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THE FAR SIDE OF THE POND: Something to Believe In

By:
02/07/2008 3:10 PM -

 By Chad Huebner

It’s a winter wonderland here in the Chicago area. The problem with that is, unlike the song, I don’t find myself walking in it, I find myself driving in it, and hoping I don’t spin out of control, nor will the other maniacs on the road. We’re getting hit with enough snow, downtown Chicago looks like a scene out of “The Day After Tomorrow”, so much so I expect an unmanned Russian frigate ship to come sliding down Michigan Avenue one of these days.

Why did I start this column on such a bleak note? Well, it’s a typical Midwestern winter, after all, and in times like this, hockey fans like myself are thankful, bend-over-backwards grateful that we have our favorite sport to turn to.

I hesitate to say “Blackhawk fans”, because it’s also during this time of year the team goes on a road trip the likes Frodo and Sam never experienced. . . and don’t do so well. This year’s a true ball-buster: seven games in 16 games, with two back-to-back sets (Edmonton-Calgary and Nashville-Columbus) thrown in for good measure. So far, the ‘Hawks are 0-1-1 on the trip (though they lead Edmonton 1-0 after the 1st period as I write this) and are on a four-game losing streak overall.

In any other recent season, this would be a typical stretch for the ‘Hawks. Yet this year, the team should be much better, and it’s so frustrating that they’re only a few points out of a playoff spot. Sure, it doesn’t help the team went on a seven-game losing streak at one point, or that their number one young star, Johnny Toews, is still gingerly skating around the rink, hoping to get back into action sometime later this month, or that once again, they gave up on a guy, Sergei Samsonov, after only part of a season, trade him to a contender-Carolina Hurricanes-and somehow he found the fountain of youth in Charlotte because he’s scored nine points in his last 10 games. Oh, and I just found out the Nashville Predators signed J.P. Dumont to a four-year, $16 million contract. You might recall him as an up-and-coming scorer on the ‘Hawks, only to be traded away for next to nothing, then go on and have a not surprising productive career with the Buffalo Sabres and then the Preds (he’s scored at least 20 goals in five of his last six seasons with the Preds).

It’s enough to make me want to shove my snow scraper in my right eye-socket. But these are the ‘Hawks, the Chicago. . . Blaaaackhawks.

But should I be so bitter? (Answer: maybe.) I mean it’s a whole new regime, right? Perhaps I should take the words Dennis Savard said not too long ago during a press conference: “Believe in the Indian.”

He probably didn’t plan it, but in an instant, a new fan favorite T-shirt was created. (The other one quotes Eddie Olczyk saying “They’re sending a bunch of happy humans home!” when the ‘Hawks win.) It also created a bevy of bizarre controversy, especially from the Native-American factions, who thought it was racist. (Note to such factions: You do realize the symbol on the front of the ‘Hawks jersey is the profile of an Indian? Wouldn’t you want to harp on that, or the fact the team name is the name of a tribe? Or do you just have too much free time on your hands? I’m getting a splitting headache.)

Anyway, finally, after all these years, somebody is trying to pump up this team in a public fashion, and it comes from a head coach who has long been a fan favorite in this city. He spent most of his playing career, and nearly his entire coaching career, in this town.

(As I wrote that last sentence, the Oilers, who earlier in the second period tied the game, just took the lead.)

Okay, so I just need to “believe in the Indian.”

(And just after that sentence, the Oilers scored again!)

Just believe. Believeeeeee. Believe, believe, believe.

This isn’t something hard to do for short stretches, but for the rest of the season? That’s stretching my limits, not only as a ‘Hawks fan, but as a Chicago sports fan. To those of you living in far away places and who may not get all the sports information you want to, Chicago is where sports dreams, more often than not, come to whither and die. The Cubs are the ultimate example of this (supplanting the Boston Red Sox in the “Baseball Misery” category), but the ‘Hawks aren’t far behind. It’s letting popular star players go for next to nothing, only to have them win championships elsewhere (and sometimes, like in Chelly’s case, with direct rivals to the ‘Hawks. It’s signing supposed blockbuster players to huge deals, only to have them go down with an injury or not just perform up to expectations, until they’re let go for next to nothing, and rejuvenate their careers with other teams. It’s enduring a 45-year Cup drought and counting, with only a couple of Cup Finals appearances to show for it, the last one coming before Bill Clinton was sworn into office (and an embarrassing series sweep to boot, with the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrating the championship On our freaking ice!). They had a head coach named Alpo, for God’s sake!

I can actually remember the last time I was a happy human for a season with the ‘Hawks, and that was the 2001-02 season, the last time they made the playoffs. We had Darryl Sutter at the helm, we had Eric Daze as our leading scorer (right behind him were Alexei Zhamnov, Tony Amonte, Michael Nylander, Steve Sullivan and Kyle Calder, just to name a few household names), and we had Jocelyn Thibault in net, finally healthy for an entire season (I’m certain had he been able to put together a few more full seasons, the ‘Hawks would’ve been a playoff contender in the 2000s). Sure, they were blasted in the first round by the St. Louis Blues, but we didn’t mind so much, because it was fun for us to be back in the postseason, and we were certain we’d be back there next season.

Well, guess what? It’s been five years and counting for a playoff berth, and Sutter, Daze, et al and Thibault have all moved on. The Dark Ages have continued.

But I’ll give Savard the benefit of the doubt. Anybody who creates such an unbelievable move with a catchy name (the “Spin-a-rama”) has to have some credibility, right?

Believe in the Indian.

But first I’ll have to believe in myself.

*****

Maybe another way to get ‘Hawks fans pumped up besides a simple motto is to retire a player’s jersey.

There is constant talk about this around here. The biggest names being considered for this honor are Chelly, J.R. (Jeremy Roenick), Eddie the Eagle (Belfour), Doug Wilson and Steve Larmer.

Without too much surprise, that’s in order of popularity with the fans.

Now, obviously, Chelly has some points taken away because he’s “gone to the dark side”, Detroit. But hey, the guy was traded, not much he could do about that.

(At the time though, I was in the majority of people who thought Chelly was on his last legs, that his greatest years were long behind him. Nearly a decade later and pushing 60 I think, he’s still getting the job done, and won a Cup in the process, during that same season the ‘Hawks last went to the playoffs, no less. It just goes to show you how much of a sinkhole this town can be for even the greatest athletes, and when they leave, they’re just so damn happy to play anywhere but here, sometimes they have the best of their career. And yes, I am bitter.)

There seems to be three criteria when it comes to retiring someone’s number: 1) Length of time with the club, 2) Stats, and 3) Impact on and attachment with the fans. Using those three guidelines, you might say Chelly, J.R. and Eddie come up short with the first one: Chelly’s eight seasons, J.R.’s seven and Eddie’s six. Wilson comes up short on criteria Number Two.
The only one that can cover all three criteria? Surprisingly (or not), it’s Larmer. Granted, he was scoring goals at a time when even a third-line winger could notch 20 in a season, but you have to admit, he has the longevity and the impact parts covered down pat. So, while I’m a Chelly fan, I’d say why not retire his and Larmer’s numbers? What rule says you can only retire one number at a time? Or at the very least, retire Larmer’s number now, then do Chelly’s when he finally hangs it up, which should be after the 2015-16 season at this pace.

One of the most favorite things about sports is the hanging of the number in the stadium. Just caught a bit of a similar ceremony during a Philly Flyers game, when the Flyers inducted Ron Hextall in the Flyers Hall of Fame, the 19th member of the group. (Does any other team in the NHL have a Hall of Fame? I know the ‘Hawks don’t.) Ron delivered a great speech and made a great quote when he mentioned his dad couldn’t make the ceremony because of the flu: “C’mon Dad, I played games with the flu!” Then you had the choked-up moment when he thanked his wife and again when he said Philly will always be his home (I’m not even a Flyers fan, and those moments, well. . . let’s just say I was feeling “a little verklempt,” to quote Mike Myers from SNL). Finally, as an added twist, they had Hextall pose in front of a goal with a stick, and he tapped the posts a couple of times. I wanted him in a defensive crouch, facing shots like he did during the ’87 Cup Finals against Edmonton (the only time a player from the losing side was named Series MVP), but you can’t have everything.

It’s time to bring this emotional roller-coaster of an event to the United Center, and we should do it not once but twice.

*****

It’s time for some fan mail. Yeah, that’s right; I actually get some from time to time.

“Just had to write to you about your column. I am a Guildford Flames fan in England and your piece is printed every week in our match night programmes. It has become a must read part of my match night ritual.

The little tidbits of info you give each week make interesting reading. Even more so when we have so much coverage of your beloved ‘Hawks on our only coverage of the NHL here in the UK.

It does make me hope that I can read your musings online somewhere as I may be moving stateside soon and may have to become a sharks fan as well as a Guildford Flames fan.

Keep up the good work.

Btw Guildford is beating our rivals tonight 3-1 as I write this.

Dave
(Sent from mobile phone)

Thanks, Dave. You’re texting skills must be remarkable if you’re able to write all that. I use as many abbreviations as possible (btw, lol, urdabomb, etc) not because I want to be cute, but because my hands turn into claws.

(Btw, the Flames romped over their rivals, the Swindon Wildcats, 6-2. The Flames have a guy named Rick Plant-dunno if he’s related to Robert-while the Wildcats have a player with the cool last name of Nathan Craze. You gotta love hockey for having some of the weirdest yet coolest names, no matter where the sport is played. TMI or not enough? You decide (correct answer is not enough.)

I like being part of the pregame ritual, and hope that I’ve been some sort of good luck charm for the Flames. For those of you not familiar with the British hockey scene, the Flames are a pretty good club. Also, Guildford is where Ford Prefect claims he hails from in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Yeah, I’m a geek.

Anyway, I’m sorta glad you get to see my ‘Hawks (though probably not at this moment, as the Oilers scored yet again and are up 4-1 in the third and my ears are spurting blood). But being a Sharks fan at this point seems like a much safer bet. They’re competing with the Red Wings for the best record in the Western Conference, even when it looked like Detroit would run away with the first seed by a 20-point margin. The Sharks might have trouble winning at home, but if they can start playing as loose and feisty as they play on the road, they’ll do just fine in the postseason, becoming this year’s version of the Anaheim Ducks.

But whatever team you root for in the NHL (with the possible exception of the Los Angeles Kings, who are playing for next season more and more with each game) you’ll have a good time. The NHL has nearly everyone in the playoff picture at this point (well, let’s just say the ‘Hawks are on the bottom left-hand corner of the frame), and of course, hockey at this level is some of the most exciting in the world.

That’s something we can all believe in.

Remember; e-mail me at chadhuebner1972@yahoo.com for anything on your mind, hopefully hockey related. Best responses and/or questions will be answered publicly.



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