Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Late Lamented

Bill Wirtz is dead.

The owner of the Chicago Blackhawks died Wednesday morning, of cancer, at the age of 77. A human being has passed from this earth. It should be a time for mourning, for reflection, for meditations of the fragility and transience of life. Somewhere today, solemn obituaries are being run in morning papers. Somewhere today, someone is writing a eulogy for him.

But I am not. Because I am a hockey fan, and being a hockey fan sometimes does terrible things to a person. For example, Bill Wirtz is dead, and I am happy.

***

I am from Chicago, born and raised and more besides. It is my only home. If I had my way, my passport would say ‘Chicagoan’ instead of ‘American’, for that little corner of northeastern Illinois, that city by the lake, that is my native place. However far I travel, however long I am away, put me on those grey grid streets, an el train roaring overhead, a proper hot dog in my hand and the gorgeous art deco skyscrapers rising around me like elegant cliffs, and I am at peace as I am nowhere else. In Chicago, I feel the way fish do when they’re thrown back into the water.

Chicago is a great city for sports. Even as a non-sports-fan, my two-plus-decades of life there were constantly flavored by the fortunes of the local teams. I cannot remember my growing up without remembering the frantic passion for the Bulls that filled the city in their glory days, the Cubs/Sox rivalry that served as recurrent metonym for the differences between North Side and South Side, the stereotypical blue-collar and heavily-accented swagger that defined ‘Bears fan’. Even with no personal effort whatsoever on my part, I knew these teams- their successes and failures, their players, their stadiums, their symbols. They were part of Chicago, and part of being Chicagoan.

But I never knew the Blackhawks. In Canada, now, I find it difficult to get people to understand how nonexistent hockey was in Chicago in my lifetime. It was so obscure, so rarely mentioned, that until the past year I would have been hard-pressed to identify the name ‘Blackhawks’ with the proper sport- Wait… is that the soccer team? No, that’s the Fire… In 22 years of living in the city, I met hundreds of sports fans willing to chew the ears off even a reluctant non-fan about their favorite team, but I never met a single hockey fan, at least, none who openly identified as such. There was, simply, no such thing as hockey in Chicago.

Once, I might have blamed this on the overall unpopularity of hockey in the States, but now, I realize it was largely due to Bill Wirtz. Circuitously, it was only after Montreal and the Habs brought me to hockey that I learned that the Hawks were not always the invisible irrelevancy that I knew (or more accurately, didn’t know) them as. Telling my family about my newfound love, I learned that once upon a time there had been hockey in Chicago. My mother tells me that my uncles had been fans in their youth, had had table hockey games. There had been a diner in their neighborhood, apparently, where they’d go on weekend mornings to see the Hawks players chain smoking and gobbling down greasy sausages as athletes did 40 years ago. Friends’ parents tell me about going to games at the Chicago Stadium when they were in college, and recall the details of the noise and the smoke and the wild crowds with nostalgic glee. I wonder why no one ever mentioned any of this to me before, but it’s because by the time of my birth it was all long passed. I asked my father, once, how that came to be, how an Original Six team that had once been a cultural institution fell into such obscurity. Though he wasn’t a hockey fan and never had been, he told me simply, as though it was common knowledge, “Bill Wirtz ruined the Blackhawks.”

I resented him, Wirtz, for that. I still do. I have often thought that it might be good to be a Hawks fan. The Habs are, for all my love of them, a thing beyond my comprehension, a culture and a tradition whose depth I am still only dimly aware of. The Habs have millions of fans, generations of carefully tended history, and constellations of myths and stories which are retold with all the familiar reverence of Bible tales. In the vast wilds of Habistan, I (nouveau-fan) am utterly inconsequential. The Hawks, on the other hand, are the team of my homeland, a Chicago team for a Chicago girl, and I sometimes daydream that if I could have combined the passion I have for hockey with the reflexive kinship I feel for Chicago teams of any sport, the result would be a truly powerful and meaningful kind of devotion. I would make more sense as a Hawks fan than I do as a Habs fan.

In certain irrational moments, I blame Bill Wirtz for the fact that I did not find hockey earlier. It took me exactly five games, all watched on television in a half-assed, indifferent way, before the moment hit me when I fell in love with hockey. Five fucking games. How many sporting events have I been wheedled, cajoled, or compelled to watch in my life? How many Sunday afternoons did I spend dozing on the couch while my father tried to sell me on the appeal of (American) football? How many Super Bowl parties have I been dragged to? How many evening Cubs games did I see on WGN in the days before cable when we only got 10 channels? How many Cardinals games in the background of my St. Louis-born cousins’ birthday parties? How many soccer matches have I assiduously tuned out in cafes, in five countries over three continents? How many tedious golf tournaments, tennis matches, NASCAR races, and poker championships have friends and relatives insisted on putting on TV while I rolled my eyes and did crossword puzzles to kill the time? In spite of being a sarcastic, uncooperative, totally unfun person to watch a game with, a militant non-sports-fan for the vast bulk of my existence, I have seen hundreds, probably thousands of games of dozens of sports, and not one of them meant anything to me. And yet, it took only five fucking hockey games, watched with no more effort than I’d ever put into watching any sport, for me to fall madly in love with it.

If I’d grown up in almost any city with a team, certainly any other Original Six city, I would have seen some portions of a hockey game or two at some point before the age of 24. Sheer law of averages- enough channel-flipping, enough televisions passed in public places- almost guarantees it. But not in Chicago. In Chicago professional hockey was hidden as though it was a state secret or a family shame, and I blame Wirtz for that. I blame him for keeping it from me, I take it almost as a personal slight, for every time I listen to some Canadian of my generation talking about their warm golden memories of their team over the years, I remember that I don’t have that, and I have to remind them that, where I come from, when I was a kid, there was no hockey.

Rationally, I know that Wirtz cannot entirely be blamed. If there’s one thing the NHL has shown, it’s that there more ways to fuck up the management and promotion of a team in an American city than there are to do it well. It’s entirely possible that even if he’d been a considerably more benevolent and forward-thinking owner, the Hawks would still be struggling. Rationally, I know it’s a complex and nuanced situation which cannot be reduced to the actions or inactions of one person. But irrationally, I feel like he deprived me- me personally- of something that is, that would have been, important in my life. In short, I blame Bill Wirtz for my hockey-free youth.

Last December, returning home for the holidays, I watched for signs of the state of hockey in Chicago for the first time. The first thing I realized was that the Wolves, the local AHL team, were considerably more prominent than their NHL counterpart. When I mentioned going to a Hawks game while I was in town, people often immediately counter-suggested that I go see the Wolves instead- cheaper, more convenient, better atmosphere. I saw ads for the Wolves. I saw Wolves games on local cable. I wouldn’t say they were pervasive, but to someone looking for evidence of hockey in the city, there were far more traces to be found of the Wolves than the Hawks.

At the game I ultimately went to, Hawks-Leafs, I thought the crowd size wasn’t bad- not the disaster I’d been led to expect- but it was a curious bunch. At a Habs game, the overwhelming majority of fans are in bleu-blanc-rouge, with a smattering of adherents of the visiting team. At the Hawks game, however, the crowd was a jumble of jerseys, Hawks colors only slightly edging out Leafs, and both surrounded by a mosaic of others. I had expected to feel a little out of place wearing a Habs shirt, a piece of 3rd party memorabilia to a game, but there plenty of other CHs in the crowd, as well as representatives of the Avalanche, Capitals, Senators, Penguins, Kings, Sharks, Wild, Lightning, Flames, and a wide variety of minor league and European teams. Judging by the conversations in the crowd, many of them were like me, hockey fans visiting the city for the holidays, desperate for a game, any game. And as good as this was for the Hawks- I later learned that this game had been the highest-selling of their entire season to date, and the Tribune described the audience as unusually raucous- there was something a little pathetic about it too. Even in their own building, they were only barely able to be the most important team.

In Chicago, it seems to be easier to be a fan of almost any team over the Hawks. Say what you will about Versus’ hockey coverage, at least there’s some. My hockey-evangelism has partially converted a few people I know in Chicago to following the sport, but they rarely mention the Hawks- they’ve become fans of the Sabres or Penguins, vogue teams that they can actually see from time to time. Even when hockey has become relevant to them, the Blackhawks haven’t. Every now and then, when things are going badly for the Habs, I hear someone despairingly say, “If this keeps up, we’ll end up like the fucking Hawks,” and I think, don’t say that. Don’t speak lightly of the fate of the Blackhawks, don’t use them as a metaphor for an historic team with an unsuccessful present, because what they’ve become is worse than just repeated failures on the ice. Bill Wirtz died yesterday, but for all intents and purposes, the Blackhawks died years ago. In their community, in their city, they are a ghost-team, a memory, and sometimes, a joke.

***

A man is dead, and as a fellow human being, I should lament his death. And perhaps, in a way, I do. But he was a wealthy man who lived a long life, and like most wealthy, long-lived people, he doubtless had many who loved him and mourn his passing. But for my part, I cannot help but picture him as a sort of bloodless villain out of a Capra film, one of those compromised souls who willingly forsake beauty for money, joy for profit, and the common good for the bottom line. I did not know him as a human being, everything I have learned of him I learned as a hockey fan, and as a hockey fan, I have no lamentations for him. Rather, I lament the fate of the Blackhawks and the many people who’ve played for them, worked for them, and cared for them in the past decades. And more than that, I lament the thousands and thousands of Chicagoans who don’t know their hockey team, because I believe that it’s a team they might have loved, that they did love and should never have lost. It’s a team I wish I’d had the opportunity to love. Once upon a time, I'm told, hockey and Chicago were good for each other. Hopefully, now, they will be again.

5 comments:

Jacob said...

Wirtz really seems like a guy stuck in the past, when salaries didn't hit a million, and hockey was still "small" compared to other sports in north American.

Look at the one thing he did, bringing the WHA and NHL, was just more money management. Maybe he thought without the competition salaries would go back to what he thought was good. Though for a business that is quoted as making 1.3 billion per year in recent years, you think the 100 million it might take to run a Cup team and any money you'd make back seems not too bad.

It seems like after the merger and Hull that he basically gave up, unable to deal with the large salaries that hockey players now receive.

In the end, he can remembered simply for the merger and its making the NHL a much more multi-national rostered sport. though maybe we should all thank bobby hull for that. But here i am going in circles, back to the Hawks and Wirtz again.

Julian said...

Hmmm, so you think your hockey-love comes purely from the exposure to it, with little or no help from your current time and place? Or mindset?

Kaz said...

I've often wondered why an Original Six team like the Hawks can draw so few fans night in and night out. I had little idea of Wirtz's complicity.

But I wonder about the Bruins too. They're not quite as bad as the Hawks, but with all that tradition, how do they do so poorly in attendance? (see sports.espn.go.com/nhl/attendance?year=2007)
Attendance is surely a barometer of fan allegiance, and maybe that's why the Habs have such a "culture and tradition," as you put it.

Simonus said...

re bruins: Their owner, Jeremy Jacobs, is supposed to be a bad owner and an absolute jerk.

K West said...

That was fantastic, everything written was perfect. That historic team doesn't mean a damn thing in that city. I remember calling up my only other hockey fan friend and saying "Chicago's owner died" and how relived I was for hockey in Chicago. Its a great sports town and I think it can make a comeback there. Great blog.