I’ve always considered myself to be a complete purist when it comes to my sports fandom. As much as Bill Simmons can be insufferable these days, his column on “The Rules For Being a True Fan” from earlier this decade is a classic and still holds up today. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, so I’m a die-hard fan of the White Sox, Bears, and Bulls. When I went to the University of Illinois for my undergraduate years, the Illini became my college team forever. I’m a huge believer in steering clear of sports bigamy or shenanigans with adopting popular teams in different markets just because they happen to be dominant or have players that date supermodels and music stars (i.e. Cowboys and Yankees back in the ’90s or any of the Boston teams today). The only acceptable exception would be some direct family connection – for instance, if I had to move to, say, New York, I would insist that my future kids be raised as Chicago sports fans.
This also means that I have very little tolerance for bandwagon fans. While I believe that Chicago has the best sports fans in the country (only Boston, Philadelphia, and Detroit fans can be allowed to debate this), there is also an unfortunately long history of bandwagoneering in this town. The ’85 Bears, the Bulls dynasty of the ’90s, the ’05 White Sox, and every Cubs team that has finished above .500 have all drawn out the pink hat crowd in massive numbers. These people took a sudden interest in these teams right when they were on the ascent without having had to endure the blood, sweat, and tears of missed expectations and painful losses. Maybe that’s acceptable in places such as Los Angeles and Miami, but it’s infuriating to witness this happening in the legit sports towns like Chicago and Boston.
Having said that, I wonder if I’m being a complete hypocrite on this issue with respect to the Blackhawks. For reasons that I’ve stated elsewhere, I never became anything more than a casual hockey fan. While I absolutely love seeing the game live (making it a point to go to at least a game or two per year) and own a Blackhawks hockey sweater (which is my favorite sports jersey since it’s the only one that I can wear that doesn’t make me look like a complete tool), the combination of the half century of ineptitude of the Bill Wirtz regime and the fact that I have the ice skating skills of a Brachiosaurus means that I never cared about the Hawks in the same way as the teams that I listed in the first paragraph of this post.
The number of hockey games that I watched this past regular season is one-and-a-half: about half of the Blackhawks-Red Wings Winter Classic game at Wrigley Field (as I flipped between that game and the college football bowls going on at the same time) and then a Hawks-Kings game that I attended in person. I know a handful of guys that are on the team: budding young stars in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Martin Havlat, and Nikolai Khabibulin (who, as the “Bulin Wall”, was my lockdown goalie with the Phoenix Coyotes in marathon sessions of EA Sports NHL ’98 back in college). The last time that I watched a hockey game that didn’t involve the Hawks was the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals when the Stars beat the Sabres on the controversial Brett Hull goal (where he may or may not have been in the crease) in overtime.
Yet, I’ve been juggling my schedule to watch the Blackhawks’ playoff games, as hockey this late in the year has been a rare occurrence over the past decade. Thursday’s win over Calgary with Havlat scoring the game winner with 16 seconds into overtime was thrilling in terms of action and spurred me to look forward Saturday’s game (which turned out to be another win against the Flames to go up 2-0 in the series).
What I’m trying to figure out is if I actually start following the Hawks with some semblance of regularity, particularly if the team has a successful run in this year’s playoffs, would I be one of those bandwagon-jumpers that I despise? Granted, I think that a lot of my contemporaries in Chicago are in a similar position as me since the late Bill Wirtz did everything possible to destroy the franchise’s fan base with bass-ackwards TV and marketing policies along with a reputation of throwing nickels like manhole covers (as Mike Ditka once said of George Halas) in terms of payroll. With son Rocky in charge, it’s as if though Chicago received a completely new NHL franchise with a fresh start. Still, I don’t want to be one of those guys that just hops onto a shooting star when it’s the easy thing to do. That would be an injustice to the Hawks fans that still bought season tickets even when the United Center was barely half full (such as a mere 2 years ago, when I went to a Hawks-Red Wings game with Danny M and it was at about 2/3 capacity, with 3/4 of those people being Detroit fans).
Realistically, the Blackhawks will likely always be a team that I want to win (similar to my attitude toward the basketball team at my law school alma mater of DePaul), but never reach a level in my heart where I would be a die hard fan. In contrast, earlier in the day on Saturday, I was screaming at the television for a solid three hours during the Bulls-Celtics game. (It should be no surprise to you that my continuing man crush on Derrick Rose has been sent into the stratosphere.) That type of emotional investment didn’t occur overnight or even over the course of a year or two – it was built up over nearly three decades of watching and growing up with the Bulls. By the time the Blackhawks could catch up to that timeframe, I’ll be starting to take withdrawls from my 401(k) and hopefully be spending my winters in a place with a beach and palm trees. (As a side note, I’m not foolish enough to believe that anyone in my generation will ever actually be able cash a Social Security check.) Plus, I’m not sure how much longer my wife would want to be around me if I started watching hockey on top of all of the basketball and football that I follow during the fall and winter months. Thus, I envision myself being the hockey equivalent of the people that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago that don’t watch college basketball all year but then rabidly follow the NCAA Tournament, where my interest in the sport is pretty much limited to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. My promise is that I will cheer for the Blackhawks, but do everything in my power to not fall into the traps of the typical bandwagon fan (i.e. using the royal “we” when talking about the team’s performance). If I still get called a bandwagon jumper in this instance, I’ll just have to suffer the consequences when I get judged by the sports gods.
(Image from Chicago Tribune)