Let's get one thing straight before we go further: Love is not finite. As any parent knows, a new offspring comes along and the family grows to embrace the child (more often than not, anyway). Money and time may be limited, but not the ability to care about someone or something new. The same goes for the sports teams we say we "love," so it's not quite right to suggest that the American Basketball League's Condors have a better chance of making it because the National Basketball Association owners are locking out their players. It's not as if some specific amount of affection either is spent from season to season or else spills over from one sport to another when a team or sport alienates its fans. If that were true, more people would be attending the games of the Condors and the Blackhawks and perhaps even the Bears. Yet, with the Bulls and their Chicago fans still waiting for the lockout to end, fewer people are attending Hawks games than at any time in memory.
What can I say? The Hawks are a tough team to love playing in a tough place to love in.
These vague and abstract thoughts--abstract by sports standards, anyway--occurred to me in large part because I bid the Hawks adieu before their first long road trip of the season while sitting high up in the United Center in a section filled with kids. I had gone down that night and bought the cheapest ticket possible, $15, and been seated in the very last row of what they'd have called the second balcony in the old Chicago Stadium. At the ends of the arena were vast expanses of empty seats extending from the top to the bottom of the 300 level, yet they had thrown me into the back of a rather crowded section, presumably to generate some camaraderie--which, believe me, I appreciated. To my surprise, however, I wasn't surrounded by the old blue-collar fans who used to populate the upper balcony at the Chicago Stadium, nor by the south-side yuppies who have replaced them, treating the UC like their regular weekend gathering place and watering hole. Around me were huge families filled with young kids--most of them, believe it or not, girls between the ages of five and ten. One group of five girls and their father sat down just to my right, followed by four more girls, their parents, and their three-year-old kid brother in the next row down, and then another family of boys and their father a couple rows down from there. Everyone seemed to know each other, and the girls got to chirping about their classes and teachers, and I all but expected Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen to stroll in wearing Blackhawks jerseys and waving to everyone.
It was the strangest thing, and I couldn't get over it. Here were the Hawks at a low ebb in popularity--they couldn't sell 16,000 tickets to their send-off, their last home game for weeks, and they'd lost nine of their previous ten games, with the tenth a measly tie, and the beefy guy in shorts I'd bought my copy of the Crease from outside the stadium had said, "So, it was here or stay home and watch the Bears, huh?" Yet these families had decided to invest hundreds of dollars in taking their kids to see the Hawks--on a school night, yet. Had they gotten the dates for the circus mixed up and decided to stick around after driving all the way from Beverly or some other Catholic enclave (to judge by the size of these families)? Or was some deep filial love of hockey involved? Had that thin, short-haired, and attentive mother been one of those Blackhawks babes--in the big hair, satin warm-up jacket, spandex pants, and high heels--who smoked cigarettes in the Chicago Stadium stairwells 15 years ago, and had she met her now somewhat apathetic husband at a Hawks game? What was the deal? All I knew was that there was something life affirming and bizarrely hockey affirming about it all.
Bizarrely hockey affirming because few of these people paid any real attention to the game--and I can't say I blamed them. The Hawks, under new coach Dirk Graham and general manager Bob Murray, have put together a miserable team. It's reminiscent of the California Angels squads of the late 70s and early 80s, when baseball's free agency was new and Angels rosters always seemed to comprise overpriced stars past their prime and overrated young talent, all put together pell-mell. Having missed the playoffs last year, the Hawks raised their payroll to $35 million, fifth in the league, but their two biggest additions, center Doug Gilmour and defenseman Paul Coffey, are 35 and 37 and appear well into end-of-career declines. It's an old, slow, plodding team, and though disciplinarian Graham set out to instill a solid system--the Hawks opened with four wins and a tie in their first six games--the system soon broke down and the Hawks began losing games by disgraceful scores such as 10-3. On this night, trying to halt that ten-game winless streak against the only slightly less mediocre Ottawa Senators, they practically moseyed out of their locker room, past their bench, and onto the ice as Frank Pellico played "Here Come the Hawks" on the organ. Where was Keith Magnuson when a fan and the team really needed him--or at least Chris Chelios? (Out with a knee injury, unfortunately.)
The publishers of the Crease, the renegade program, had thoughtfully tucked a barf bag into its pages, but nobody in the UC was going to get worked up to the point of nausea. The screaming and yelling that went on over the national anthem was pro forma, and the fans were, if anything, even less involved in the game than the players. There was very little hitting on the ice, but when one nearby fan yelled, "Hit somebody," it was with all the gusto of a vendor droning, "Beer here." Why had we come? It had to be love, but of what sort? Was it a married love based on memories--nostalgia for those wonderful, character-driven Hawks of the 60s, or the beautiful, intricate teams of the early 80s--or something else entirely? I only know that Graham and assistant coaches Denis Savard and Lorne Molleken --in their stiff suits and tight ties, shifting their weight from foot to foot behind the Hawks' bench--had the look of ushers at a wedding where no one is optimistic about the prospects. Looking around at the empty seats and taking in the antiseptic UC atmosphere, I was reminded that Joni Mitchell began her recent performance there singing, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." Who knew Joni was a Hawks fan so well versed in the history of the old Chicago Stadium?
Yet if instead of the game one watched the nearby people, there was some sense to be made of how this event had enticed us. The first period ended in a scoreless tie, and during the shoot-the-puck contest the boys from a few rows down got a hockey game going in the back aisle, using their feet as sticks and a plastic cup as the puck. They made the UC seem a little like a neighborhood rink. People talked and visited, and as play resumed we all watched the Bears score, posted at intervals, climb from 14-3 in favor of the Detroit Lions toward the 26-3 final. Somewhere there were Chicago sports fans much more miserable than we were.
The Hawks kept intruding, however. They couldn't put two passes together. They got called on a stupid penalty early in the second period, and though a forechecking Alexei Zhamnov forced the Senators into an equalizing penalty, what good was that? The Hawks don't have anyone who skates well enough to be considered a good four-on-four player, and when Senators defenseman Lance Pitlick seized the initiative for a quick rush, he got a shot on goal and it went in past Mark Fitzpatrick.
The Hawks managed to get it back moments later. Coffey, making his home debut after missing the early season with injuries, snapped a wrist shot that was tipped by Eric Daze. Ottawa's Damian Rhodes stopped it, but Tony Amonte, the only bright spot of the season in Chicago, tapped in the rebound for his league-leading 12th goal. "Go Hawks!" said a dad down the row to his daughter. Early in the third period the crowd was actually getting into the game a little, with the help of the three-man tom-tom club that roams the upper balcony, and things looked good when the Hawks went on the power play. They had Gilmour and Coffey at the points, with Amonte, Daze, and Zhamnov up front--a promising group that hadn't jelled yet. They didn't jell here, either--not until it was too late. Gilmour let the puck hop over his stick, and Ottawa's Shaun Van Allen pounced on it and skated the length of the ice for a breakaway and an easy shorthanded goal. "We're outta here!" threatened the dad down the row, but for the moment he stayed put. The go-ahead goal did leave the Hawks still on the power play, and moments later Gilmour atoned for his muff. He captured the puck just inside the left point and, as I was moving to clap and cheer derisively, slapped a shot on goal that Daze tipped in. It shut me up.
Having scrambled back to tie the game at two, the Hawks almost blew it when they drew another dumb penalty with just over five minutes to go. The seconds ticked down as the Senators methodically attacked the Hawks' net, and an Ottawa player in the corner passed through traffic to an open teammate in the slot who fired the puck past Fitzpatrick just as the two minutes were about to expire. "All right, let's go!" said the same dad. He and his daughters stood in the aisle as the referees reconsidered and finally waved off the goal for an Ottawa player being in the crease. Regardless, the dad chased the girls down the aisle and homeward; it was a school night, after all.
The game ended with a lethargic five-minute overtime. Both teams seemed content to escape with a 2-2 tie, and that's the way things ended. Shortly before the end, however, the thin mother looked over her shoulder at a discreetly cozy couple sitting side by side in the last row. She looked down the row at her husband several vacant seats away--their daughters were visiting with friends for the time being--and she motioned for him to come sit beside her. At first he was reluctant. "The stuff," he said, pointing to the pile of coats on the seat next to him, but then he got up and trudged over. And so it was we all sat there, in an antiseptic stadium watching a rather poor contest, feeling the peculiar anguished, overflowing, evanescent, blissful pleasure of the company one sometimes keeps at a hockey game.