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Well, the time has come, and pretty early at that. Yes, Hockey Wilderness, your Des Moines contributor hails from the suburbs of Chicago and is, in fact, a fan of the Chicago Blackhawks; the proverbial thorn in the side of two Minnesota franchises and consummate playoff bully. But before the torches are raised and I’m drug away to be burned at the stake, maybe I can throw a few words at you to convince everyone of my place as a hockey mutt.
I have no hockey pedigree. Jeremy Roenick would lambaste me for having “never played the game” (I’ve held my own in shinny though). My mom’s side of the family is from Meaford, Ontario and the closest team to us would’ve been the Owen Sound Platers, now the Attack, of the O. I never got to see them play, since we visit family only in the summer. We opted for Senior B Men’s Box Lacrosse instead; a team with a very familiar logo in the hearts and minds of Minnesota fans (Go North Stars). You’d think that with Canadian roots I’d lean a little more towards the Leafs given that Toronto is just a few hours southeast of Grey-Bruce County, but my hometown itself sits about 45 minutes southwest of Chicago. If you’re familiar with the people and the geography of Chicagoland, you can probably guess which infamous suburb that is.
I was too young to remember being swept by Super Mario and Jags in the 1992 Cup Final, and I’m sure if you ask a lot of millennial Hawks fans, they couldn’t tell you that the Hawks even existed in a world before Patrick Kane or Johnny Toews. Some even Bradjelina it and try and summon the mythical superstar of Patrick Toews, but never Jonathan Kane. Verbal missteps aside, you could argue that for a lot of kids born in the early part of the 90s, the Chicago Blackhawks simply did not exist unless your dad or your granddad spoke fondly of names like Magnuson, Savard, Pilote, Bobby and Stan, or Tony O. My dad was not a hockey fan. October through February was for football and everything else was insignificant. Ironic given the proverbial dumpster fire that was the 90s Bears.
If you can remember 1992 (I was barely 1-years-old at the end of the season), you already know about how “Dollar” Bill Wirtz infamously took the Blackhawks off the TVs of households in the Chicago market. North Stars fans had their own worries in the early 90s, lest we forget, but the backwards thinking that fans would come and see a team they couldn’t see on TV was a dubious assumption at best. One that set the franchise back as far as being a feather in the cap of the Chicago Sports fan. The Cubs were unwatchable, but they were still more watched than the Hawks. Sometimes I’d fall asleep to “Save by Thibault!” or a horn followed by Gene Honda saying “Blackhawks goal by number #55, Eric Daze!” on ESPN radio, but that was the most contact I had with the team. The most “Chicago” hockey I saw in the late 90s/early 2000s was the Chicago Freeze at Fox Valley Ice Arena, junior club to future NHLers John Scott, Craig Anderson, and George Parros. This allowed for other hockey teams to infringe on my budding fanhood.
Sometimes us kids were in control of the TV set, and a lot of times I glued myself in front of ESPN. Before the lockout in 2004, there was a little program on “the mothership” called “National Hockey Night”. Before the Blackhawks were playing 20 nationally televised games on NBC and NBCSN, there was the New Jersey Devils, and they reigned supreme. There was Captain Scott Stevens, whose aggression remains unmatched in my book. I’d spend my youth body checking my brothers in the narrow hallways of our house because that’s what Scott Stevens did.
There was Marty, Ken Daneyko, Bobby Holik, mother-flipping Scott Niedermeyer. The team was STACKED. As a kid without his hometown team on the TV, why wouldn’t you want to idolize a team like that? I grew an irrational hatred for the Dallas Stars because of the 2000 Cup Final; Ed Belfour meant nothing to me. Same went for the Colorado Avalanche the year after. And then the lockout came. And no hockey on ESPN thereafter. By the time hockey resurfaced in 2005, I’d moved on as a sports fan. My winter hours were spent waking up at 5:30 to swim, go to school, and then swim again until 6 at night.
Then in 2007, I quit swimming. I had winters free, and my friend Tom kept asking me to play some pond hockey with him (Tom is now an established resident of Cathedral Hill. Go get some grog at Moscow on the Hill, its the real deal). We’d get up early and I’d be a lefty shot using one of his righty sticks. Before buying my own Sherwood (Paul Coffey-style), I had a deadly backhand. Despite not watching a single game, hockey returned as a way to get me out of the house. It was also playing shinny for what felt like 8 hours a day that let me clear my head about a lot of things as an angst-filled teenager. It would also be the same winter of the first Winter Classic and the first season the Blackhawks were back on TV after Rocky took over for his late father.
I won’t bore fans on Hockey Wilderness with the recent successes of the Hawks, but they’ve been a part of some of my best memories. I was able to attend the Stanley Cup parade in 2010 with my brother and my best friends. I watched the “:17 seconds” game at the bar I both worked at and frequented in my time in Iowa City. I watched the sun rise on the Thames, puffing a celebratory dart while living abroad in 2015. I’ve taken pulls of Malört and was there for the Stadium Series blowout at the hands of the Wild in 2016. There have been some pretty special moments surrounding this club in ways that the Devils never did.
To be completely fair, the Blackhawks get to me from time to time. “The franchise that brought hockey back” is a bit much. Sure, its one of the biggest television markets in North America, but I’d hardly say that they “saved” the sport. Its like Sports Illustrated forgot about that whole other country above the U.S. or something. Also, limited edition Lollapalooza hats and shirts kinda go beyond the pale for me. I see the marketing opportunity, but drunk high schoolers attempting to harbor jungle juice in a CamelBak has little to do with hockey. The Blackhawks don’t need to play in an outdoor game every year. There are only so many Indonesian-crafted sweaters fans need. They also don’t need to be the only team the NHL appears to market nationally with so many other potential superstars out there. People in the Midwest already find Illinois to be insufferable (F.I.S.H, F.I.Bs, etc), so I like to keep away as much fuel from the fire as I can.
So why the Wild? How can an outsider even begin to comprehend the State of Hockey? Truth be told, I will lend out my fanhood to any team that I’m in proximity to. I’ve lived outside Hamburg, so my DEL team was the Hamburg Freezers (when they existed). Living in South London, where there is no hockey, my local team was Millwall (“No one likes us, we don’t care”). The Blackhawks are still my number one, but it’s hard to make it to the UC when you’re living in Des Moines, let alone afford a ticket to a game. I satiate my hunger as a sports fan via geography.
When I moved to Des Moines after finishing up in London, I knew very few people and moved in with friends of friends. Thankfully the hockey season started up and I had something to occupy my time that wasn’t spent staring at the four walls of my apartment. Once again, hockey brought respite to the nagging questions rattling around my brain upon my return to Iowa. I got to sit, relax, crack a tallboy of Steveweiser and watch some future NHLers and some old ones (Ruslan Fedotenko played 16 games for Iowa that season).
Unlike myself, Des Moines does have a hockey pedigree, though most people I try and talk hockey with would rather crush beers at a Bucs game than head to Wells Fargo Arena. $1 beer aside, the Wild saw their highest average attendance since the franchise moved from Houston in 2013 (11,000+ showed up for the St. Patty’s game). They had their longest point streak and win streak in franchise history, moving from fringe entertainment to a weekend must see. I’ve probably watched more Iowa Wild games than any other professional sports franchise at this point in my life, and its been exciting to see both the city and the team grow. Unlike the Blackhawks, the Iowa Wild and Hockey Wilderness have given me an opportunity to go from “fanposter” to contributor; to write about a sport that has meant so much to me. Fortunately, Des Moines has turned out to be quite the hockey town, and that makes me feel at home.
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