Being a Russian must be a lot like being a Blackhawks fan: things are royally screwed up and have been for years, and for as long as anyone can remember there's been a despot at the top. Yet in each case one's natural allegiance is secure, because after all it's the homeland (or home team), and--with the help of a little alcohol--the camaraderie of others in the same boat makes the state of affairs a lot less painful.
In Russia as at the United Center, whistling, booing, and drinking can be therapeutic.
One could argue that things have changed in Russia with the rise to power of Boris Yeltsin (good luck making that argument to Russians), while fans of the Hawks still have to live with Premier William Wirtz. But if the Hawks are tracing a course a little behind the natural arc of history, their fans have the patience and good humor to deal with the team's backwardness.
Last Saturday night, a vendor stood outside the United Center selling copies of the Blue Line, the renegade "real program" produced independently of the team. When asked how much the program was, the vendor replied with the trademark line, "Three bucks, and not a penny to Bill Wirtz."
Some things, thank the gods, never change.
And the Blue Line is one of them. "The Blue Line Swimsuit Issue" featured a cover photo of Wirtz's head planted atop the body of Yasmine Bleeth, the curvaceous Baywatch starlet now doing a magazine spot for the ad campaign espousing the benefits of milk. Inside was the usual collection of "all the news that's fit to misprint," including the fascinating finding that the Hawks are 11-11-5 when radio-TV announcer Pat Foley "begs people to come to games," and an astounding 20-1-6 when "Bill Wirtz clones sheep, the old-fashioned way."
Hockey played the way the Hawks are playing it this season is considerably more enjoyable when a fan is laughing through the tears. Besides, that way it looks better because everything is blurry.
The Hawks came home from a four-game road trip Saturday to begin a critical stretch of eight games out of the next ten at the United Center. These games were critical because the Hawks found themselves in ninth place in the Western Conference of the National Hockey League, in danger of missing the playoffs (now reserved for the top eight teams in each conference, a liberal 16 out of the total 25) for the first time in almost 30 years. They also were critical because the Hawks had a losing 11-17-3 home record, against 15-13-7 on the road. If they didn't start performing better at the United Center, they wouldn't make it.
But maybe what the franchise needs as a wake-up call is to not make it, which would deprive Wirtz of those extra home dates he's come to bank on. The team, one hopes, has hit bottom this year in almost every area imaginable--talent, tactics, and motivation. (The public address system no longer plays U2's "Desire" when the Hawks come bursting out of the locker room behind their bench, presumably because U2 threatened to sue for defamation.) Night in, night out, right wing Tony Amonte and goalie Jeff Hackett are the only two Hawks who play with any sense of inspiration--though "desperation" might be a more accurate description. (James Black, the only other player worth mentioning on this point, has Amonte's moxie but little of his talent.) Hackett entered this week with a gleaming goals-against average of just above two a game, but also a losing record of 13-15-2. Amonte, meanwhile, had 27 assists and a team-high 34 goals and 61 points, putting him on the verge of the best season in his seven-year career, and his 30 plus-minus rating (meaning the Hawks have scored 30 more times than the opposition while he was on the ice) ranks him among the league leaders--higher than the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, as well as the New York Rangers' Wayne Gretzky.
Otherwise, the Hawks are an apathetic, clueless, apparently talentless bunch--breathing, skating testimony to the idea that the sport has overexpanded--and Wirtz gets a large portion of the blame. Goalie Ed Belfour and center-right wing Jeremy Roenick are both gone, the latest casualties in Wirtz's 30-year war of attrition against high player salaries. Belfour was dealt earlier this season to the San Jose Sharks, and Roenick was traded last summer to the Phoenix Coyotes for Alexei Zhamnov, a once promising young player who now finds himself in danger of seeing his total points decline for the fourth straight season. Oddly enough, the Coyotes are newly arrived in Phoenix from Winnipeg, where they were the Jets--the same franchise Bobby Hull jumped to from the Hawks 25 years ago. Some things never change.
Not so oddly, the Coyotes were the team in town to play the Hawks Saturday, and the fan response to Roenick, in his second game back as an opponent, was interesting. On the one hand, wearing a Blackhawks jersey with "Roenick 27" on the back is now the most visible sign of protest a Hawks fan can make against the Wirtz regime. (The number of Roenick jerseys worn to games remains impressive; by contrast, one kid was seen wearing a "Belfour 30" jersey, but with tape across both the name and number.) He remains a popular player here, and spent most of the time during warm-ups at the sides of the rink near the glass, where he chatted with fans and tossed them a puck now and then. One group plastered a huge sign against the glass: "Welcome home JR we miss you!"
But other fans, especially in the stadium's higher reaches, expressed the opposite view. Roenick got a mixed response of boos and cheers during introductions, and whenever he skated with the puck, some fan would inevitably shout something along the lines of "Hit that bum!" When Roenick got dumped on his behind, fans cheered.
There's a natural hatred people feel toward someone perceived to be saving himself at their expense--the envy of the stay-at-home for the emigrant. And the fact is that the Hawks have been considerably diminished by Roenick's departure. Zhamnov has not replaced him--not on the ice, and not in the fans' hearts--and the team appears demoralized. Eric Daze, the Hawks' most promising player last year as a rookie, has sleepwalked through the season, scoring 13 goals compared with 30 a year ago and posting a plus-minus rating of negative 10, low on the team. (His name is pronounced Dah-ZAY, but that hasn't stopped the Blue Line from referring to him as "Lazy Daze.") The team is now populated by goons like Bob Probert and Enrico Ciccone and over-the-hill former stars like Denis Savard and Steve Smith. When either Probert or Ciccone tries to skate with the puck the game seems to break into slow motion until some opposing player steals it; of the other two, Smith has missed most of the season (once again) with injuries, while Savard only rarely shows a glimpse of what once was--with a curlicue maneuver and a blind behind-the-back pass to a teammate in stride. More often than not, however, the Hawks' blind passes go sailing through the slot in front of the goal with nobody home.
Saturday, both Amonte and Kevin Miller found themselves cruising through the slot unmolested when centering passes went through them like sunlight through a window. For Amonte it was a rare lapse. He typically dashes up and down the ice with abandon, his long hair blowing out behind him, and he has a neat way of getting up a head of steam with rapid little tiptoe steps that make him look like a barefoot water-skier rising out of the waves. As for Miller, somebody might want to explain to him that when skating idly through the slot on a power play one might want to keep one's stick on the ice, in case the puck should make its way in front of one by accident.
The Hawks' power play: now there's a subject for discussion. On Saturday the Hawks ran their streak of futility to 25 straight power plays without a goal, and they demonstrated that the streak was no fluke. The Hawks would get a man advantage, pin the other team down in the attack zone, and systematically pass from the left point to behind the net, out to the right point, then to the near boards down the right-hand side, to behind the net, and back out to the left point--all without taking a shot. The Hawks' power play turns out to be the league's best penalty-killing unit.
By the third period, the fans were booing that power play ferociously. In fact, by the end of the game they were booing the Hawks in general. They had fallen behind 2-0 on a pair of unimpressive Phoenix goals. In the second period the Coyotes' Keith Tkachuk had skated down along the far boards and behind the net and then bounced one in off the back of Hackett's thigh. In the third period Mike Stapleton had skated across the blue line, swung to the left like a tennis player circling around his backhand, and fired a slap shot past Hackett. Yet up until the last moments of despair the Hawks' fans were trying to rally their team. A quartet of drummers emerged now and then from an upper-balcony gangway to pound out a stereotypical Indian rhythm and arouse chants of "Let's go Hawks!" One guy tried to inspire Zhamnov by shouting out, "C'mon Zagnut!"
And, as ever, everyone booed the guy and cheered the woman in the shoot-the-puck contest during the second intermission.
Some things really don't change, foremost among them the patience, endurance, and good spirits of the average Hawks fan.
It's sort of surprising that after all these years of misrule, some anarchist strain of Hawks fan hasn't splintered off and begun a campaign of terror, as in czarist Russia, with bombings and assassination plots and the like. Instead, Hawks fans occupy themselves with the Blue Line and the shoot-the-puck contest. It's probably better this way. After all, it's just a hockey team and not an entire civilization going to pot.