major chunk of the local sports landscape are really missing something.

"It's nuts," said Burish, who would be all-interview in any league. "It's crazy what's going on in town here. It wasn't like this two years ago. You can't go anywhere without people stopping you, talking to you about hockey, Blackhawks gear everywhere. It's awesome, it's absolutely crazy and more than I think anybody expected. The guys kind of eat it up because we haven't experienced it. Guys on other teams might think it's annoying but for us, it's fun. It's so cool to be a part of."

Of course, the players are also living in a hockey-crazed bubble right now and frankly, any attention compared with the past few years probably feels as if everyone in the city wears Indian head pajamas to bed.

Truth is, it's still probably a sliver, with even those who consider themselves big Chicago sports fans slow to come around.

Consider Stan, 68, a longtime Bulls season-ticket holder.

"Growing up in Ohio, I always had the image of hockey as being dominated by the 'thuggery' aspect with each team having its 'goons,' and that was a huge turnoff," he said. "Baseball, basketball and even football had a much cleaner appeal somehow, and I've never lost that feeling. In any case, I wish the Hawks well but really won't be watching as there's still championship NBA activity and all those baseball games to be played."

Steve, 55, grew up in Chicago and wants also to stress that he wishes the Hawks well should anyone track down all the 55-year-old Steves in Chicago and throw eggs at their cars.

"If the game is on, I'll check the score but I don't watch it," he said. "It doesn't do anything for me. It's amazing how younger people love hockey and I see how excited my kids are. But not me."

I tried to tell him to give it a chance, that he really didn't have to admit he still didn't understand icing to fully appreciate the game, but he said he just wasn't a hockey fan. So, OK, I guess I can respect that as opposed to people whose objections begin with, "I can't follow the puck."

I don't know how to respond to that, I really don't. Are you seeing the seams of the football and baseball when you watch those games? Or are you simply following the movement of the ball because well, IT'S OBVIOUS WHERE IT IS GOING?

Hockey players don't have attitude about their sport, they really don't. They know that Stan and Steve and the puck-blind people exist.

"Everybody likes a physical sport, a quick sport, an exciting sport," said Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook. "I think our game has all those qualities. You're going to pick up the rules while you're watching the game, and commentators these days are really going out of their way to explain the game and help people who don't necessarily know all the rules. So just turn it on and watch the game and enjoy it."

They also don't care about so-called bandwagon jumpers.

"You want to come and make this building even louder and scream and cheer, I don't care if you're a fan from yesterday or 10 years ago," said Burish. "It makes no difference to us."

They seem to be under no illusions that they will become bigger than the Bears. Or the Bulls, Cubs or White Sox. But why shouldn't a group with likable and hardworking players and ownership move up in the sports food chain?

Burish said that discussion has gone on in the Hawks' dressing room.

"We talk about it all the time," he said. "Guys always talk about it. The last two years especially, whenever there was an event or function, people would tell us, 'This is a hockey town, you guys just don't know it. It's a sleeping hockey town and once you guys start winning and doing some neat things on the ice, this town is going to erupt.' But it's erupted more than any of us ever imagined."

Campbell, who was a household name and face when he played in Buffalo, said he loves that he and his teammates are now enjoying some of the same recognition here.

"It should be a lot like that," Campbell said. "We're playing a professional sport in one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest sports city in North America. And we have more and more Blackhawks fans going around. It's great to be recognized and a lot of times, people are saying, 'Thank you,' so it's a pretty big honor."

An honor. Think of it. How cool would it be if all athletes considered it an honor and not a bother to have fans interact with them?

"I was here when the White Sox won their championship and the city was nuts for the Sox, and when the Cubs went to the playoffs, same thing," Sharp said. "And of course everyone's a Bears fan, especially when they go to the Super Bowl. It's a sports town and they really support their athletes and their teams and I knew if we could ever get to this spot, that we'd have the support that we do.

"But it's still surreal to walk down the street and get handshakes and have people wish you best of luck, and that kind of support just makes you play that much harder."

Players talk about the chills that run through them when the home crowd drowns out the national anthem. You hope it never gets old for them. For any of us.

"I think the best thing [is something] I saw the other night," Campbell said. "Near the end of the game, they showed a dad [on the video scoreboard] holding his kid in his arms and they were both jumping up and down.

"That's a memory I'd love to have. I have a lot of great memories with my dad but that's something that kid hopefully will never forget and it's kind of touching. But that's how it should be. It should be like that. And if you live in Chicago, you should be able to come to a hockey game and have that with a full crowd and enjoy those times with your dad or your mom. It's great to see."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.