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Blackhawks Rally Unites Bandwagon Fans With Grumpy Veterans

Riding the Purple Line into the Blackhawks rally this morning, I was basically confronted with my worst nightmare. A guy, likely sloshed and definitely wearing a counterfeit jersey, tried to convince me that the Blackhawks had gone 39 years between titles before 2010, using some horrible math. No matter that he was drunk or whatever, his clear bandwagon status only intensified my already-pulsating misanthropy.

I was loathe to immerse myself in the crowds, the heat, the bros and chicks there to get wasted, and all the bandwagon fans who just learned what color the blue line is.

There were some of those fans on the train in, sure, but there was also Chris Nititham. By some definitions, the 31-year-old from Glenview was a bandwagon rider. He started watching hockey in 2008, and wearing a crisp new championship hat and T-shirt, looked the part.

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But Nititham was no traditional fairweather fan. He’d become so enamored with the sport that he learned to skate and now plays with the Chicago Red Liners, an area rec-league team. He learned to love the Blackhawks so much he immersed himself in the history of the franchise and even dives into the depths known as HF Boards, a frequently seedy and scummy message board. He knew why nobody was going to games a few years ago and why people might resent fans who have experienced the best stretch in team history, and not the dregs that preceded it.

Frankly, I needed to talk to somebody like Nititham, who could warm me to all the annoying new Hawks fans I was sure to encounter.

“I guess you’re always going to have your die-hard fans but it doesn’t really hurt to have bandwagon fans, because a lot of them will become actual fans after a while,” Nititham said.

When we parted company at the Harrison stop I was feeling better. Nititham hadn’t completely gotten me out of my funk but I was improving. The sun was bright and there was life, a lot of life in the city.

But still, all the people.

Here were millions of people swooning over a bunch of professional athletes who are the best at putting a rubber disk into a mesh net. That’s all that was celebrated. Nothing more.

It was barely 10 a.m. when I made my way to Columbus Drive. There was still an hour before the heroic Hawks would grace us with their presence, so I decided to snoop around. Within five minutes I watched two women puke. One of them had a nice guy there to rub her back, and the other had a friend or something standing over her, annoyed at all the vomit.

A few feet away I overheard a dude contemplate starting a “We Want Tits!” chant.

Great. This is what I wanted to avoid.

Hoping I would find a kindred spirit, so to speak, I chatted with Fred Labas. The 55-year-old Labas and his 11-year-old son Justin had come from Kalamazoo, Mich. to celebrate the Cup. Certainly, Labas would be ticked off at all of the people enjoying the title like drunks and fools.

Labas said he began following the Hawks in 1969. He rattled off names like Dennis Hull and we could have discussed the fateful Game 7 of the 1971 Final, or he probably could have went on and on about trading Phil Esposito to Boston. You know, things only true fans know.

“I think that there’s probably a lot of people who are here just for the fact of being here, just of a party atmosphere,” Labas said. “But we want to soak it in.”

Maybe it was something Labas said, or looking at his 11-year-old son wearing his Hawks hat, but the whole thing started to click for me.

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Save for the occasional puking, and the fanatical street preachers with signs warning the drunkards and masturbators and sodomites that hell awaits them, it was indeed a moment worth soaking in. People were generally getting along and simply enjoying a championship.

My mood was generally improving, but I wasn’t quite where I wanted to be.

With still a few minutes until the team would pass by. I encountered Cortnie Stiles. She had all the markings of a fairweather fan, the nouveau-iest of all nouveau fans. Stiles, 18, was decked out in what I would call a suggestive Native American-themed costume, an outfit with frills and a very short skirt. She even went to the trouble of painting her face with red and white stripes.

This woman, I figured, was exactly what I was hoping to avoid. Nope.

In 2004 her uncle started playing hockey, and that got Stiles into the game. No, she didn’t watch Jeremy Roenick go or see Chris Chelios sent to Detroit, but she was there for some bad times.

Now it’s the opposite, an event worth creating a costume for.

“It’s a unique thing,” Stiles said. “It’s a unique time.”

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Yes, it was a unique time. There was a sense of unity, of civic pride. My issues with the recent fans were melting away. Who cared that they didn’t buy the Alexei Zhamnov jerseys or hope that Eric Daze’s back would magically heal? Didn’t matter anymore. Let them celebrate.

A few minutes later the double-decker buses finally passed by the fans jammed together, fans who were probably able to smell everybody else’s deodorant. Jonathan Toews lifted the Cup, everybody screamed at Patrick Kane, and the “Q” chants were loud and enthusiastic.

Finally, it was time for the rally.

Still peaceful, I was with a group that marched into Grant Park. There was red, a lot of red. But it was all calm in a way. Nobody had beer muscles, only a few people chanted Dee-Troit Sucks! and the feeling of pride in this hockey team was strong.

The rally itself was just another chance to appreciate the Blackhawks, but as much to appreciate the scene. By now I was all-in on the event. I took my hat off when Jim Cornelison sang, and I enjoyed standing in the middle of the sweltering field.

Corey Crawford swore and we all heard Pat Quinn get booed. The Cup made its appearance and Stan Bowman tried to put everybody to sleep. And around me were, Ed Olczyk would say, a lot of happy humans.

It was hot and sweaty and I was surrounded by people I prepared myself to hate, but none of it mattered. In some ways it felt like we were all in this together. The fact it was for a silly little hockey team didn’t matter. It was millions of people together for a peaceful cause.

How could I complain?

As I walked back from Grant Park to our office at Wells and Van Buren I talked to Forest Park’s Victoria Sandora. Sandora, 22, made sure to schedule her Friday shift as a waitress to start at night so she could get to the rally.

Yeah, she had only been a fan since 2008. But I was well past that. All I thought about was that unity I was feeling. She felt it too.

“You just feel so happy being around all the fans,” she said.

Maybe there was a time earlier in the day I would have resented that. She didn’t go to games with 10,000 people at a sleepy United Center. But enough of that. If this made people like her and millions of other fans happy, what’s the problem? It’s the new fans that have made the Blackhawks what they are now. They always had fans hiding, waiting for when the time was right to come back, but not this many.

As I was walking away, my mind started to drift back to something I overheard Dan Zigulich, 26, of Chicago, say to some of his friends. The six words were perfect, better than anything I could come up with to describe the day.

“Dude, that was so fucking legit.”

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