Certain things used to be strictly forbidden in the Chicago sports world. You didn’t hold on to the other team’s homer in the Wrigley Field bleachers. You didn’t impugn Saint Ditka. And you didn’t go to a Blackhawks game unless you plastered the team’s revered Indian head logo somewhere on your body.
I decided it was time to poke one of these sacred cows. So on a recent Sunday night, as the Hawks faced the L.A. Kings, I donned the opposing team’s jersey and hat and took a seat in the nosebleed section at the United Center. A small part of me wasn’t worried—this was Chicago, my hometown, after all. Beneath the ruddy-faced, sausage-eating, blue-collar exterior beats a Midwestern heart of gold.
Then again . . .
Back in the day at the old Chicago Stadium, when the cigarette smoke was thick and the mustaches were glorious, fights were as common as Members Only jackets. During a game in the Al Secord era, I watched an upper-deck shoving match transmute into a human tumbleweed of mullets and haymakers and ripped jeans, slowly, horribly rolling over the seats and down the rows. It was terrifying. It was awesome. More recently, I’ve seen Cubs and Sox faithful go all Tyson-Holyfield on one another. And the Internet teems with recent stories of opposing fans getting jumped, pummeled into comas, or even stabbed to death.
So what fate awaited me, festooned as I was in the other team’s regalia? A trip to the ER with a broken nose and a ruptured spleen? Did I need to update my will? Surely some form of aggression was headed my way.
After meeting by the Michael Jordan statue (cross yourself and genuflect), my buddy Mike and I climbed to the 300 level. (Mike is a beefy Joliet native who played football at Arizona State University. My mama didn’t raise no fool.) As we took our seats, the first thing I realized was that I was the only person wearing white—anywhere. The stadium was an endless sea of Blackhawk-red sweatshirts, jerseys, and sweaters. We were tensely waiting for the game to start, ready to root for our new favorite team, when a guy down the aisle leaned over to me, his eyes focused squarely on my brand-new, blindingly white Kings jersey. “Who’s that you’re wearing?” he asked.
“Mike Richards,” I said proudly. “He’s my guy. Total badass.”
“Yeah, he’s great,” said Aisle Guy, who was wearing a Blackhawks hoodie.
“Huh? But you’re a Hawks fan,” I said.
“Yeah, but I respect great players from all teams,” he said. “Cheers!”
Well, I didn’t have to worry about this guy slashing my jugular with a broken bottle.
Then the person in front of me turned around. He sported a salt-and-pepper mustache and a Brent Seabrook jersey. “You’re not allowed to cheer,” he said testily.
Now I was getting some hostil—
“Just kidding, pal! Enjoy the game,” he said, slapping my leg amiably.
Mike and I stood up and cheered lustily for the Kings during the opening. We booed the evil Blackhawks. Then the game started, and it became obvious that it wouldn’t be much of a contest: The Hawks dominated early, and forward Marian Hossa scored just five minutes and 45 seconds into the first period.
“That’s a short-handed goal,” Aisle Guy politely reminded me.
I turned my thumbs down and booed loudly.
“Get used to hearing that, pal!” said the Seabrook jersey wearer (Dave Burns, a garage door installer from Orland Park), referring to “Chelsea Dagger,” the song that celebrates every Blackhawks goal. A 20-something woman sitting next to him—his son’s girlfriend, wearing a Jonathan Toews jersey—turned around and sheepishly shrugged. “Sorry,” she said with a smile.
Before we could get comfortable, the Hawks scored again. And before the first period was over, they scored once more. They were up 3 to 0 before I’d had my second beer. The game was essentially over.
We went to the bathroom, and I found myself in a long line of men wearing Blackhawks apparel. I steeled myself, feeling like I was headed into the lion’s den covered in rib eyes. I pumped up my bravado, and then . . .
Nothing. Silence. I wasn’t an enemy—I was an afterthought.
Then some trouble: Mike and I were standing in the concourse when a besotted, bearded man stuck his face inches from mine. “Booooooooooo!” he yelled, flecks of Italian beef spraying my cheeks. And I got shoulder-checked twice. But that was it.
Back in my seat, I cheered loudly when the Kings did something good, but the positive moments were few and far between. The Blackhawks owned the game. At one point, Chicago had outshot L.A. 37 to 20.
Then it happened. With 3:54 left in the third period, the Kings’ Alec Martinez flicked a shot past Hawks goalie Antti Raanta.
“YEAHHHHHHHH!” I bellowed, standing and turning to face the red-bedecked crowd behind me. “NO SHUTOUT FOR YOU TONIGHT, BITCHES!”
I would like to report that I was pelted with beers, hot dogs, and Bryan Bickell bobbleheads.
I was not. Instead, I was met with the rolling of eyes and a mild smattering of boos. Go away, sad little man, they seemed to be saying. This is Hawks country, and your brief little outburst of weirdness is not welcome.
The game ended a few minutes later, and the graciousness was almost comical: People let me pass in front of them as we filed out of the arena. They held the door for me. They nodded amiably when we made eye contact.
So what happened to the haymaker days of yore? For one thing, Hawks fans don’t have a good reason to be pissed anymore, not when their team just won its second Stanley Cup in four years. Why throw punches when your team is the best?
And then there’s this: Hawks games aren’t cheap. The well-heeled new fan pays $22 to park his SUV in the United lot, sits in his $95 seat (for the 300 level!), and drinks $9.25 Goose Island beers. Perhaps today’s Hawks fan is simply richer and more genteel and doesn’t want to risk getting blood—or even ketchup—on his $359.95 Patrick Kane sweater. Or maybe it’s true that we Midwestern sausage eaters really do have hearts of gold.
Actually, talk to me after I heckle Ditka at a Bears game. That will be the real test.