EDITOR’S NOTE: This column also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.
I’ve been a Chicago Blackhawks fan as long as I can remember. I’ve been black as long as I can remember, too.
Being black and a hockey fan are two things that do not go usually together, like Mitt Romney and beer pong. When I go to games, I get a few double takes, as I’m distinctly in the minority at the United Center, but when it comes down to it, I have always been treated like everyone else. No complaints.
The question, I think, as fans endure an autumn and possibly a winter without the NHL, is what compels us to love hockey in the first place. In my instance, how does a black kid who grew up by 71st Street become a hockey fan?
My mother and father were teachers in the Chicago Public Schools system. Since both of them had summers off, we did a lot of traveling. So I got to step outside of familiar surroundings. I learned to think differently. They taught me to look beyond the obvious and immediate.
At first, I was interested only in the Bulls, Bears, and Sox, like most of the other kids in South Shore. But in 1988, when I was 10 years old, I watched hockey on TV during the Winter Olympics.
The Soviet Union won the gold. And though I’d never heard of any of the players on the ice, the game thrilled me. I loved the speed, and the non-stop action, and how one hot goalie could carry a team.
I looked up the history and rules of hockey in the World Book Encyclopedia. I learned the responsibility of each player on the ice. Next, I wanted to skate, but I couldn’t find a rink anywhere close by.
It’s taken me a long time to get comfortable being a hockey fan. When I’m in a bar on the South Side, it requires all my nerve to ask a waitress to turn on the hockey game. And if the Bulls are on, forget it. I’m not that brave.
Now, with the lockout, I have no way to get my fix. I could drive out to Rockford to see the Icehogs, but that’s a long way to go for minor-league play. I know the Wolves are closer, in Rosemont, but the Wolves are a minor-league affiliate of the Canucks, and why would I want to cheer for a bunch of future Canucks? That’s crazy talk. The Canucks somehow wound up following me on Twitter. I reported it as spam.
Instead, I scour YouTube for hockey highlights. I love to look at the 2010 Stanley Cup video. I was at the United Center for game five of the 2010 Stanley Cup quarter finals against the Nashville Predators. You remember how Patrick Kane tied it up? That was one of the great sports days of my life. But the thing that sticks in my mind was not the game-winner by Marian Hossa, it was the noise. I was screaming at the top of my lungs and I couldn’t hear myself.
I own sweaters from Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith. The day I finally found a Dustin Byfuglien sweater in my size he got traded to Atlanta. I also own a Jarome Iginla sweater, even though he plays for the Calgary Flames. Blasphemy, you say, to wear another team’s colors? Maybe, but Iginla is the NHL’s first black captain and one of the game’s best two-way forwards. He’s a guy who always sticks up for his teammates. He’s my favorite player in the league.
I never played hockey, but I was a nightclub bouncer in Wicker Park for six years. I had to stick up for my co-workers the way Iginla sticks up for his teammates. When I asked my wife’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage, I thought of hockey. I told him that I would always protect his daughter, no matter what.
I miss the Blackhawks. I miss hockey.
I hope it comes back soon.