Pencils, Controllers, and Pints: Coming to Hockey the Long Way Around

Becoming a fan isn't necessarily a straight-line process. Sometimes the path leads through Atari, attempts to replicate the Red Wings' wheel, and dive bars.
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I am 38 years old as of this writing and have lived in the suburbs of Chicago almost my entire life, which means that the Bears' Super Bowl victory dovetailed with my 8th birthday and that the Bulls' championships began when I was 13 and ended when I was 20. The first game I ever remember seeing on TV was the '85 NFC Championship Game when San Francisco shut out the Bears 20-0, though I didn't fully grasp all of it (I kept thinking that LB Keena Turner was Tina Turner). Still, my childhood interest was steered toward the NFL—even after Jordan became Jordan.

Other than George Michael's Sports Machine I really had no other way of knowing about the NHL outside of the Blackhawks (because they were local) or the Oilers (because they were the national juggernaut with its dynastic Gretzky/Messier/Kurri/Tikkanen/Coffey/Fuhr hydra). I knew about other baseball teams and players through baseball cards and football teams and players through sticker books, both of which I collected with a fervor. During rainy or snowy days, or when fits of boredom arrived, I and my pre-Internet friends drew all of the NFL logos as best we could. Then one day a friend showed the rest of us drawings of NHL logos he’d done at home the night before.

"What are these? Where did you find them?" we asked him.

A cousin of his was into hockey and gave him a mini poster of all the NHL logos.

This is how I was formally introduced to hockey and the NHL.

***

These hockey logos were both alien and normal; they were clearly different than anything I'd ever seen (a black, orange, and yellow skate that said CANUCKS in whooshing font?), but they didn't look like the kind of imitation logos you'd see in a movie or TV show that didn't bother to pay for licensing rights. The Buffalo Sabres logo was amazing. The North Stars logo was quirky, bordering on a groan-inducing visual pun. The Red Wings logo was a bitch to draw for a detail-obsessed kid like myself. The Flyers logo was simple and dead on—and they played their home games at a magical place called The Spectrum, which is to this day my favorite stadium name of all time.

So I drew all of these logos with my friends however many numbers of times and some of mine turned out pretty damn awesome; I owned that Oilers font. But...I couldn't see any of the games on TV. George Michael showed me highlights and that was about it. My interest in hockey started to wane.

And then Blades of Steel came out.

***

Blades of Steel was released in North America in December of 1988. My older brothers had Atari, and I played Ice Hockey on that, but it wasn’t a 5-on-5 game and our joysticks were so worn that the game was nonsensical to me. With Blades of Steel, you could choose a team. There was intro music before the game started; it was true to form 5-on-5, and, of course, there was fighting. Even though it was pretty easy to figure out how to score consistently (just wait for the arrow of your shot to be at the opposite end of a sliding goalie), it was immensely, indescribably fun. It had an announcer, too—“It’s a pass!”—which felt beyond next-generation. Though the game wasn’t officially licensed and, therefore, did not have real teams, it created a world that felt like real hockey to me, with real strategy and a virtual sports universe that also informed me on how to watch the real-life games—like how Madden informed a generation of kids of the differences between 3-4 and 4-3 and cover schemes. Blades of Steel, rivaled only by Tecmo Bowl, was the first sports video game that made my friends and I set Mario and Zelda aside. It was a transcendent game to a group of Midwestern kids that never laced up skates or owned a stick.

***

I admit it: I never thought I'd see the Blackhawks win a Stanley Cup. Going into the 2010 season, the Hawks were going to be good, but everyone also knew that the team was going to have to be blown up at the end of the season because of the new salary cap. Nobody had any fear that Kane, Toews, Keith, or Hossa were going to have to be shipped out, but big changes were going to happen in the offseason. They were a #2 seed, but there were real concerns about Huet and Niemi at goal and the team's overall scoring consistency. They nearly fell 3-2 to the Predators but righted the ship with an OT win in Game 5. They blew up Vancouver after losing Game 1. They swept San Jose. Then they beat the Flyers on a goal that couldn't even be seen on TV right away.

When it was over, when the Cup was raised, I told myself that if the Hawks never won another Cup, I'd still die happy.

***

The 2013 Hawks dominated from the first game of the regular season, having set a season-opening record of 24 games without a regulation loss. They looked unstoppable and they were immensely enjoyable to watch, which I did, at a bar with some friends and other fans. Most nights, it was like watching the Jordan Bulls all over again: we just knew they were going to win. As the playoffs approached I was worried about the Red Wings (they've just owned the Hawks in the playoffs historically) and the Kings (a big team that handed Chicago their worst regular season loss). But from our bar stools, we convinced ourselves that we had nothing to worry about, even though they had to come back from a 3-1 deficit. Our faith was rewarded.

And then Boston.

The Bruins were big, tough, and seemingly running on all of the right cylinders leading up to and in the Final. Game 1 saw the Hawks squeaking by in a 3-OT winner. Games 2 and 3 saw the Bruins win with an ease that betrayed the final scores. Game 4 was another heart attack OT winner, but the Hawks looked vulnerable. Game 5 was the first game that the Hawks looked like they could keep up with the Bruins for sixty minutes. If they hadn’t had to play the Kings in the conference finals, I think the Hawks would have lost to the Bruins in 5 games. The physicality of the Kings was the primer they needed, and it came in handy with the series going back to Boston for Game 6.

To watch Game 6 of the Final unfold like it did in that block of 18 seconds—Brian Bickell screaming after his game-tying goal and Dave Bolland screaming after his game-winner and Doc Emrick screaming after both—was like the hockey equivalent of Ali vs Foreman. Boston controlled most of the game and the Hawks just absorbed it until they finally saw their sliver of opportunities in the end, an Ali rope-a-dope on ice that culminated in a swift and sudden victory that bewildered the Bruins like it did George Foreman so many years ago.

For the last sixteen years I have lived in the far south suburbs of Chicago, about 60 miles away from downtown. I found a small bar one day early in the regular season and discovered quickly that I could have a TV to myself to watch hockey because it was rarely busy in there. So on the night of Game 6 it was me, one of my friends, the bartender, and another customer that we didn't know. We lost our shit when they won and screamed loud enough to be mistaken for 30 people.

It was perfect.

***

When the 2015 season started, I honestly anticipated a conference finals loss to Los Angeles. The Blackhawks were great, but the Kings had repeat potential. However, the Kings missed the playoffs entirely, and in their place were the scary-as-hell kids from Tampa who came from behind against Detroit, beat Carey Price, and beat Henrik Lundqvist in a Game 7. Then the Lightning were coming for Corey Crawford.

Corey Crawford is a much-maligned figure around these parts, mostly as a product of the prion disease that affects all Chicago sports fans and which dictates that the backup must be better than the starter. The stat of how many backup Bears QBs have had since Brett Favre started is only fully ridiculous once you realize that every one of those jamokes (Henry Burris! Chad Hutchinson! Moses Moreno! Caleb Hanie!) had a cult following and a clamoring for at least two games in the season. And, as is fitting, Crawford started off horribly against Nashville, Scott Darling stole a couple of games, then Crawford stabilized, and the team won their third Cup in five years.

Looking at it from a strictly binary view, this is what happened in the playoffs: the Predators, Wild, and Ducks threw everything they had at the Hawks and still couldn't win (the Wild had the hottest goalie in the league and were still swept). And then the Lightning, who beat all-world goalies Price and Lundqvist and threw everything they could at the Hawks...still lost. They couldn't beat Crawford. Fans will still call for Darling in November.

Sports are fickle; the Hawks have not been.

***

On October 7, with the Blackhawks at home against the Rangers, the banner was raised and the rings were distributed. I watched, and will watch, as many games as possible, but I won’t be solely tuned in to the team from Chicago. It took me many years—and maybe this goes back to those carefully drawn logos, some kind of pluralism-by-osmosis—but I find myself unabashedly in love with hockey. Give me Canadiens-Leafs because the Leafs’ plight aligns with the Cubs fan in me; let me see the Kings and Ducks bruise each other; show me what McDavid and Eichel and the whole Senators team can do. Give me all of it.

My son will be four in two months. We haven’t had a chance to watch a game yet in this nascent season, but he watched a couple of playoff games with me last season. He has a little plastic NHL stick, and I play goalie to his left-leaning wristers. I bought him a Hawks road replica jersey and a couple of hockey-related t-shirts. He’ll probably see his first live hockey game in a few months, and I’ll tell him about the Stanley Cup celebrations of 2010 and 2013 and 2015. I hope he keeps liking it.

I have Blades of Steel on the Wii Virtual Console, just in case.


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