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Thursday, April 30, 2009
Through the eyes of Hawks fans

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

Chicago Blackhawks Fans
Chicago fans from all backgrounds celebrate the team's success.
Right now, if you're a Blackhawks fan, you're probably pretty fired up, happier than old Bill Wirtz after finding a nickel on the ground. Happier than Ed Belfour finding a tooth in his Molson. Happier than young(ish) Rocky Wirtz after mailing those $4,000 playoff bills last week.

The "right now" is Thursday, the day the conference semifinals matchup against the Vancouver Canucks begins, in the jewel of North America, the Olympic city still mourning the loss of the Grizzlies. (The official unofficial city motto is: "Wither Big Country Reeves, eh?")

The "right now" is a fascinating, and possibly fleeting, nick in the timeline of the post-Bill Wirtz Blackhawks future. The resurrection of the franchise is pretty much complete, as the team is profitable and competitive and relevant. The media has taken to the team, as have the fans, be they die-hard hockey nuts or just broad fans of Chicago sports. And what I'm wondering is: How do those fans feel right now? How should they feel -- anxious, or excited, or both?

Is it enough to have won one playoff series, to have returned to the semifinals for the first time since 1996? Or is any season in which your team doesn't make the penultimate round a disappointment to be tolerated? Can you truly exist in the present and enjoy this series, this slice of time, for what it is?

To me, right now, there are two schools of thought for how Blackhawks fans should think today and throughout this series, and I'm using "schools" literally here by dividing the dueling fan bases into Notre Dame and Northwestern.*

The former, the win-one-for-the-Gipper crowd, preaches winning above all else. Making the second round of the playoffs isn't enough for these fans, who live in a constant state of disappointment and sadomasochistic stimulation.

To these fans, beating the Canucks and, God help 'em, the Red Wings is paramount; losing would be complete failure. As the Irish have showed us so many times in recent years, eighth place is for losers. This group of fans, who probably constitute the majority of "real" fans for any franchise or college, is rarely content, not for any extended period of time at least. But if your team (or, let's be honest, "you") wins the last one, no one will be happier.

Then there is Northwestern, a state of being in which fans are happy with just being there, making it. Taking the second step of a long journey that might never see its culmination. These fans tend to revel in small victories and think in future tense. They are used to losing, so a change of pace teaches them that providence is on their side and that when they do win, man, it'll be sweet.

Of course, if I want to get picky, I could say there are three schools, the third being the University of Chicago, which would tell its fans that, yeah, hockey in Chicago works in reality, but what about in theory? Or if I wanted to use the U of C business school in this exercise, I could wave my monogrammed cuff link around the East Bank locker room and say, "Let the markets decide!" (Also, John McDonough, please call me. I'm a consultant.)

(If you're still with me, I'm getting to my point. Don't get your Chris Chelios jersey in a knot.)

If you're on the Irish side, you're in for a painful fortnight and perhaps a long summer, and you know this. You probably scoffed at the Chelios mention because you have purchased two or three new Hawks jerseys since the Revival of '07, along with a Winter Classic sweatshirt and that Wisconsin shirt you wear "just in case" you run into Adam Burish (in his pantry). What I'm trying to say is that you're a hard-core fan who doesn't care about the front office heroics or what kind of shirt Vince Vaughn's Canadian ladyfriend is wearing at the game.

You're the kind of fan who reads The Hockey News and rails at ESPN for not covering enough hockey. You're in permanent Barry Melrose withdrawal. You e-mail Tim Sassone, and you wait for an hour "on the Kennedy" to talk to Carmen, Jurko and Harry (plug, plug) about Brent Seabrook's stick-handling. At 16, you drove around Aurora for two hours looking for Stan Mikita's Donuts, and three years later, you were jealous that your girlfriend grinded with Jeremy Roenick at Excalibur -- but, uh, not of him.

Needless to say, you are really, really, really into hockey.**

Now, there are a lot more of you, the die-hard hockey fans, in Chicago than I thought, which shows you don't know a city until its allotted squad of ice-skating Canadian brawlers starts to kick a little butt, because soon enough, a good portion of sports fans are speaking some kind of foreign language. As has been stated ad nauseam, Chicago's hockey scene, aside from the suburban AHL Wolves, was so depressing that you've been in a Wirtz-induced hibernation. Or maybe I'm not giving fans enough credit, because maybe you've been going to Blackhawks games and no one noticed since no one outside of your little puckhead social circle was there.***

You certainly know everything there is to know about the Hawks and way too much about the Canucks. You know Roberto Luongo isn't one of Salma Hayek's ex-boyfriends. He's probably the hottest goaltender in the playoffs. You know the Canucks, who edged Calgary in the Northwest Division, are a physical, bruising team, and you really hate them after that brawl between the clubs last month. And you'd love to see another one because -- let's face it -- you love fighting. Hard-core fans often are the most optimistic, and you see Lord Stanley beckoning and you just can't help but think that the Hawks could keep this ride going through June.****

Now, if you're in the other school, chilling at Buff Joe's, you're probably not a real die-hard, even though you've started to describe yourself as such. You claim to have heard of a few Canucks, but most likely you looked up the team page online to get the abridged version. You call yourself a "Chicago sports fan" or claim to have really liked the team when you were a kid, and now that the new regime has taken over ...

You definitely like the Blackhawks, but it's not love yet. You bought your first jersey in the past 18 months. You often start conversations about the team by saying things like, "That John McDonough is a genius, isn't he?" You can debate the merits of both the Bulin Wall and Cristobal Huet, but you really don't have much insight on why Nikolai Khabibulin has had problems with Vancouver this season. You've watched enough of the Blackhawks to know about Joel Quenneville's tendencies, but you're never quite certain who is on what line at any given time, or why. You're pumped about more hockey, and you definitely dig the fighting, but you'll sleep just fine when the Hawks finally lose. There's always baseball, and then football. And hey, it's almost street festival season.

If you think I'm being too divisive here, you're probably right. Unless you write for Fox News, you probably don't believe the world is so black and white, so Notre Dame and Northwestern. There probably are a lot of fans who fall into the first category, the die-hards, but are sensible enough to know there is a really good chance the Hawks will run out of gas in this round, and that's OK, too. This might be just the first trip in a journey, and the team needs some more experience to make a legitimate run to the Cup. You might just be enjoying the hockey renaissance.

But then you realize that San Jose has been knocked out, that Dustin Byfuglien, Duncan Keith, Seabrook & Co. are getting feisty at the right time, that you split with Vancouver this season ... and then you start to dream a little bit.

And then you wonder whether there is ever such a thing as enough.

*If you're reading this on a site that is not ESPNChicago.com, please note that I'm being provincial here. Also, I am aware that Joakim Noah didn't invent the word "swag" but just uses it an awful lot.

** I have a friend like this. Well, not exactly like this. His name is Jamie, and he played hockey at New Trier and Ohio University. Once, after our winter break in college, he told me about the really good Bulls tickets he had. "Where did you sit?" I asked. He paused, searching for the right word. "Right where the boards would be!" "You mean the floor?" "Yeah, yeah. The floor."

*** I was picking up my pass to an earlier playoff game and ran into two media friends, both of whom have big jobs in the city, and neither had a season pass. Every would-be journalist with a pulse and a recorder has some kind of Cubs pass. I have a feeling that more journalists will be going to regular-season games for the next few years.

**** I've seen the Stanley Cup twice. Once as a kid in Pittsburgh, sometime during the Penguins' run, perhaps after the Pens beat Chicago. The other time was at Glascott's on Halsted about six years ago. I'm not going to say I scratched my name into it, but I'm not going to pretend J. Greenberg didn't get a few shifts for the Maroons in 1935.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com