Growing up a Chicago sports fan is a humbling addiction.
I have been hooked from the day that my dad first took the family to a White Sox game at the old Comiskey Park, when my young sister, who was used to watching the games on a black and white television with snowy UHF reception, uttered, “Look, the game’s in color!” I have absolutely been hooked since I witnessed my first Blackhawks game at the since torn down Chicago Stadium. In another screed, I tried to describe the ephemeral power that music has on our soul – namely, the power to transform our emotional state and bring us to another place. For better or worse, sports has a similar transformative capacity.
Growing up, my dad shared season tickets for a year or two to the Chicago Blackhawks hockey games. It was during this period that I was able to enjoy the true beauty of hockey (along with 20,000 raucous fans). The momentum of the game can turn in an instant; a hard check or defensive play often means more than a great offensive pass or shot. That’s what I love about hockey. More than any other sport, it’s the seemingly minor elements that have so much impact on the present momentum and the ultimate result. Plus, the old Chicago Stadium (even then it was old having been built in 1929) literally shook with each great pass or stellar defensive play. It certainly shook even more when the home team scored, aided by the unending baritone pitch of the massive 3,663 pipe Barton organ that would signal a goal. Like a music club, the Chicago Stadium was a sensual temple that provoked the senses, addicted the patrons and begged them to seek higher and higher levels of pleasure.
Unfortunately, the Blackhawks could not win the Stanley Cup. Although they had tremendous teams in my childhood heyday of the late 60s and early 70s, with players such as Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito, Stan Mikita and Pit Martin, they failed to win the Cup. Most memorably and heartbreakingly, they lost game 7 at home to the Montreal Canadiens in 1971 after being ahead in the game 2-0 late into the second period. A fluke goal from the center line by Jacques Lemaire whizzed past Tony O, cut the lead to 1 goal, and gave the Canadiens the aforementioned momentum they desperately needed. They eventually beat the Hawks 3-2 to win yet another Stanley Cup.
Listening to those games on the radio as described by the wonderful play-by-play work of Lloyd Petit, I was emotionally spent. I was not just a fan at that point, but a member of the team, my emotions rising and falling faster than that Jacques Lemaire shot. I was only eleven years old, but often felt that my emotional commitment exceeded that of most of the players or management.
Unfortunately, once again, being a Chicago sports fan will drive you to the emotional depths. It’s not just the endless failure of my beloved hockey team, but a collective failure to “win the big one” by the majority of the Chicago sports teams. Yes, it’s true that the Chicago Bears, under the tutelage of Mike Ditka, broke the streak in the 1985-1986 season.
But let’s not forget that the Bears should have won at least two more Super Bowls in the 80s. Thank you Charles Martin of the Packers for body slamming Jim McMahon in 1986 and dashing any hopes of a repeat Super Bowl victory. And it’s true that the Chicago Bulls won big in the 90s under the expert guidance of Phil Jackson and the wizardry of Michael Jordan. However, let us not forget the 1975 Western Conference finals when the Bulls stole home court advantage, went up 3 games to 2, but lost the next two games to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
The Cubs deserve an entire chapter of their own, but let me just mention a couple of years and names: 1984, Leon Durham; 2003, Steve Bartman. Enough said.
As for my other favorite team – the White Sox – at least they snapped their long drought by winning the World Series in 2005, the first time since 1917. Yet, the 1983 playoffs, featuring names like those of Britt Burns, Tito Landrum and Jerry Dybzinski will forever haunt long tenured Sox fans.
But, back to hockey. In 1991, my wife and I had just moved from Chicago to San Antonio. During the Blackhawks surprising playoff run during the 1991-1992 strike-shortened season, culminating in a visit to the Stanley Cup finals, we would watch all the playoff games at the local sports bar. There was no other place to get the television feed. It became our routine. Every other night the Hawks would play, and we would meet at the bar directly after work, enjoy a cold beverage in the blazing South Texas heat and scream and shout for a victory. For eleven straight playoff games, the Hawks did just that. Until they reached the finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Twenty years removed from the dashed dreams of '71, I sit in a foreign city's sports bar, mentally taken back to those very same days. I have reverted to that eleven-year-old child whose every breathing moment, whose every emotional ebb and flow, revolves around the success of his hockey team.
Instead of names like Jacques Lemaire, Ken Dryden, Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer stealing my dreams, names like Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr bedevil my reality. On the good side, Belfour, Roenick and Chelios have replaced Esposito, Hull, and Mikita. The different names, though, do not produce a different result. In game 1, the Hawks squander leads of 3-0 and 4-1. I implore Eddie Belfour to hang onto the puck, but to no avail. Off a rebound, Mr. Lemieux scores the game-winning goal with 10 seconds left to rally the Penguins to an unbelievable 5-4 victory. Pittsburgh uses this initial game 1 momentum to sweep the Hawks 4 games to none and win the Stanley Cup (although the series was actually closer than the score might indicate).
Chicago loses again and I am devastated once more. I swear off my addiction. After all, how foolish is it to let one’s soul ride on the wings of a sports team? I remain true to my pledge and stay off this drug. Then spring training, or mini-camp, or pre-season begins anew, and I fall off the sports wagon to be forever haunted by a last second score from an opposing team.
I am a Chicago sports fan.