As a kid I used to spend my Sunday mornings in church, in a pew toward the rear, sitting alongside my buddy Dale Barnes. We'd play a game in which we'd take the offering envelopes and draw pictures on the back that looked like baseball cards, so that the other person would have to guess which player was being represented. Neither of us could draw worth a lick, but it wasn't how realistic the players looked that was important but the poses they were in. That year's Bill Mazeroski card might find him with his bat over his shoulder and a chaw of tobacco in his cheek, while Bob Gibson might have his glove clasped to his chest and his pitching hand pointed at the camera--details that were easily enough rendered even for remedial artists like us. This comes to mind now because Dale Barnes's older brother had season tickets to the Blackhawks, and at the end of the year, when the Hawks always play a series of Sunday matinees, Dale usually got to go to a couple of the games. What envy and admiration I had for him then.
There is still something very seasonal about those Sunday matinees; they're associated in my mind with new baseball cards, forsythia, and Easter. My daughters aren't getting the sort of religious education I received (they'll not be exposed to the tedium that can drive children to create crazy games involving how athletes look on trading cards), but I am trying to give them a solid foundation in the city's sports culture. Sunday afternoon my eight-year-old daughter and I went to see the Hawks take on the Florida Panthers from a couple of $15 seats I'd bought in the high 300 level. We drove down Ashland surrounded by several cars full of families in their Sunday best, past a small gathering of worshipers still milling outside the buttermilk-brick First Baptist Congregational Church at Washington Street--me dutifully outfitted in my white Hawks jersey, sunglasses, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer cap, she in the red Hawks sweatshirt she got from her uncle at a game a couple of years ago. (It somehow still fits, though it's about to be handed down for eventual use by the two-year-old.) It was sunny and blustery and warm--a rare spring day in Chicago--yet we were about to willingly lock ourselves indoors to watch men play ice hockey for three hours, without even a pause at the Michael Jordan sculpture outside the United Center.
What a mistake; I might just as well have enrolled her in Sunday school at the local Pentecostal church.
The Hawks played miserably; they were lethargic and out of sync. The crowd was sparse, laconic, and uninvolved. And what's more, cigars have been banned from the UC. (This may be old news to regular Hawks fans, but it came as an unwelcome surprise when I was informed of it while trying to light up between periods--of course, right outside a security-office door.) The only good news to report was the Crease, which has replaced the Blue Line as the renegade program of choice sold outside the stadium. The Crease offers the same annotated rosters the Blue Line used to and the same biting antiownership editorial slant, as well as "The Pugilist Page," an analysis of potential bouts in that day's game (analysis that would turn out to be much needed, as Chris Chelios went out early with a game misconduct and the Hawks descended to frustration fights toward the end). The Crease, an eight-page newsletter with nothing but facts and figures, cost $2, compared with the $5 charged for the "official" program, overpriced even with the cover article on Denis Savard (the fifth and most recent member of the Blackhawks to have his jersey retired and quite easily the least talented to be so honored, the others being Glenn Hall, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Tony Esposito). The Crease was being hawked on the corner by a big, gruff guy.
"And not a penny to Bill Wirtz?" I had to ask.
"Not a penny," he said, with a great goateed smile.
Our token protest complete, we went in, climbed the escalators, sat down in our assigned seats, and waited for the warm-ups to end and the game to begin. The Hawks' Sunday matinees haven't changed in that they're still family affairs. The row in front of us was filled with two bearded guys--obviously brothers--and their three children, and they were soon joined by a grown son accompanying his mother, who was dressed in a black Hawks jersey and dripping with a Shalimar knockoff perfume. In fact, kids were all over the place, in marked contrast with the usual Blackhawks night game. We shouted and clapped and cheered our way through the national anthem while goalie Jeff Hackett did his little jig to get loose, but there was something very pro forma about the whole thing--something like buying a kite on a cold, rainy, windy day in March. That impression was evidently shared by the Blackhawks, who played as if they were just filling the hours between a soporific sermon and a roast beef dinner.
Fans of the White Sox can, I believe, get a glimmer of what this summer holds from watching the Hawks. They are in the process of rebuilding on the fly, and even though they entered Sunday with a losing record--29-31-12, for sixth place in the Western Conference, with the top eight making the playoffs--they're younger, faster, and altogether more entertaining than they were a year ago. That is the very same process the Sox are going through. Of course, the Hawks were an old, plodding, mediocre team that needed to be rebuilt a year ago, while the Sox last summer were a mere three and a half games behind the eventual pennant-winning Cleveland Indians when they made the decision to back up the truck. What's more, the Hawks, for all their improvement, have exchanged one set of problems for another; where a year ago they were old and slow, now they are green and prone to being pushed around. The Sox, to complete the comparison, are about to find that while they're younger, quicker, better managed, and more interesting, they have problems in pitching and defense. In short, both teams, for all their improvement, are still a season or more away from being seriously competitive.
Tony Amonte, scurrying all over the ice with his hair waving from underneath his helmet, has established himself as the Hawks' top offensive threat and perhaps their best player. His line mate Alexei Zhamnov, with his penchant for stickhandling, is more assertive than he was a year ago, but he's still far removed from Jeremy Roenick, the player he was traded for. Chelios remains sturdy on defense, and Eric Daze has become the team's top scorer. He has that easy, effortless, seemingly lazy manner of the talented hockey player, and he has already scored 30 goals this season.
Yet those players, along with goalie Hackett, are the only Blackhawks who play with character: that is, a fan can judge their character from the way they play. The others are works in progress at best (the still-improving Eric Weinrich and the young-and-improving Christian Laflamme on defense) or washouts at worst (Sergei Krivokrasov, who scurries around the ice like Amonte, but without anything approaching the same results). What's more, the younger, faster team has proved vulnerable to older, bigger teams, which can bully them around. The promising Dmitri Nabokov is the victim of his reputation that he can't take a hit. At one point Sunday a Florida player simply pushed him over and skated off with the puck.
Personally, I prefer a team with speed, quickness, and a little finesse to a bunch of dump-and-chase bruisers, but I can't say that preference is shared by most Hawks fans. The Hawks tried to push back, resulting in several skirmishes, and with each one my daughter threw her hands up to her face, but for the most part they were manhandled and outplayed from start to finish. Sunday's game found wide expanses of empty seats, to the point where the paid attendance wasn't even announced. There were benefits and drawbacks to that. After the first period, we moved from the 15th row of the 300 level down to the 6th row, and we could have gone lower if we hadn't been concerned about looking presumptuous. We also had room to spread out, and I threw my legs over the seats in front of us. All that space, however, buffered us from the usual camaraderie. In the first period I heard one nearby fan call the Hawks' power-play unit the "powerless play," but after that I didn't hear anybody say boo all game long.
Well, wait, actually I heard plenty of boos and a lot worse, but very little repartee worth repeating. The first period was scoreless, and though the Hawks looked lively they lost Chelios in the final minute after a one-sided fight in which he was the aggressor. Losing the team captain--as well as leading scorer Daze, out with a bad back--seemed to take the desire out of the Hawks. Laflamme got called on a bogus interference penalty on what looked to be a beautiful hip check, pinning a Florida player against the boards, early in the middle frame, and the Panthers converted on the power play to take the lead. That was one thing--the second Florida goal, which came at the end of a breakaway after the puck hopped over the stick of Chicago defenseman Trent Yawney, was something else. When the announcer declared there was only a minute to play in the second period, fans booed.
It only got worse in the third period, when the Hawks suffered through a rash of two-line passes and offside calls. "Boo!" I said with one eye on my daughter. "Bullshit!" screamed the guy two rows behind me, sort of defeating the purpose behind my own discretion. "Let's go Hawks!" yelled another nearby father, and his son and daughter looked up as if he were a madman previously unknown to them. While the Hawks were diddling away every opportunity, looking tentative on each power play, the Panthers' Viktor Kozlov was scoring on a slap shot from just inside the blue line on a simple trailer pass from Radek Dvorak. The lesson to the Blackhawks seemed clear: just shoot it. In the final minutes the Hawks had a two-man advantage and pulled their goalie for a six-on-three, but persisted in passing the puck around the perimeter. Kozlov chased it down in the corner and flicked a wrist shot the length of the ice into the empty net: end of lesson. The final score was 4-0. For all their improvement, the Hawks don't figure to get past the first round when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin.
Still, we stayed to the very end, and snuck out past the guys who had come down to the first row of the 300 level to pour their dissatisfaction onto the Hawks in no uncertain terms. Back out in the sunshine and the warmth and the wind, my daughter turned to me and said, "I thought the fights were the best part." So it is that another generation of Hawks fans learns to accept the way things are, rather than daring to expect what could be.