A Real Shame

I remember my uncle’s bedroom at my grandma’s house when I was very young. The Chicago Blackhawks logo was present in the room in various mediums, he himself having become a fan of them and hockey around that time of his life, and in the early stages of mine. I found it fascinating even then, to see this multicolored design on a red uniform that only had black and white stripes as the remaining decoration. Not being from Chicago but being semi-raised up there due to numerous annual visits to the south suburbs, I looked to the sports scene as the primary entry point to understanding what it was to “get it.” In many ways I consider my Chicago associations, whatever few or flimsy they are, to be pretty thin and more wishful thinking than anything, but as a 7 year old kid looking up to one of my family idols, the Blackhawks were cool. The Blackhawks were unique. The Blackhawks were Chicago.

After getting a secondhand Sega Genesis in my early high school days, I played the hell out of NHL 94, and the Blackhawks were always my go-to squad. This was right at the time that Tony Amonte and Eric Daze were getting the Blackhawks into the playoffs for the first time in a few years, and while that team was dispatched unceremoniously, I felt the stirrings of a connection. I, the small college town kid, could embrace this inherently Chicago thing. I picked up similarly with the Cubs and Bears around that same time. My parents were diehard Cubs fans, my uncle a diehard Blackhawks fan, and while nobody really liked the Bears (lol) I was similarly charmed by them as well.

Growing up in the midst of the Bulls title runs, I distinctly recall the night of Jordan’s last title over the Jazz. After the buzzer sounded, we went out the front door and heard car horns honking, people clapping, noisemakers, firecrackers, and so on. It was the ambience of a community celebrating A Sports Thing. I didn’t really care about the Bulls at the time (eventually became a hardcore Pacers fan for about 6 years), but it was like a contact high. I wanted to be a part of that someday, but earnestly, and not just when the moment came about.

So in my wisdom, the Blackhawks, Bears, and Cubs became my teams.

The Blackhawks didn’t have games on TV much until after their previous owner ignominously died, and once he was gone I finally was able to get to know the team a lot better at a time in my life when I barely had access to the team unless their games were on nationally. I followed with interest as they cycled through Jocelyn Thibault, Nikolai Khabibulin, Patrick Lalime, Craig Anderson, and Cristobal Huet, among others, in an endless parade of mediocre-to-bad goaltending. The dismissal of Denis “commit to the Indian” Savard and hiring of Joel “nobody likes winning more than me” Quenneville rattled the cages. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane emerged as the rock stars with Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith the unbending presences on the blueline in a lineup of guys who were all capturing lightning in a bottle. The 2010 season felt like an, “oh shit, are they for real?” squad that was ready to ascend after being baptized in fire by the Red Wings a year prior. Unfortunately they were going against the Nashville Predators who were themselves peaking.

I had seen the Cubs flounder a few playoff series away, the Pacers lose a finals, and the Bears lose a few playoff games by this point, so I was no stranger to seeing my teams shit the bed when it mattered most. A vital game 5 for the Blackhawks at the United Center would prove pivotal to their future, and to mine.

The Blackhawks were showering Rinne with shots and he never bent, and his teammates kept fighting. A trio of goals, one short-handed, gave Nashville the lead late in the game, and I started getting that dread-feeling of those other teams that could never find a foothold and prove themselves above the fray.

With less than a minute left and the Blackhawks net empty, the insanity began. A scramble to the Predators net with 20 seconds left, a desperate Toews shot rebounded off of Rinne, and Patrick Kane was there to clean up, netting the tying goal and setting a bomb off at the United Center. Doc Emrick simply shouting, “SCORE! KANE!” is something I’ll never forget.

That said, Hossa was serving a 5 minute major as regulation ended. That time was expertly managed by the penalty kill, and as Hossa, who ultimately ended up in Chicago after 2 years of cup failures in Detroit and Pittsburgh, left the box, he planted himself in front of the Nashville net and deflected another rebound in for the game-winner. You could tell that the NHL playoffs essentially ended there. The Blackhawks overcame a tidal wave of adversity and won a franchise-changing victory. Even if Emrick wrongfully shouted “SCORE! KANE!” again, it doesn’t matter. This was the first time I’d seen something like this in sports and the hope was unfamiliar.

Fast forward – the Blackhawks win the 2010 Stanley Cup. They go on to win the 2013 cup as well over Boston, game 6 being one of the most memorable experiences of my life, right up there with the Miguel Montero Grand Slam in the eighth inning of game 1 of the 2016 NLCS, game 7 of that year’s World Series, and the 2001 Bears 49ers/Browns Mike Brown games. Two goals in 17 seconds was magical. The 2015 championship I actually don’t remember that much because game 6 nearly got me fired (long story).

In the years before and since, I’ve gotten myself a nice collection of Blackhawks stuff. Jerseys, keychains, sweatshirts, tees, fake pucks, real pucks, license plate, framed newspaper covers of their championships, Christmas ornaments, the works. I’ve treasured following this team as an adult over the last 11-12 years, but there were a few things that came up.

Patrick Kane punched a cab driver and was known for being a bit of a drunken scumbag, to put it politely. A rape accusation ended in bizarre fashion with nobody really knowing the truth besides the small clutch of people at the core. Patrick Sharp was rumored to have gotten wrapped up in a handful of sleazy affairs with married women. Andrew Shaw got caught on a hot mic dropping a homophobic slur in-game. Joel Quenneville grabbed his crotch to show his disgust with an official (OK, I admit that last one is kind of hilarious).

Degrees of weirdness and scandal over the years isn’t new or unique in sports, much less hockey, but not many teams have the further issue of battling their own brand. The Neon Indian crest, or whatever you’d like to call it, is simultaneously one of the best logos ever created in sports and one that needs to be retired as soon as possible. There’s no denying the beauty and allure of the iconic logo that got me into hockey so many years ago, but the shifting of both moral and business-optic goalposts to justify its use is exhausting, gross, and tedious.

Add all this onto the bizarre way that Stan Bowman and company have handled the roster and franchise’s direction over the last 6 years and hoo-boy, what a strange and stupid time it has been to follow and root for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Then the Aldrich stuff happened. I’m not going to go into too much detail, but here’s the TL;DR:

  • A video coach for the 2010 Blackhawks team sexually assaulted Kyle Beach, 20 at the time, who was an elite prospect in their system.
  • Said coach threatened to end Beach’s career if he didn’t give in to the coach’s unwanted sexual assaults.
  • Players knew of the event and bullied Beach with impunity.
  • The high-end executives and powers-that-be gathered to discuss this, and most, if not all, agreed that the team should focus entirely on the Stanley Cup run and table the situation for later.
  • After nearly a month, the coach celebrated on the ice with the cup, got a day with the cup, got a title ring, got a pay bonus, and was asked quietly to resign. Also during this time, he sexually harassed an intern.
  • The Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville gave Aldrich a glowing review at season’s end saying in the Needs Improvement section, “should spend less time with the players.” Uhh.
  • The Blackhawks have conveniently destroyed/hidden all records of Aldrich as an employee. (update: this is apparently just their standard procedure and not exclusive to Aldrich)
  • Aldrich went on to other hockey jobs with young people where he ultimately ended up getting caught sexually assaulting a minor and was sentenced to a pretty light prison stay.

The Blackhawks organization revealed all of this after months of rumors, issuing a damning, hideous .PDF of the report which you can read here. It’s not easy to go through, especially if you yourself have been a victim of sexual assault or trauma (I haven’t, for whatever that’s worth).

I felt sick to my stomach at the office reading that report, feeling like I’d been duped into rooting for and defending a scummy organization whose only priority was winning, even at the expensive of human dignity and moral obligation. It wasn’t the first straw, and it may not be the last, but it sent a shiver through me thinking of all of the Blackhawks-branded shit I own. As soon as I got home I gathered all of it that I could and it’s going into a plastic tote for an unspecified duration of time.

I’m ashamed of them, and by proxy ashamed of myself. It’s going to be a bit before I can proudly say I’m a Chicago Blackhawks fan again, and “a bit” may be much longer than that. Sexual assault being ignored and seasoned with bullying and homophobia certainly isn’t new to hockey, new to sports, or exclusive to the Blackhawks, and while they have taken great strides to distance themselves and/or fire anyone involved in that deliberate sin 11 years ago, the stain remains, and the last decade’s worth of success is forever tarnished.

I don’t have some clever wrap up line or 1-2 punch to close out this piece. I’m just a disgusted Blackhawks fan who doesn’t know what to do with his loyalty now, beyond donate it to the Seattle Kraken until I can feel better about whatever the fuck is happening on West Madison.

Update: Kyle Beach has come forward as John Doe 1, and his interview with TSN’s Rick Westhead is absolutely heartbreaking, and mandatory viewing.

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