The case for hockey as a blue-collar sport

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Our school, our rink
  • courtesy of Pat Reed
  • Our school, our rink
"Are the Blackhawks Chicago's team?" Steve Bogira asked recently on the Bleader. No, he replied, though they might be Wilmette's. "I'm happy the Blackhawks are NHL champs, but let's not get swept away with the idea that they're emblematic of Chicago. Let's realize that most of the city's residents don't give a flying puck about hockey. And with good reason. Chicago is almost two-thirds black and Hispanic, and hockey is still mainly for the white and affluent."

I second Steve's main point, which is that Hawks tickets cost so much that "most Chicagoans of all races can't afford to attend Blackhawks games." But then, the savviest thing Rocky Wirtz did when he took over the franchise was to put home games on TV.

And I'm happy to agree that the Blackhawks aren't emblematic of Chicago. I don't know how they could be. I don't even know what that means. No city as big and diverse as Chicago can be reduced to a sports team.

But I've been wanting to write about hockey for a long time and Steve's post has compelled me to. I'm not writing to contradict him, but my message will be in counterpoint to his.

As a kid I played hockey in Canada. I wasn't very good. No matter what I stuffed in my skates, my ankles wobbled. But the sport was a joy to play—the gliding and slapping the puck around and the cold winter air. We lived in the hub of a mining region. A lot of the kids at my school had funny last names that were hard to spell. Their dads had come over from eastern Europe to work in the mines, many as what we kids called DPs—displaced persons. World War II created a lot of refugees, and the Sudbury basin in northern Ontario got its fair share.

There were kids in my classroom who wore rubber boots to school and kicked them off in the classroom. Their parents couldn't afford school shoes. But hockey was a cheap sport. Second-hand skates and sticks could be scrounged up. Dads laid down sheets of ice in their side yards (it took a certain knack), and Frank Scott's dad put up a bigger rink at school—a rectangle with side boards. We played intramural games over the lunch hour and serious pickup games after school until dark. There was one kid my age named Bryan Campbell, and although we were opposing captains one spring in an intramural softball league, I could only dream of sharing the ice with him. He skated circles around every other boy in the school, whatever their age, and played hockey only with the biggest kids around. Years later, when I reached Chicago, he centered the third line of the Blackhawks. He was a journeyman NHLer, but even journeyman big-league athletes live on a different planet.

My point? When I think about where hockey players come from I think of the mines of Sudbury and plains of Saskatchewan (home of my hero, Gordie Howe), not the private prep schools of the North Shore. I also think about fathers with a lot more resolve than education coming from far and wide to work those mines. Today, of course, many of those far-flung countries of origin feed the NHL directly. True enough, the Blackhawks and NHL don't reflect Chicago's black and Latino populations—though if Ray Emery, a black Canadian, had played goal through the playoffs instead of Corey Crawford, it wouldn't be so easy to say that. But they reflect other migrant waves that stamped Chicago. About half the Blackhawks (and NHL players generally) are Canadians; a handful of players are Americans, and the rest of the team is from Slovakia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. Finland and Russia have also sent dozens of their top players to the NHL, and 30 countries in all—even Jamaica and Japan—have been represented there.

If, as Bogira points out, some of these players now make $2 million a year, fans don't really care about that, not so long as the jocks making the big money don't turn into assholes. That's almost impossible for a hockey player to become—which is something I think Chicago has just seen for itself. Goalies aside, no hockey player is on the ice even half the game or can singlehandedly dominate play when he's on it, which means no hockey player can "take over the game" or think of his teammates as his "supporting cast" or decree that it's "showtime." Fitfully, hockey rewards virtuosity. Constantly, it rewards doggedness and unselfish grit. I'm willing to bet that hockey is the sport other big-league athletes watch with the simplest envy: not enough poster moments, to be sure, but what fun it must be to skate so fast, smash into people, and disappear into a team.

All this, I think, is what Chicagoans with wallets of all thicknesses responded to this year—even more than we did in 2010. They like this team. They like this sport. I watched the last game of the Boston series with a friend who knew almost nothing about hockey. We watched the players manhandle each other for 60 minutes, and when the game was over, and one team had gone down to a shattering defeat, everyone lined up and shook hands. My friend was astonished. This was not simply good manners—it was chivalry.

So it is. Fans like themselves for liking hockey. So do cities.

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