You had to know there was going to be a fight.
The Blackhawks had just gotten spanked, 5-4, by the Philadelphia Flyers. The Sunday-evening contest was unsatisfying to the Chicago Stadium crowd for a variety of reasons. First, the Flyers were Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan's old team. This night, too, the Flyers net was minded by Ron Hextall, noted for his thuggery with his heavy goaltender's stick. Tonight Hextall returned to action for the first time in weeks after a severe injury had sidelined him. Stadium fans had filed into the place sniffing fresh meat.
The bad blood between the Blackhawks and Flyers dates back to the 70s, when Philadelphia, known popularly at the time as the Broad Street Bullies, regularly pounded lumps on Chicago. Blackhawks fans haven't forgotten scenes like the Flyers' Dave "the Hammer" Schultz pummeling their own tough guy Keith Magnuson. For years, the very masculinity of Chicago fans themselves was impugned by Philly's superiority on the ice and with the gloves off. Now that the Blackhawks were cutting a wide swath through the league and had at least three big punchers earning respect, Stadium partisans could walk in with their heads and expectations high.
Tonight though, the heavily favored Blackhawks went down early. The Flyers scored three goals in the first period to the Hawks' one, and the fans began stirring. Keenan triggered an avalanche of boos when he lifted popular goalie Eddie "the Eagle" Belfour after Philly's third goal. Within seconds the Stadium was echoing with the chant "Eddie! Eddie!" Fans pointed to the Blackhawks bench when Keenan, after watching Belfour slam his stick and throw his gloves, grabbed the goalie by the collar and engaged him in an animated shouting match. The fans' chant grew louder.
Surprisingly, Keenan reinserted Belfour less than two minutes later. The fans, certain their shouting had influenced the decision, felt they could will the team to victory. The Blackhawks staged a dramatic comeback after Philadelphia had taken a 4-1 lead early in the second period. They pulled to within one goal late in the third period and clearly had the Flyers on the run. The Flyers, scared now, began to dish out elbows in the corners. Keenan responded by sending out little-used Stu Grimson to the delight of a crowd hoping to see Philadelphia lose its lead and a few teeth in the bargain.
Grimson has earned a place in the National Hockey League solely through his talent for smashing opposing players in the face. He has yet to score a point this season but no one is bemoaning his lack of offensive productivity. As a skater, he can hardly keep up with his mates or the opposition. He takes dainty little strides on what look like the unsteady ankles of a midget-league player. Still, the Flyers defenders stayed out of his way, almost bowing as to a visiting dignitary. Once Grimson got hold of the puck he treated it like a rattlesnake. He tossed it away and resumed watching for any Flyers looking cross-eyed at him.
But none of the Flyers ever got near enough to Grimson to start a fight, and with about five minutes to go in the game the Blackhawks were still down one goal. Referee Andy van Hellemond, long a target of Chicago fans' hatred, whistled Dave "Charlie" Manson for an infraction and sent him off to the penalty box. The fans jumped out of their seats. A few guys looked like they might leap the balcony railing just to get their hands on van Hellemond's neck. A fellow next to me screamed himself hoarse, then turned to me and said that van Hellemond has it in for Manson. Manson has been suspended four times by the league for his overexuberant approach to the game. Several years ago during an altercation, Manson doubled his opponent over with a punch to the belly then kneed the poor soul in the face. Another time he bit a chunk out of a player's hand. Manson once started a fistfight after a game was over.
Nevertheless, the consensus was that van Hellemond was persecuting our man. Just as they'd chanted "Eddie! Eddie!" earlier, the fans began to shout "Andy sucks! Andy sucks!" Their worst fears were realized a minute or so later when Philly scored a power-play goal. One guy repeatedly punched the brick wall until his fist turned bloody. Men and women alike bayed viciously at van Hellemond. The place was nearly empty within seconds, thousands making the long trek up the aisles, carrying what remained of their last cups of beer, carefully nursed since sales were cut off after the second intermission.
Out in the hallways, there was an ominous murmur, none of it discernible except for the mantralike repetition of the words "fuck," "fuckin'," and "motherfucker." They'd been cheated out of a victory by a team full of pushovers and a bum official. And they didn't even get a fight.
The streets leading away from the Stadium were jammed. My nephew and I sneaked onto Wood Street heading north. He'd got the tickets for the game through his wife's law firm. Since the ducats were free and we don't get a chance to take in a game all that often, we agreed it was a good, entertaining evening. The people in the car ahead of us didn't see things in the same light.
It was an old beater, a Buick, full of rust spots and spewing acrid exhaust. Its owner had pasted heavy metal and "Shit Happens" bumper stickers all over its rear end. In the car sat six young white kids, the boys with long hair and baseball caps on backward, the girls with stiff, sprayed hair. Every few seconds someone would tilt his or her head back and take a long swig out of a can. Between swigs, those at the windows would crank them down and yell "Shit!" and "Fuckin' van Hellemond!" The traffic inched ahead.
At the intersection of Wood and Warren Boulevard, a harried-looking cop, bundled up against the cold, gestured at the traffic, urging cars to move through the red light. The driver of the Buick, perhaps pondering injustice, remained at a standstill. "Hey!" yelled the cop. "Hey you! Let's go!"
The driver's giggling girlfriend punched him in the arm. He jumped. She pointed at the cop. "What do you want me to do," the cop shouted, his arms held wide, "send ya an engraved invitation?"
The driver stepped on the gas. The Buick lurched forward a few feet and its engine coughed. Then it hesitated. "Come on, come on!" the cop screamed. The driver punched the gas and spun his wheels. The car stopped once again.
The driver rolled his window halfway down and called for the cop. The cop refused to come. "Get goin'!" he shouted.
The driver made a beckoning gesture with his hand. "Go, go, go!" the cop yelled. The driver insisted.
The cop finally began to walk toward the car. "Awright, awright. I'm comin'."
When the cop had come within a few feet of the car, the driver leaned his head out the window and screamed "You're a cocksucker!"
His pals roared. One girl put her hand over her open mouth.
The cop blew a gasket. "Fuck you!" he exploded. The Buick began to squeal away. The cop kicked at it, missed, and almost fell backward. He turned to us, as we sat in our car mindful that the ten-letter word is notorious as the worst imprecation in a cop's vocabulary, trying to hide our smirks. "Get goin'!" he growled.
"Yessir," I mouthed. My nephew, the son of a cop, snapped a mock salute at him and pulled away. But Wood Street still was packed with cars, and traffic slowed again quickly; the Buick got less than a block before it had to stop again. "Oh man," I said, "what if that cop comes?"
"Some cops are assholes," my nephew replied.
"Yeah, I know," I said, "but that cop was only doin' his job, he's out there freezin' his ass off and some motorhead from River Grove calls him a cocksucker. I'd be pissed too."
My nephew said,"That would be funny if he came up now."
"They wouldn't expect it in a million years," I said.
My nephew had been peering at his side-view mirror. "Uh oh," he said. The cop trudged by with heavy footsteps. When he reached the Buick, he pulled out his big black flashlight. Rap! Rap! Rap! He hit the driver's side window. Every head in the Buick turned in unison. When they saw the cop, they all jumped in their seats. The car seemed to lift with them.
"Open that window!" the cop barked. The driver would have been smarter to pull into the opposite lane, empty of traffic, head for the expressway and count his blessings, but he was hypnotized by fear. He fumbled at the window crank. When he got the window down far enough to fit a man's arm, the cop reached in and grabbed a handful of the kid's long hair. "Who's a cocksucker?" the cop demanded.
The kid stopped cranking and tried to pull away. The cop reached in with his other arm and applied an inescapable hold. "Open that door!" he yelled. The kid reached for the handle but he was so nervous he couldn't open it. "Open that door! I'll show you who's a cocksucker!" the cop continued.
The kid was a wreck. He couldn't have opened the door if the cop put a gun to his head. The cop grabbed the handle, yanked it, and threw the door open. He pulled the kid out by his hair and dragged him across the street. The cop threw him against a huge old Cadillac and slapped him, hard, across the face. "I'm a cocksucker, huh?"
"Jesus Christ," my nephew whispered.
"Wait a minute," the kid pleaded. Whack--another slap. "I didn't--" Whack. "I'm--" Whack. The kid's friends could only watch with slack jaws.
An unmarked car full of tactical team cops screeched up. The cop now had both his hands on the kid's neck and was lifting him off the ground. A black limousine that had been a few cars behind us pulled to within inches of the cop and the kid. The limousine had a Christmas wreath attached to its grille. A fat man got out, hitched up his pants, and said "You little bastard." The tac team cops ran up. "It's OK," the fat man advised them. He walked up to them and muttered to them in hushed tones.
One of the kid's friends, maybe emboldened by what he was drinking, got out of the car and clenched his fists. The fat man and the four tac team guys turned to him simultaneously. "What the fuck are you gonna do?" the fat man said. That kid considered the question for the briefest moment and got back in the car.
The fat man told the girl in the front seat to move the Buick out of the traffic. She pulled up about 25 yards and pulled off the street into a driveway that led to a parking lot for the Henry Horner Homes.
My nephew and I sat in our car transfixed. The fat man and the tac team guys had formed a semicircle and watched as the cop continued to work over the kid's face and body.
"Wait! Please!" the kid said once. "Shut up!" someone said.
The fat man turned to us. "You," he said, pointing to my nephew. "Get outta here!" He wordlessly shifted into drive and pulled off. Down the street, we slowed to look into the Buick. One of the girls was crying. The others were peering out at the tough neighborhood surrounding them. One of the guys craned his neck to look at the upper floors of one of the high rises.
The fat man was walking toward us. "Hey!" he yelled. My nephew punched the gas.