Once upon a time I was a young Blackhawk fan who worshiped Eddie "the Eagle" Belfour, the young-gun #27 J.R. and the defensive workhorse local-boy Chris Chelios. The early 90s were a good time to become a hockey fan in Chicago. Some of my fondest memories were staying up way past bedtime using the AM radio in my alarm clock to secretly listen to double overtime battles in the playoffs. It was love at first sight, and for me, it was unconditional as the team that endeared me to this game, sadly eroded away one beloved player at a time.
I remained a hopeful fan through my teens clinging to a fleeting underdog notion that maybe Kyle Kalder, Eric Daze and Tony Amonte could simply will the franchise to victory inspite of a penny-pinching owner and an era where the highest bidder hoarded top-tier talent. The game itself was changing for the worse and the popularity of the game and team quickly lost all relevancy in Chicago, and deservedly so. As many Hawk fans today are quick to bemoan the, "band wagon" fans, I'm here to say, all they missed was a bunch of empty seats and a lame product. To put it simply, it flat-out sucked being a Hawk fan for most of my life. I would go out to the local sports bar in my black #15 Tuuomo Ruutu jersey and needed to request one TV in the corner to be switched from Poker, to the Hawks game; and getting sound turned on was a rare pity-gift. I was often asked the question, "why are you wearing a Hawks jersey?", followed by, "who the hell is Ruutu?". I defended my faith for a long while, but eventually watered down my argument to a pathetic, "I root for a shitty team because I can get an $8 ticket with my student ID and see the other teams play against them". (I've said these words)
This story changed on a night that I will never forget. It came after some excitement around two high draft picks. Obviously I'm talking about Patrick Kane and Jonathen Toews of course. At that point, even I was a skeptic, Kane was short and under weight for a league dominated by the slow skating power forward types, "oh great, he'll look awesome in practice", I thought. When I read a scouting report conparing Toews as the next Steve Yzerman, as exciting as that should have sounded, it seemed like just another setup for more disappointment or an opportunity for management to drive talent to other teams.
It wasn't until a mild fall evening, October 19th 2007 that I started to believe. My friends and I piled into a mosh pit at the House of Blues for the band, "Everytime I Die", and my then girlfriend, now wife Diane was out nearby with friends, and the plan was to have both groups meet at a bar after the concert. I walk into the bar, Diane and I share a beer away from the group and catch up on how our evening had gone, and I look up at a TV and at that exact moment, I see an 18yo Patrick Kane make a quick pass to a 19yo Toews.
I watched the replay again and again. They eventually had to stop talking about it because play had resumed for a handful of minutes, but I still remember the first words I spoke after seeing this play, "this is special, this feels like something different". With the post lockout rule changes, and new ownership, everything was changing all over again, and these two youngsters were poised to dominate in this exciting "new NHL".
This moment kept me a fan, this is the type of old-man story I will get to bore my future grandchildren with, when something new in their life shows a glimmer of becoming something that is awesome. Some might be surprised that I'm not talking about about 2010, 2013 & 2015 championships, but for me, all I ever wanted from this team and this game, is an exciting story worth talking about.
Chicago is a better place to live when there is good hockey to watch, and new fans to share it with.