Chicago woke up on Sunday with the mother of all party hangovers, but the city is not done partying yet - not by a long shot. In a city that has 475 years' worth of collective sports history, it only has 25 championships to its name, adding its most recent triumph to the record books last Wednesday night while on the road in Philadelphia.
The men who won the city its championship - the Stanley Cup - started their party on the ice at the Wachovia Center on Wednesday night, and they haven't stopped, nor have their fans. This victory has been cathartic for Chicago for many reasons: a 49-year trophy drought snapped; a young, talented team poised to lead their team to winning seasons for many years to come; and most importantly for this sports-mad city, the resurgance of hockey in a town that was hockey-starved for too many years.
This is a city where there is not just one but two major league baseball teams hold sway; their annual Crosstown Classic between the Cubs and the White Sox was invaded tonight by the Boys of Winter, and the stands were as full of hockey sweaters and t-shirts as they were baseball shirts. The new saying this spring in Chicago is that "baseball divides, but hockey unites this city."
Nowhere was this more evident than Friday morning in the Loop. Estimates for attendance at the Blackhawks' celebratory parade run as high as 2 million - roughly on par with the usual numbers that attend the city's July 4th celebrations. For blocks in many directions, it was a sea of red and white as the city turned out to cheer for and celebrate with the newest hometown heroes.
It's been four days now, and I still feel like I'm wrapping my head around some kind of hazy dream. As the Blackhawks rebuilt to this season, it seemed like all the pieces had fallen into place. The team's marketing slogan was "One goal" - the goal in question being the Stanley Cup - but after the previous season's oh-so-close run, the team knew it was faced with more pressure and higher expectations to go further this year.
As a fan, this past season has been a thrill ride. Only a few short years ago, I remember sitting in a far different United Center: one where the seats were usually half-empty and the play on the ice was lackluster. Players seemed to come and go like a rotating door. Every time that I decided I liked a player enough that I was willing to invest in a pricey jersey with their name on it, they got traded away, or left for greener pastures as their contracts expired.
After the lockout, the first few pieces fell into place as players like Sharp and Keith came to the team. And through Dale Tallon's careful cultivation of talent, the team we witnessed this year came into being, one piece at a time.
With the exception of just a few games this year (games against Columbus and the Wild come to mind), it has been a great season, a record-breaking one in several aspects. Even if this season did not end in the Cup, it has been the kind of season that any team could be proud of - especially considering that just a few years ago, this team was rated the worst in the league. The Blackhawks had fallen far from their storied history, but rose again like a blazing phoenix under the guiding hand of Rocky Wirtz for the past three years.
There are those who would cynically say that Wirtz did what he did for the money, for the business side of it. I think anybody would be foolish to deny that; what owner wants to lose money on their team? But I think Rocky genuinely cares about the game and wanted the team to be like the team he remembered from his youth.
Whatever his motivation, Wirtz has done everything right by the team. The players are treated well. They have great coaching and staff. Wirtz appears to subscribe to the theory that to become a winner, you must be treated like one, and his team is treated like one.
You could think that a team that is treated like princes, and has the celebrity of sports stardom would be different, but the fact is that hockey players recognize that what they do is a team effort. There is no room in hockey for prima donnas or singular glory-seekers; no matter how talented you are, you must rely upon your teammates to make the game happen.
And there isn't a fan in town who wouldn't tell you what nice guys these are. In talking with one of the senior security guys at the United Center a week ago, he had nothing but praise for the men of the team. "There isn't a single one of those boys that I would worry about if he took my daughter out," he told me. What more of a compliment could you want? These men have the city in the palms of their collective hands, but their words remain humble, and dare one even say it, grateful for all the praise and celebration that has been piled upon them.
On Wednesday night, I sat in a Lakeview bar among perhaps 30 other fans. All eyes were glued to the dozen TV sets around the place as the Blackhawks battled it out against the Flyers. Silence only fell when it was clear the game was going into OT, and nerves ratched up into the heavens. The Hawks had owned much of the past two games, but it was always anybody's guess what could happen next. And to be honest, I don't think many of us could've survived the heart attacks that would've accompanied game 7.
As play surged into the Flyers end, Kane faked out Timonen before making his run towards the net. "Just SHOOT, Kaner!" Somebody might've shouted it, maybe I did, maybe it was just in my head. And Kane shot - and continued to skate around the net - and we were going, "Where's the puck? Did it go in?"
And as Kane circled the end boards, and started ripping off and flinging away his gear, I leaned forward. "Is it in? Is he celebrating? What-- is it in?"
Then the Blackhawks were streaming off the bench, and there was the scream from the TV, "The Blackhawks have won!" and the entire bar was on their feet screaming, crying, jumping up and down. I leapt to my feet and I swear it felt like every single muscle in my body gave out; I keeled into the empty barstool in front of me for a few moments. And then I realized I was screaming for joy, over and over, like many in the bar were, and shaking and trembling so bad I had to sit down before I fell down, and put my head down on the table. I felt like I was going to cry a river in happiness, but nothing came out. (It would, later, when it all began to sink in.)
We could hear car horns blaring up and down the street, and the bar DJ cued up "Chelsea Dagger", and the crowd broke into the familiar "do do do" chorus, and we watched the Blackhawks piling up together on the ice - Toews accepting the Conn Smythe, and practically all but tossing it aside as the bigger and far more trophy awaited - Lord Stanley's gleaming silver Cup.
Chicago that night was a town released, high on the victory, and oozing excitement and happiness wherever you turned.
Hockey has been my sport of choice for most of my life. I've enjoyed baseball to a good extent - I was ecstatic when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 - but nothing ever prepared me for for that moment. And if I, a fan, felt this insane level of joy and ecstasy and rapture at this moment, what were the players feeling? They, whose every hockey moment of their lives led up to this very thing?
I think we know the answer, after four days of partying in Chicago. The team flew home triumphant, partying on the plane, then partying into the wee hours - and early working hours - of Thursday morning. The Cup made public appearances immediately after landing in Chicago, and a several dozen lucky fans even got the honor of partaking in drinks from the Cup that morning.
The Cup has been busy for the past few days, as the team has not only celebrated their own success, but shared themselves and the Cup constantly with their city and their fans.
On Thursday night, less than 24 hours after they won the Cup, I was heading home from work and I passed a street blocked off by police with a large crowd gathered. On a whim I stopped, and found out the Cup was at one of the restaurants on the street. I stopped, of course, hoping for even a glimpse of it, and was rewarded for it by being able to touch the Cup, albeit brief and fleeting. Later that night, I was out again, and thanks to the Twitter stream @wheresthecup, found out the Cup and some of the team was at the Underground, so I headed there and waited patiently among a lot of fans, old and new alike.
I've seen behavior in the past four days that has ranged from the respectful and reverent, with fans simply saying "Thank you, thank you" to the players and hoping for that brief moment of touching the Cup, to the - well, let's just say that some fans have been partying just as long and hard this weekend as the boys have been. There have been the long-time fans who hope for perhaps nothing more than the chance to shake a player's hand and that opportunity to say "thank you", to the people who are clearly bandwagon/party fans. I'm at a loss as to which fan I thought was worse to Dave Bolland: the drunk guy who complimented him using about half a dozen swears; or the 20-something chick falling out of her top who first asked him "Which player are you?" and then draped herself around him and shoved a camera into my hands to take a picture of them.
Putting up with those kinds of fans that night paid off, and I was rewarded with another touch of the Cup - this one a long caress of the beer-soaked silver. When a friend asked me the next day what I'd thought at that moment, I only had one word: "Happiness."
Friday, of course, was the parade, and I joined two million newfound friends in the city in patiently waiting for the parade. Unfortunately, I couldn't take off enough time away from work to join the actually rally itself, but I was able to be in Daley Plaza and to see the parade route, and then I watched the rally on TV during lunch. Habs fans, take note - it is possible to celebrate a win without burning your city down. Whether it was two million or just one or whatever number it was, more people were treated for heat stroke than arrested.
The players rode atop London-style double decker tour buses, a handful of players per bus, with family and friends riding in trolleys at the start of the parade. The players you would expect were camping it up - Versteeg, Burish, and oh, of course, Kane. I missed Hossa - I think he was on the other side of his bus when it passed me, so I missed him, but the look of sheer gratefulness on his face as his name was chanted during the rally was heartwarming.
And my favorite player, Antti Niemi - I think none of the players quite knew how many people had turned out for the parade until they'd passed under the L tracks at Wells, and into the heart of the Loop. At Daley Plaza, it was wall-to-wall people for blocks around, and as I first glimpsed Niemi's face as his bus came into view, he was looking up at the confetti falling from the sky, and around at the people, and his face was like a kid's at Christmas: full of surprise and awe.
If you've read the papers or seen the internet, surely you know by now that this parade turnout was like nothing Chicago had ever seen. It even amazes me when I look at pictures of Michigan Avenue, and see that area around the rally staging point packed full of red-clad people for blocks around. The Blackhawks shared their triumph and joy with the city eager to embrace them, and carried their partying through the weekend.
And as a long-time fan, I can't resent the bandwagoners and the here-for-the-party people. Not much, anyway, because I too want to party and celebrate this moment. If I get really lucky, maybe I too will get my chance to kiss or drink from the Cup; but for now, my team has won it, and by whatever graces, I got to touch it. Twice.
The greatness of the Stanley Cup is that it belongs almost as much to the fans as it does those who won it. And part of the greatness of this band of brothers known as the Blackhawks is that the first thing they did with their triumph was to carry it home, and share it with the city for days on end, letting the fans be as much of the celebration as possible.
It is quietly rolling into Monday morning now. Chicago has had four days to party and let this all sink in. Now we have to go back to work; the Cubs and White Sox t-shirts will come back out - it is summer, after all - and we shall patiently count the days for the new season to take us on the next roller coaster ride, and our year with the Stanley Cup.