Everything Else

A Spring Of Trepidation

Let’s start this with a story, one that exemplifies how childish, petty, and vitriolic being a sports fan can be. But hopefully, if you work out these kinds of emotions in this arena, you don’t apply them to the rest of your life where people close to you  might get hurt. I said, “hopefully.”

It’s the Winter Classic at Wrigley. You may not remember, but as the Hawks had exploded on the scene in November and December, they had actually crawled to within four points of the Wings for first in the division. They faced two games against them, one in the Joe and the Winter Classic. Those of us who weren’t quite in tune with our senses thought this was the moment to really fire off a warning shot. I had launched the C.I. two months before, and was still sleeping on my father’s couch while it took hold.

You might recall that the Hawks got completely pantsed in Detroit, and it wasn’t much better at the Winter Classic. The Hawks got taught a lesson on what it would take to be where Detroit was and how much farther they had to go. But that’s not the point here.

As the Wings took more and more control of the game, the “De-Troit Sucks!” chants only grew louder and more often. And two rows in front of my seat, on the first base line, every time that chant rose up, an older Wings fan would stand up–in his Wings winter jackets, Wings hat, and Wings gloves–and just hold up four fingers. You know what he was indicating.

Yeah, I was irrationally enraged, because he was completely justified. In weaker moments, I had flashes of leaping over the intervening rows and breaking each of those fingers. But not wanting to go to jail, and knowing that he had the argument won, obviously I didn’t.

I’ve thought about those four fingers for the past few years now, probably since the Hawks added #2 in Boston. Because then it seemed possible. They could get to four, and though I would never see that guy again, I could go the rest of my life knowing he could never raise those four fingers at me or any fellow fan. It would be us doing it. And if you want to know why 2014 still hurts, it’s because the Hawks lost their best chance to go back-to-back, and we wanted that so badly because it would erase the Wings from having been the last to do it. Don’t lie to me, I know why you wanted it.

Like I said, childish, petty, and vitriolic.

So as the Hawks embark on this playoff run, there’s a part of me that’s excited, especially because it appears they’re going to simply Humpty Dance their way out of the West. The part of me that grew up in the Stadium standing-room, the part that listened to Foley and Tallon on his walkman when he should have been doing homework or going to bed, the part that started the C.I.

But that part of me is at war with another part of me. The part of me that’s had to cover the last two seasons in Hawks history, which have been far from easy.

If you’ve been a regular reader, you know even if you don’t agree. Last year was simply torture. Watching the worst of Hawks fans not only come to the fore but simply dominate the scene–from the circling wagon bro-gasm, to those who insulted Matt’s family, to those who emailed me all kinds of horrible stuff, to those threatening female members of the media who happen to be friends of mine, to Garret Ross, to Andrew Shaw, and everything in between–it was most certainly nothing I felt any part of and actively wanted to leave. Watching the Hawks was simply torture, especially as Kane’s MVP performance seemed to convince far too many people they were completely right for acting like a horse’s ass for reasons I won’t ever understand.

There are several people close to me who haven’t watched a game since, and will never come back. I understand and empathize with them, and sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off. But it isn’t that easy to let go, not when it’s been such a part for so long.

It was actually not all that hard to be anti-Hawks last year, because it was clear that they were a limited and flawed outfit that was most likely going out in the first round. Those like me who were torn between what we knew before and what we came to know didn’t have to hold on very long before we got a break of an offseason.

I went into this season a little more comfortable. Brian Campbell was back, a player I loved from his first stint. I was excited to see what Hartman and Schmaltz could do, and obviously haven’t been disappointed in either. And a little more separation from all the ugliness of course helped.

January and February, from when Schmaltz was recalled and showed what he was capable of and changed the dynamic of whole team, was the most I enjoyed Hawks hockey in a season and a half. I looked forward to every game, and caught myself pumping fists over goals in ways I hadn’t in a while.

And then of course, the Panarin video showed up. And it’s not about what Panarin did or said, because I thought Matt wrote exactly what I would have, and both Panarin and the Hawks responded as we would have wanted. I’ve catalogued all the ugly and ignorant crap I spewed in the early days of this, so I’m not throwing stones at him.

But that didn’t stop a raft of emails, while I was on vacation, of people who simply refused to understand why we’d bring it up in the first place. Who refused to understand why any part of the fandom would be upset. And I’ve only gotten 2,986 emails like this over the previous seasons, or so it seemed, on a variety of subjects. It feels like I never got to settle in too long before the section of Hawks fans intent on showing their hairy ass does exactly that and proudly so.

The season wrapped up, and as that faded I see on Saturday night the “Blackhawks Matter” sign in LA and am told stories of that being chanted in various away arenas (never heard it at the UC but I won’t rule it out). It’s not easy to be a fan when so many are intent are embarrassing you about being one.

Sure, other things have dulled my passion. Most of you know of personal things I’ve been through that have loosened the connection. Combine that with seeing the Cup in person raised in ’15 a year after I’d lost everything, and I know fairly well that it won’t get better than that. Throw in a Cubs celebration which meant more to me than anything, and I know the heights won’t be reached again.

So we sit here on the precipice of a long Hawks spring. I would be shocked if it wasn’t. And I’ll watch every game with one part of me pounding with anticipation of a fourth Cup, a phrase that still sounds so silly considering where the Hawks were not that long ago. And the other part of me will watch with dread, knowing there will be far too large a section of fans who will not look at Hawks wins as just that, but some validation or reward for the way things have gone and the way they’ve behaved. I don’t want to be associated with them, and yet I can’t escape them, can I? And the rest of me will just hope to not get caught in the crossfire.

I’ve come to accept what the Hawks organization is. I suppose they’re no different than any other. I’ve come to terms with rooting for a team whose most gifted player I detest, and aggressively loathe what he represents, which is the real problem.

It’s everything that comes with them that I can’t quite come to grips with. A fandom that seems intent on proving it is actually worse than any other, melding their unchecked inferiority complex with their unchecked sense of entitlement to form some unholy, toxic monstrosity of feeling that covers all bases of ignorance, gross masculinity, racism, stupidity. Throw in anything else you want, you won’t be wrong.

Still, most fans I come across I do feel a kinship with, and know they carry the same kind of trepidation I do. And there’s a feeling of not letting the worst remove the rest of us from the scene. But maybe that ship has sailed.

It promises to be a fun spring. I know I want to enjoy it. But I fear that once again, I’m not going to be allowed to.

Buckle up.