Remember the roar?

16Oct07

A long time ago (about, oh 15 years) in a galaxy far, far away (Chicago Stadium), the Chicago Blackhawks were considered one of the NHL’s best franchises. From the early-to-mid 90’s, going into Chicago meant a unique mix of speed, grit, and skill, led by a wide mix of players from Jeremy Roenick to Chris Chelios to Denis Savard to Steve Larmer; later on, that mix included Bernie Nicholls, Tony Amonte, and Gary Suter.

For about half of the 90’s, the Hawks were scary good, and the roar at Chicago Stadium let everyone know that they should fear making a trip into the Windy City.

Many people point to the changeover to United Center as a point where the Hawks began their demise, but that really isn’t true. For its first few seasons in existence, the United Center was packed with 21,000 very loud and very loyal fans. During that time, the roar from Chicago Stadium seemed to have successfully migrated over to the cavernous United Center.

And since then? One hapless playoff appearance and the loss of fan favorites such as Roenick, Chelios, Amonte, Steve Sullivan, JP Dumont (yeah, remember how he started out in Chicago and was traded for forgettable Michal Grosek? Whoops.), and Ed Belfour. It wasn’t so much losing those players as it was the way they exited: always over money, with the Hawks looking cheap and disinterested. And the blame, rightly or wrongly, was always placed squarely on owner Bill Wirtz.

Don’t look now, but here come the Hawks. And the roar that we all thought was dead? It’s still alive. Just barely, but it’s there, and there’s a potential for a comeback should everything work out right.

The Hawks have started out this season with a modestly successful record, but what’s more important is the fact that for once, the fans in Chicago have a team they just might be able to rally around, and it all starts with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. These two players may just be teenagers, but they’re the most exciting thing on Chicago ice since Roenick and Amonte zipped and zoomed around in their prime. Kane’s already won over the remaining Chicago faithful with a wicked shootout-winning goal over Dominik Hasek and the hated Red Wings while Toews’ first NHL goal has already drawn media comparisons to a certain #66’s debut.

To put things into perspective, the Blackhawks’ recent draft history is bad. Captain-of-the-future Eric Daze had to give it up thanks to a bad back, and while their first-round picks have produced a few reasonable NHL players (Ethan Moreau, Dan Cleary, Mark Bell), the number of never-weres is long: Remi Royer, Mikhail Yakubov, Dmitri Nabokov, and Eric Lecompte, just to name a few. The fact that Toews and Kane appear to have a fine mix of speed, grit, and skill mean that for the first time in ages, the Hawks fowards appear to have a future that isn’t tied to Martin Havlat’s fragile shoulder.

Behind the bench, coach Denis Savard has Chicago playing an exciting brand of hockey that emphasizes speed. More importantly, his young team appears to have bought into his system, and that means that what remaining Hawks fans there are have seen a youthful exuberance that’s not afraid to go headfirst into the corners to retrieve a puck. Already, Kane’s shown a willingness to throw his body around with men twice his age carrying much more bulk.

You could also point to the talented Havlat (whenever he’s actually healthy), the emerging blueline, or the return of Nikolai Khabibulin, but the truth of the matter is that the present and the future of Chicago is in the hands of Kane, Toews, and to a lesser extent, Savard. The 10,000 or so remaining Hawks fans have already embraced the young duo and the crusty Hall-of-Famer behind the bench, and in emotional wins over Detroit, the chant of “Go Hawks go!” was loud and vibrant. It wasn’t sung by as many people as in, say, 1995, but the emotion was there. The roar, on life support and heavily drugged up, was there.

The Blackhawks aren’t going to win a Stanley Cup this season. They’ll come crashing back down to earth and, if they’re lucky, shoot for .500 and maybe the 8th seed at best. But Chicago fans need heroes they can identify with and rally around. They need heart-and-soul players who can deke defense as quickly as they run over them. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane aren’t saviors, but for Blackhawks fans, they represent everything the team’s been lacking for more than a decade.

History will probably look back at this time and point to the passing of Bill Wirtz as a turning point in the organization. From a fan perspective, Rocky Wirtz appears to be more progressive than his father, sending longtime stalwart Bob Pulford off to the side and giving local fans hope that the team can come into the 20th century, let alone the 21st, by actually broadcasting home games on television. Perhaps it’s just a twist of fate or a little bit of karmic ripple that Kane and Toews have arrived just as the old regime is swept away; for the sparse crowds that have taken in the Hawks this season, “Remember the Roar” isn’t just a throwback to Chicago Stadium nostalgia, it’s a chance to look at a bright future for the first time in years.

Update: Now that FoxSports.com has posted the official version of this article, I can have a fanboy geekout. When Wirtz died, I told myself I could give the Hawks another chance and I watched a few games. I have to say, Patrick Kane is quickly becoming one of my favorite players. Yes, that icy layer around my Hawks fandom is starting to melt. They’ll never be #1 again, but hey, we can still be friends.

Update 2: I’ve got some feedback that pointed out a “duh” momoment — Hawks fans chant “Let’s Go Hawks” which I should know, I’ve been watching the damn team for half my life. Apologies, “Go Hawks Go” was a brain fart slipped in by the evils of listening to Toronto sports radio.

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2 Responses to “Remember the roar?”

  1. 1 HockeyTownTodd

    It wold be just great to see the Hawks finish atop the W/Conf. Even though when I get those Keith Magnuson dreams I know I am feverish and coming down with something.

  2. 2 Anonymous

    Thank you Mike for a great post. I am a Chicago Blackhawks fan and was a season ticket holder for many of the glory years (89-94). And your story really hit the nail on the head.

    I also decieded to go back to the “United Center” for the season opener home game vs. Detroit. And all I have to say is this about that game.. The crowd was alive, its was absolutly electicfing. I have never seen a hawks home game like that in YEARS.

    Over the past years, the Hawks home games against Detriot alwats seemed to be overrun with RedWing locals and fans, but not this day…not this day. Detroit fans were mearly a whisper in the wind as the “roar” took hold.

    I also have high hopes for the Hawks, as a past season Ticket Holder, could only wish to bring hockey back into the city of Chicago. I havent missed a home game this year as of yet, maybe I might have to look into getting my season tickets back.

    Again Thanks Mike for the Great work!!!!

    GO HAWKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    -C.H. (2nd Balcony Section C Seat 19-20, Row 4) Chicago Stadium Season Tickets


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