Chicago Blackhawks

When people think of the pacific northwest, there are a lot of different things that they think of: Rain, grunge music, more rain, organic food, legal weed, outdoorsy lifestyles, mountains, rain, seafood, radical politics, bicycling, and rain. They usually don’t think of professional sports, but there is a large fan base which is very devoted to its favorite teams in the northwest. And there’s a history which involves hockey, which might seem weird because there’s only one major league hockey team in the area. But once upon a time, there were entire leagues devoted to everyone’s favorite ice sport. There was the Western Hockey League, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, and the Western Canada Hockey League.

And there were the Portland Rosebuds. The Rosebuds were a PCHA team which ran from 1914 to 1918, and they held some small significance when they became the first American hockey team to ever win the PCHA regular season title, which in turn made them the first American hockey team to ever play in a Stanley Cup Final, which they lost to the Montreal Canadiens. It took five games for the Habs to knock off the Buds, and it’s recorded in hockey history as the first time a Stanley Cup Final ever required every game and the first Championship in the Canadiens’ long history. Since those years were still hockey’s outlaw anything-goes years as far as leagues and organizational structures were concerned, though, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Buds dropped off the face of the Earth just two years later. The Buds were reborn as a WHL team in 1925 when Portland managed to lure the Regina Capitals into the area, but that only lasted for the next year. After that, a coffee magnate – it’s the northwest, you knew it had to be a coffee magnate – named Frederic McLaughlin bought the Rosebuds, took them back east, and renamed them after the 86th Infantry Division, in which he had commanded a battalion. That division was called the Blackhawk Division. Hence, the Chicago Blackhawks. An odd paper discrepancy left the team name in two words – the Black Hawks – until it was corrected and restored in its original form in 1986.

Hockey players were traditionally Canadian for years, but McLaughlin had a lot of interest in promoting American hockey players, so he signed them exclusively. The Black Hawks were the first hockey team to field an all-American lineup, and players like Mike Karakas, Doc Romnes, and Taffy Abel, became popular staples. In their first season ever, the Chicago Black Hawks were resoundingly average. They went 19-22-3 and were booted from the playoffs in the first round by the Boston Bruins. Naturally, McLaughlin’s first instinct was to blame coach Pete Muldoon – see, they did it back then too – and fire him. McLaughlin thought the Black Hawks should have finished first, Muldoon didn’t, and Muldoon’s response to the firing was to say “Fire me, Major, and you’ll never finish first. I’ll put a curse on this team that will hoodoo it until the end of time.” The Curse of Muldoon was born and proceeded to haunt the Hawks, who didn’t finish first until 1967. While it’s true the Hawks didn’t finish in first until 1967, they did manage to haul in the Stanley Cup three times, so it may be a good thing Jim Coleman didn’t mention that. Wait now, you’re asking, who’s this Jim Coleman character? He was a sportswriter for the Toronto Globe and Mail who was running a late deadline one night and had nothing to write about, so he pulled the curse out of his ass, expecting his readers to forget about it within the next two days. He expected wrong.

Johnny Gottselig, Cy Wentworth, and Charlie Gardiner took the Black Hawks to their first Stanley Cup Final in 1931, but they lost to the better Canadiens. Chicago didn’t get to hoist Lord Stanley’s hardware until 1934, in a Final where Gardiner shined and shut out the Detroit Red Wings in a nail-biting double-overtime final game. In 1938, the Black Hawks compiled a record of 14-25-9 and squeaked into the playoffs by about a hair. A record like that is pretty much a guaranteed rest-starters first round for the other guys, even taking into account the beast the NHL playoffs are. Unfortunately, the Canadiens and New York Americans spent their playoff series against the Hawks testing that theory, and the Hawks made them both pay for it. That put them back into the Final, this time against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Chicago’s goalie, Mike Karakas, was hurt and couldn’t play in the Final, and so the Hawks were forced to go on a desperate scramble for a goalie to dress. They yanked minor-league goalie Alfie Moore of the Pittsburgh Hornets out of a bar. Moore dressed, won the game, and then Toronto threw a hissy fit and didn’t let him play in the next. So Chicago used Paul Goodman and lost. For the next two games, Karakas was outfitted with special skates to protect his injury, and the Hawks won both and their second title. The 1938 Chicago Black Hawks are still the worst team to ever win the Stanley Cup.

The Black Hawks went to the Final again in 1944, where the Canadiens mopped the floor with them. Also of slightly less note in 1944 McLaughlin died. Of course, the owner’s death is a traditional sign of ownership transition, and the Chicago Black Hawks were no exception. McLaughlin’s estate sold the team to a syndicate headed by one Bill Tobin. There was nothing atypical about the transition. It was Tobin himself who was the problem. Yes, he proved to be a bad owner, but more to the point, he owned the Black Hawks strictly for the purpose of being the personal puppet of James Norris. Norris was the owner of the Red Wings. You can see where this is going. Tobin owned the Hawks for eight years, and by design, everything he did for them was done with the question “Now, how does THIS benefit the Wings?” in mind. For the next eight years, “Chicago Black Hawks” was spelled “F-U-T-I-L-I-T-Y.” Between 1945 and 1958, the Hawks were a playoff team just twice.

Norris died in 1952, and his boy James (yes) and a Detroit Red Wings minority owner, Arthur Wirtz, took over. Apparently feeling the need to challenge themselves, they reversed everything Tobin did, hired Tommy Ivan to be the General Manager, guided the Hawks through a financial reversal of fortune, and rebuilt the entire operation in Chicago from the ground up. As one of their first orders of business, they grabbed a couple of players from Detroit, Ted Lindsay and Glenn Hall, who would actually help out the Hawks. Hall was an up-and-coming star while Lindsay was a veteran leader who won the Stanley Cup four times and was shipped because he couldn’t keep his damn mouth shut about starting a union. Next, they starting finding some talented prospects: Pierre Pilote, Stan Mikita, and Bobby Hull. Although the Hawks were finally good again in 1959 and 1960, they developed this bad habit of letting the Canadiens kick them out of the playoffs. With every expectation that it would happen again in 1961, the team created a new defensive plan which helped them wear down Montreal’s stars, beat the Habs in six games, then wasted the Red Wings to win their third Championship. That 1961 Stanley Cup is still very special to Chicago. It featured a lot of the team’s classic players while they were still young and in their primes. It was also the lone Stanley Cup during the entire Original Six era that wasn’t won by Detroit, Montreal, or Toronto. Hockey historians can easily write it off as an anomaly of one of the most corrupt eras in the history of professional sports, though, because it didn’t change anything. In fact, it seems pretty likely that the owners of the other teams used it as an excuse to keep things the way they were.

The Black Hawks stayed a force in the NHL right through the rest of the 60’s, returning to the Final in 1962 and 1965 but losing to Toronto and Montreal respectively. That didn’t stop Hull, Mikita, Hall, and Pilote from excelling. Hull and Mikita terrorized defenses and led the Hawks to their first-ever first place finish in 1967, breaking the nonexistent Curse of Muldoon. They were promptly dumped in the playoffs by the Leafs, who went on to win their most recent Stanley Cup to date. NHL buffs, of course, recognize another significant milestone from 1967: It was the last year of the Original Six era. The Old Guard of the NHL was finally forced into changing their ways up a little when the television networks started considering televising games from the Western Hockey League. That threw the Old Guard into into a whiny furor, and they started to fear that if the WHL got its games on TV, it would then declare itself a major league and start a war with the NHL. Solution? Expansion! The NHL literally doubled in size with the additions of the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, Minnesota North Stars, and St. Louis Blues. This wasn’t just a significant moment in NHL history; it was huge to the Black Hawks because with the expansion came the expansion draft, in which they just happened to lose Glenn Hall to the newly-created Blues. That was a serious blow to the team. It didn’t help that the front office didn’t seem to have a whole lot of vision. They made a trade with the Boston Bruins for Pit Martin, Jack Norris, and Gilles Marotte. Martin fared pretty well for the Hawks, but this trade is remembered as a straight fleecing for what they gave up to get him: Fred Stanfield, Ken Hodge, and a certain Phil Esposito. That one cost the Black Hawks the 1968 playoffs and probably two or three more Stanley Cups.

Things got easier for Chicago when they were put into the West Division in a half-assed effort to create balance after a second expansion in 1969 created the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks. Between the new divisional alignment and a defense featuring Keith Magnuson, Bill White, and goalie Tony Esposito, the Hawks returned to the Final in 1971 before losing to (you can guess this by now) Montreal. The next year came the era’s deathblow: Bobby Hull, long pissed off about being paid so little despite being an established and transcendent legend, jumped to the upstart World Hockey Association because there was a team there, the Winnipeg Jets, which was willing to pay him. The Hawks won the division seven times, but Hull’s loss proved to be a big difference – they were never quite a Stanley Cup contender after losing him, even when making the Final in 1973. They tried to make up what he once brought to the team by trading with the Bruins again, this time for their legendary blue liner Bobby Orr. But once again, the Bruins seemed to know something the Black Hawks didn’t – something which should have been signified by the fact that they were, you know, TRADING BOBBY FUCKING ORR!

Hull’s jump ended the era, but it was Arthur Wirtz’s death in 1983 that started the decline. It started slow, with the team still digging up stars like Denis Savard, Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, and Ed Belfour. Hell, they even swung by the Final once more in 1992, bowing to the Penguins in a Final which was much closer than a sweep would ordinarily imply. But deep playoff runs slowly turned into first-round exits, Savard, Roenick, Belfour, Chelios, and other players all got traded, and in 1998, the Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first time in 29 years. As if that wasn’t enough, Bill Wirtz obliterated the team’s relationship with the public by doing things like firing the popular singer of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” pressing criminal charges against the author of a book critical of him, and taking the home games off TV. When the team’s home games were blacked out, fans responded in kind by blanking the Blackhawks from their minds. Wirtz earned the nickname “Dollar Bill,” an obvious description of his spending policies, among the few fans left in Chicago who remembered the city had an NHL team. Most hockey fans found solace in Chicago’s AHL team, the Wolves, which was actually able to get by for awhile on an advertising campaign which zinged the Hawks: “We play hockey the old-fashioned way: We actually win.” When I first stepped off the train as Chicago’s newest resident back in 2006, this was the Chicago Blackhawks team that greeted me. They had made the playoffs once in nine years, a fluke in 2002, and their best player was a two-way player named Tuomo Ruutu – a great player, to be sure, but not one capable of carrying a team. I adopted them anyway, and so two of most earliest sports memories in Chicago are a conversation on an L platform with a man who ran down the list of everything Wirtz had done to ruin the Blackhawks, and a conversation with a woman in an underground art gallery who, upon learning that I’m a hockey fan, asked me if I followed the Wolves… And, without the slightest trace of irony or sarcasm, asked me who the Blackhawks were when I mentioned them.

Bill Wirtz was one of those owners who loved his community and his team but couldn’t keep up with the times. Unfortunately, it was the team that was his most visible contribution to the community, so it still doesn’t seem right to me that fans booed him when asked for a moment of silence at a game upon his death in 2007. Still, despite new acquisitions like Martin Havlat and Jonathan Toews, there wasn’t a whole lot of reason to think things were going to change after he died. The media had been suggesting Mark Cuban try to buy the team for some time, or at least someone with a Mark Cuban-like sports business acumen. And wouldn’t you know it, Chicago turned out to have one the whole time, right under everyone’s noses, in Wirtz’s son Rocky. It was Rocky who took over the team. Then it was Rocky who started decimating his pop’s outdated policies and began establishing a fan convention, hiring long-alienated stars – including Esposito, Mikita, and Hull – as team ambassadors, and forming a partnership with MLB’s Chicago White Sox. It was also Rocky who hired a new team President in John McDonough, an important step in re-establishing fan relations because McDonough is a PR master who is widely credited with turning the Chicago Cubs into the beloved national brand they are now.

One got the sense that a seismic shift would soon take place after the Blackhawks drafted Patrick Kane. In 2008, the newly-armed Hawks rode their shiny new toys to missing the playoffs by a hair. The next year, they went all the way to the Conference Final before being stopped by the Red Wings. And the year after that, the Hawks signed free agent Marian Hossa. This time, the Hawks dumped Detroit in the Conference Final and found themselves on a date with the Flyers in the Final. In the Final, Chicago’s Dustin Byfuglien hammered Philadelphia irritant Chris Pronger, goalie Antti Niemi out-goalied Michael Leighton, and Patrick Kane fired off a game-winner during overtime in game six for the Hawks to hoist the Cup for the first time since Bobby Hull was in his early 20’s.

The Blackhawks since then have successfully reclaimed their spot as one of the league’s marquee teams. Between Toews and Kane, they have two of the league’s superstars. They’ve even managed to navigate the salary cap, and their success in doing so has allowed them to capture the Stanley Cup twice more, in 2013 – winning game six against the Bruins through an insane sequence of events which saw them scoring two goals in the last 90 seconds for the lead that gave them the Cup – and 2015, forming the first dynasty of the Salary Cap Era and the first dynasty they’ve ever had in their history.

The Hawks’ six Stanley Cups rank fourth in the league, behind the Montreal Canadiens (24), Toronto Maple Leafs (13), and Detroit Red Wings (11). It ties them with the Boston Bruins. They’ve retired the numbers of Glenn Hall, Stan Mikita, Denis Savard, Keith Magnuson, Pierre Pilote, Tony Esposito, and Bobby Hull. Bobby is Brett’s pop, and although Brett put up higher numbers than Bobby, it’s Bobby who is considered one of the league’s all-time transcendent players. He was nicknamed The Golden Jet because of his blonde hair and speed, and is a regular in discussions and lists of the greatest hockey players from before 1979. The Blackhawks have also gotten notable service from Chris Chelios, one of the great American defensemen; Jeremy Roenick, who gave his best years to the Hawks; Phil Esposito, who was traded to Boston despite being a clear rising star; and while we’re on the end of the Big Bad Bruins, Bobby Orr was traded to the Hawks in 1976, but was overtaken by a long rash of injuries which limited his playing to 26 games in three years before he finally hung up his skates in 1979.

There’s something very funny about the fact that the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 1961. The Original Six era ran from 1942 to 1967, and it’s considered the Golden Age of hockey, or at least the Golden Age of the NHL. And here’s something you come to learn as a sports historian: Golden Ages are lies. The truth of the matter is that the Original Six years of the NHL were corrupt on a level which would shame Roger Goodell’s NFL. The Original Six are the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks. During the era, the NHL had a rule stating that teams had exclusive rights to any hot prospects that turned up within 50 miles of the area, and you can guess which three teams that benefitted. (Montreal and Toronto are in Canada and Detroit is right smack on the border.) There was little to no player movement between teams, which means that those poor Rangers fans had to look forward at every season knowing that every other team was going to curb-stomp them again because they didn’t get any good marquee players. Ownership was absolute, which meant that no matter how good a team’s star was, he could be banished to the minors for saying things he wasn’t supposed to. Also, Red Wings owner James Norris had controlling stakes in four teams: The Wings, due to his owning them outright; the Black Hawks, where his personal Smithers ran the team; the Rangers, because he owned a share in Madison Square Garden; and the Bruins, because of mortgages he gave them to keep them alive during The Great Depression. He cared only for the Wings, and everything he did benefitted the Wings in some way. Now imagine you’re trying to run a team in a minefield like that, and you’re somehow able to come out on the top of everything even once. That’s basically what happened to the 1961 Black Hawks. Of course, it wasn’t the start of a big change or revolution in the NHL; knowing what I know about the Original Six, in fact, it seems likely that the owners of the era’s good teams pointed to them as an example of how any team could win the Stanley Cup.

Like every other team in Chicago, the Blackhawks have an instinctive hatred for everyone and everything having to do with Detroit. One of the longest traditional rivalries in the NHL is between the Hawks and the Red Wings, and the Hawks and Wings have played more games against each other than any other two teams in the league. The rivalries between Boston and Montreal and Toronto and Montreal involve more decoration, and the rivalry between the Bruins and Rangers gives the NHL its inevitable war between Boston and New York City, but it’s the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks which really brings the pain. Or at least that used to be the case. But when the NHL shifted to four divisions in 2013, Detroit was thrown into a whole different conference, so all of Gary Bettman’s platitudes about the new divisional alignment being used to preserve traditional rivalries was outed quickly by in-the-know NHL fans as traditional bullshit. The Blackhawks still have strong rivalries in their division with the Blues and Minnesota Wild, but it’s not the same without the Wings there to boil everyone’s blood anymore.

The Blackhawks have a unique fan tradition: During the National Anthem, instead of standing up and being politely silent, fans use the opportunity to scream their heads off. This started during the 1985 Conference Final, against the Edmonton Oilers. The Hawks had lost the first two games of the series, and the series moved to Chicago, where the fans REALLY wanted to help their team get back into it. They were pretty pumped up, and they cheered all the way through the National Anthem, and the routine stuck. It didn’t help the Blackhawks – the Oilers drilled them into the ground anyway and went to win the Stanley Cup that year. The cheering is used to keep the crowd involved with the game, but there are people who believe it’s disrespectful to cheer while the National Anthem is playing. See, some dipshits apparently had the time some years ago to sit down and draw up a set of particular behaviors that will cause the spinning of the planet off its axis should they not be followed when American Patriotism is walking around the room. You know the one: Hat off, hand over heart, face toward the music, acting in the same way they would if the flag was on display. That’s from chapter 10, section 171, by the way. Obviously, when you’re cheering, you’re not doing those things. Frankly, I always saw such tradition as a waste of time. For god’s sake, this country sells American flag underwear, and it’s not considered desecration. Patriotism doesn’t come from meaningless gestures.

I’ve been an open Hawks fan since I moved to Chicago. I saw the team’s transformation firsthand. Unfortunately, being there at the nadir showed me just how indifferent the fans can be. Yes, they’re the greatest fans in the world – everyone is the greatest fan in the world when the team is this good. But they just plain forgot the Hawks were there while Bill Wirtz was still around. I found occasional pockets of diehard fans during those days, but the outward support didn’t start until the Hawks made their first serious push at the Cup in 2010. Chicago is just not a hockey city – even when the Hawks are doing well, you’re not going to find a lot of casual conversation partners around town, and when they’re bad, it’s a lost cause.

Still though, if you’re a new hockey fan looking to find a team, there are much worse teams to look at than the Chicago Blackhawks. No, the Hawks haven’t always been good, but they’ve reached the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in their day. No, you won’t be guaranteed endless victories by following them, but you’re guaranteed one hell of a ride.

Pros

Everyone digs the jersey; one of only six teams founded before the Vietnam War; managed to navigate the salary cap; throw a fan convention which makes them feel like true members of the community; are THE team to follow in the NHL right now

Cons

The logo pisses certain people off; the cheering during the National Anthem pisses people off; fans only go to games to be seen; star forward was recently accused of rape (the story turned out to be made up and the charges were dropped, but that’s a bad place to be when you’re a fan)

Should you be a fan?

You’ll have to fly on the presumption that Rocky Wirtz won’t ever start trying to run the team the way his father did, but things look promising.

 

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