Every now and again, when a city is lucky, it gets a team it can fall in love with. This takes something a little bit more than just being a winning team. It takes a connection. The Showtime Lakers of Magic Johnson had that connection - they won with the sort of style that spoke to people in Los Angeles. The 1998 Yankees had a special romance with New York - those Yankees were rich and star-driven and powerful, the stuff that courses through New York.
The Jimmy Johnson Cowboys were as big as Dallas; the Theo Epstein Red Sox broke the curse but also had both a blue-collar and analytical quality that fit New England; the Giants are fun and quirky and unlikely and they have won San Francisco's heart.
These Blackhawks are only halfway through the season. But they're winning Chicago's heart.
Well, no, at the moment they are not winning anybody's heart because as I write these words Sunday evening the Blackhawks trail 4-0 to the Edmonton Oilers. And we're only 13 minutes into the game. Yeah, it's ugly out there. A few people in the stands are restless.
Restless? Already? Yes, they know, everyone knows, that the Blackhawks started the season by going 21-0-3 in their first 24 games, the "0" in there representing the number of losses. No hockey team had ever gone their first 24 games without a loss. The Blackhawks suffered their first loss Friday night against Colorado. Everybody in Chicago knows all that.
But they're restless anyway because the Blackhawks have been all kinds of lousy so far tonight. I mean, seriously, 4-0? Thirteen minutes into the game?
Well, hey, it's only one bad game. Teams have them all the time, especially teams that have played seven games in 11 days and already have made history. The connection between this team and this city is bigger than one game. The connection . hey, wait, Patrick Kane just beat Edmonton goalie Devan Dubnyk to the puck, worked around, and scored to make it 4-1. Now, Kane is pumping his fist and the fans are singing the goal-scoring song ("Chelsea Dagger, by "The Fratellis") and there's a bit of energy in the place. That's nice to see.
But the point is, the connection is bigger than just one game. The Blackhawks and Chicago have a long history. "I grew up here in the 1960s," says Pat Foley, who has been broadcasting Blackhawks games for 30 years. "Back then it was Stan (Mikita) and Bobby (Hull) and Blackhawks tickets were as tough to get as any ticket town."
There was a long lull when the Blackhawks were, in Foley's words, "irrelevant." But the Blackhawks are that kind of hot ticket again. They have been building this team for a while - they won the Stanley Cup in 2010, of course. They got Kane with the first pick in the 2007 draft. Captain Jonathan Toews, who has already earned his place as one of hockey's great leaders, was the third pick in the 2006 draft. The Blackhawks signed longtime professional goal scorer Marian Hossa. And .
And, wait a minute, there's Hossa, scoring on a perfect pass from Toews to make it 4-2 Edmonton. Hold on a second here. Now, the crowd sings Cheslea Dagger even louder. The United Center begins to shake a little bit.
Truth is, it is almost pointless to start listing off players because one of the things that make the Blackhawks different is how deep they are. Do you know how many different players scored game-winning goals during the streak? Thirteen. This is what makes them so marvelous, such a perfect team for Chicago, which isn't so much one great city but a vast collection of great neighborhoods. The Blackhawks rely on their third line, their fourth line, their depth, their energy, their special teams, their two goaltenders, their constant pressure. This isn't a particularly big Blackhawks team. They certainly don't hit with the ferocity of, say, last year's Los Angeles Kings. They don't win through intimidation.
No, they just keep coming, minute after minute, shift after shift, period after period, everybody doing their job. That's a formula for becoming popular. How popular are they in Chicago? They have sold out 203 straight games. They have smashed television ratings records this year - often DOUBLING their numbers from last season. In certain age brackets, at certain times, they are the No. 1 show in Chicago, this "Madhouse on Madison." And, remember, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, so this year's spike in popularity is about more than just the winning, more than just the streak.
They just connect - Chicago and these Blackhawks. The pregame is, well, it's unlike any I've seen in sports. The Blackhawks will turn out the lights and words appear all around the stadium. "Legends." "History." "Tradition." And so on. Video will show some of the Blackhawks greats through the years. They do this sort of pregame thing before just about every game in sports - pro or big-time college - but I've never seen a show quite this long, or this involved. Lasers flash. More and more photos are shown. More video clips. The names of some of the past players glow all around the arena.
Then, Jim Cornelison sings "Oh Canada," and then he sings the National Anthem, and the cheering starts. They've been cheering the anthem in Chicago since the 1985 playoffs - you, no doubt, saw the video of them cheering when the Gulf War began - and they still cheer with gusto every night, especially when Cornelison slows down and sings, "That our flag was still there," and points up to the rafters, where a spotlight shines on an American flag. I know there are Americans who find the Chicago act just a bit unseemly, and I don't know what's the right or wrong protocol. I just know that I got goose bumps.
There is a sports lull in Chicago at the moment. The Cubs lost 101 games last year, and the White Sox faded down the stretch. The Bears have been in that wind tunnel where they are not good enough to win or bad enough to start over. And the Chicago Bulls are in a holding pattern without Derrick Rose. There's so much sports passion in Chicago, it bubbles over, and right now there's just one place to channel it.
So, yes, everyone channels their energy toward the Blackhawks, who I have to say have just scored midway through the third period - Patrick Kane again - to make the score 6-5 Edmonton. The place is really loud now. Everyone seems to be feeling the same thing: the Blackhawks are going to pull off another miracle.
And now the Blackhawks pour it on. They attack and attack. Edmonton is helpless against the swarm. The Oilers can't clear the puck. The Blackhawks are firing shots indiscriminately, some toward Edmonton backup goalie Yann Danis, some over him, some around him, Blackhawks players are buzzing around like moths, it's wild. And the Chicago crowd screams, then groans, SCREAM, groan, ROAR, sigh, you don't even need to watch the game, you can just close your eyes and listen and understand. The sound builds as the puck works around the perimeter, then the first scream shrieks as a quick pass is made in front, and then there's a booming "Oh!" as the shot is taken, and the breathless "Aw!" as it is kicked away.
The last 10 minutes are all like that, one sound after another after another without any break at all. In the end, the Blackhawks do not score the game-tying goal this time. The hole had been too deep. As Toews would say, "Those first 20 minutes . we didn't show up." But people in Chicago didn't seem too disturbed by it all as they wandered out into the drizzling rain.
"Hey, come on, they still have the best record in hockey."
"Edmonton just has our number." (This is true: Last year, Edmonton beat Chicago three out of four, including a 9-2 drubbing. Even this year, Edmonton took Chicago to overtime the first time they played. Edmonton won 6-5 on Sunday.)
"They almost came all the way back, didn't they?"
That last one was a father talking to his son. Both of them wore matching Blackhawks jerseys. Look: It's just the regular season. The Blackhawks will define themselves by what they do in the playoffs. Everybody knows that. But there is no doubt that the city is ready to fall in love with the Blackhawks. They're falling already.