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
But I never knew the Blackhawks. In
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
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
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
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
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.
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