Tonight the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning face off in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Tampa Bay Lightning are looking to survive and force a Game 7, in hopes of winning their first Cup since 2004. The Blackhawks have an opportunity to win their 3rd championship in six years and their 6th in franchise history. It could also be the first time since 1938 that they clinch on their home ice.
Since Joel Quenneville took over in 2008, the Blackhawks are 9-0 in Game 6 with a chance to clinch a playoff series. The city of Chicago is bracing itself for the potential celebratory eruption and the brink of a hockey dynasty. It’s a party and a pretty damn fun one at that! Now the invite should be open to all who are interested as well.
For years, a segment of Blackhawks have worn the badge of honor for being longtime fans. They were the ones who vividly remember the soul crushing sweep at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1992 Final series and remained fans since. There were kids like me who actually got made fun of in grade school for being fans of an organization that was a consistent loser for a decade (only one season with a record over .500 from 1996-2007). There are those of us who hopped on the Metra after class to pickup “student discount” tickets at the gate, when the United Center never sold out. Sitting in the lower bowl was maybe a third of the face value price it is now, and you could easily find Patrick Kane’s family members…because they’d let you know who they are.
The first Blackhawks Stanley Cup in the Quenneville/Jonathan Toews & Kane era felt almost exclusively for those fans. They had to root for teams that were led by Doug Gilmour (Captain in 1999-2000), Tony Amonte (2000-02), Alex Zhamnov (2002-04), Adrian Aucoin and Martin LaPointe (2005-07) with a combined 210-265 record and a lockout from 2004-2005. They had to bare witness to an all-timer in Chris Chelios joining the bitter rival in Detroit, winning Stanley Cups as a Red Wing. Those fans were graced with epic rants from Hall of Fame broadcaster Pat Foley, including a famous one about Alexander Karpovtsev. They also couldn’t watch home games on television for an unfortunate period of time, as instituted by former owner Bill Wirtz. It wasn’t easy being a fan during that stretch.
I remember a game that ESPN 1000 WMVP’s “Waddle & Silvy” Show used to play where an intern would go to the old Blackhawks Store and you had to guess how many customers were present. The number was rarely in the double-digits. Then the changing of the guard happened with Bill’s son Rocky Wirtz taking over ownership and former Chicago Cubs executive John McDonaugh being named team President and CEO. McDonaugh knew how to market a team in Chicago and Rocky knew how to let him do his thing. The season ticketholder base increased from 3,400 to over 14,000 and the organization led the NHL in attendance for seven consecutive seasons. Those results can be attributed to winning as well as a business department doing its job very well.
Ever since that first Stanley Cup, the city and surrounding suburbs have been draped in Blackhawks red and white. You’ll find people wearing their heavy hockey sweater jerseys in 90 degree weather. I’ll never forget attending the Blackhawks convention in the summer of 2011 with my friend and longtime fan Brad Wenzel, and any Q&A featuring Toews, Kane, Patrick Sharp or Duncan Keith felt like a Backstreet Boys concert with screaming fans. Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune also has a cool, well-researched piece on the demographic growth of Blackhawks fans and how African-American fans have the highest rate among NHL fans at 1.4 times the overall rate.
Growth of any kind for any team and any sport is a good thing. Now that the Blackhawks are looking at the prospects of a 3rd Cup and a possible 3rd parade ending at Grant Park, the door should be wide open to all walks of life new to the party. The team benefits from the revenue, the league benefits from the ratings, and the hardcore fan benefits from a better product thanks to the former two.
Chicago is no stranger to the bandwagon/front-runner element. It was a Bulls town while Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were reeling off two 3-peats of Championships in the 90’s, and that quickly changed when now-Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg was a member of the roster. The Northside of town was electric as the Cubs were this close to going to the World Series in 2003. Actor John Cusack famously flipped allegiances as the White Sox won the 2005 World Series. Now the Blackhawks are the hot item and deservedly so.
Rather than play the part of someone who says “I liked this band before everyone else did”, old-time hockey fans should be excited that their team is bringing people together across the state. They aren’t solving serious problems in Chicago, but the Blackhawks are an excellent distraction to share. It’s easy to get annoyed when a new fan sounds like they don’t know what they’re talking about, so politely educate them on your sport instead.
There is a flip-side to the coin though. If you are a new fan when the team is winning, don’t go hiding when things go the other way. Given the salary cap issues going into next season, there will be a number of changes to this Blackhawks roster, similar to those made after the 2009-10 Stanley Cup. However, if general manager Stan Bowman has proven anything, he can get a team back to the Stanley Cup Final…with Toews and Kane on the ice.
So HAVE FUN Blackhawks fans, old and new! Cheer on your team together and please don’t flip my car if they win tonight.