Forty-nine years is a long time to wait for anything. But that was how long loyal Chicago Blackhawks fans had to wait before they could witness their hockey heroes once again hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup above their heads in celebration of a National Hockey League Championship. The last time the Stanley Cup came to Chicago was in 1961. The heroes then were Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, now two of the proudest members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Along with goalie Glenn Hall and a host of other legendary players, the members of that 1961 team had every reason to believe that their championship was only the beginning, and that many more would soon follow. But it wasn’t until the 2010 team, starring such brilliant young players as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Dustin Byfluglien, Duncan Keith and Kris Versteeg, won the Cup in early June of this year that another NHL Championship came to the Windy City. And what a celebration that championship set off.
It was Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, which was being played in Philadelphia. The game had gone into overtime and everyone watching the game in Chicago was on the edge of their seats. The Neilsen folks reported later that this game would have the second-highest rating of all time for a Stanley Cup Finals game broadcast on national television. Chicago fans being what they are, and being used to disappointment after disappointment from their professional sports teams, were scared to death. If the Blackhawks were to lose this game, the series would come back to Chicago for a Game 7, with no guarantees that the home team would prevail.
But then it happened. Kane scored and the Blackhawks won. After a few moments of disbelief, the entire city of Chicago erupted and the celebration began. It was a celebration that reached epic proportions and that still had not subsided two weeks later.
The championship was won on a Wednesday night. By early Thursday morning, the Blackhawks’ charter flight was setting down at O’Hare Airport, escorted by fire trucks spraying the airplane with their hoses. The team emerged from the plane carrying the Stanley Cup overhead and proceeded to a fleet of buses and limos that took them all over the city and suburbs, from one restaurant to another, from one tavern to another, all the while with fans lining the streets and pushing into the premises with the players wherever they went. And the players lapped it all up, allowing the fans to touch the cup, kiss the cup and even drink champagne from the cup with the team members. It was one of the biggest movable parties the city had ever seen.
By Thursday evening, the players were starting to split up and go their various ways in order to catch up with their friends and families and to get some sleep, because the next morning, Friday, the City of Chicago itself was going to throw the official celebration party and the players had to be ready for that. Everyone knew it was going to be a blast. But no one could anticipate just how big a blast.
The parade route was announced a day in advance, so that people could pick out their preferred viewing spots before they left home. The diehard fans actually started lining up the night before. By the time dawn came on Friday, there were already thousands of fans in place along the route and at the final rallying point, which was at the intersection of the Magnificent Mile (Michigan Avenue) and the Chicago River in downtown Chicago. Naturally, all of the streets along the route were cordoned off and a large stage was erected at the place where the final rally would take place.
The players and the front office personnel boarded special open air double-decker buses for the parade. The Stanley Cup was carried on the bus that held the team’s captain, Jonathan Toews. The players on that bus took turns holding the 35-lb. Cup over their heads as the bus rolled along. The fans were lined up at least six deep at every point in the parade, and the cross streets were jammed with the overflow crowds. People were hanging from every vantage point. Some had climbed up light poles, others stood on garbage cans or planters, little kids sat on their parents’ shoulders. Everyone had their camera phones out and clicking. Even the media folks were seen jogging along the parade route trying to get to places where they could actually see what was going on.
The best part was that everyone was in a genuinely festive mood, and no one was making trouble. It was the middle of the day, so there were few drunks to deal with, and many, many families with young children were taking part, so no one wanted to create danger for them. Plus, the Chicago Police and security forces were everywhere, so there was no point in doing something stupid. This was just a good old-fashioned lovefest.
The minute that the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, the merchandise folks started churning out those ubiquitous championship caps, banners and T-shirts. In fact, several admitted later that they had started printing them up even before the game was over, taking a chance that the home team would somehow prevail. And their entrepreneurship was rewarded when Kane scored the winning goal and they were able to hit the streets within minutes with their merchandise. The caps sold out almost instantly, and the T-shirts were not far behind. Thousands of the caps and T-shirts were spotted on the fans at the parade, along with a sea of red Blackhawks replica jerseys and homemade tinfoil Stanley Cups. Many of the shirts and jerseys had already been signed by one or another of the players, since hockey players are among the most notoriously friendly and cooperative professional athletes when it comes to signing autographs, posing for photos and the like.
Moving around during the parade and rally took a lot of perseverance. You could not just shove yourself from one place to another, so you had to be patient and go with the flow. Eventually, you could get to where you wanted to go, but you just had to smile and say, “Excuse me” a lot as you gently pushed past the folks in your way. It was not until the next day that one could fully appreciate the problem that the fans were dealing with as they tried to move around the area. That was when the City announced that, by its estimate, over two million people had poured into the downtown area to view the spectacle.
In fact, the looks on the players’ faces as they rode around on the buses and stood on the rally platform said it all. Those faces were showing absolute disbelief at what they were seeing. It just did not seem possible to have all of those people in one place at one time. And don’t even think about what the economic cost to the City was that day. Although the City got several private donors to pick up the tab for the police and fire department and other City services, who knows how much time was lost from work by all those people who probably called in sick so they could attend the parade.
I have now been to championship parades and celebrations for just about every Chicago professional sports team except one (and you all know which team that is). But I do not think any of those past celebrations came anywhere near approaching this one for sheer exuberance. The Bears’ 1986 Super Bowl Champions were the quintessential party animals, and their parade was something to behold. And the six Bulls’ championship rallies of the 1990’s, with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and company, were nothing to sneeze at. Heck, even the celebration thrown for the 2005 White Sox World Series Champions was a mighty spectacle. But nothing I have ever seen before could possibly match the energy emanating from the humongous crowd of fans, with the suppressed desire of 49 long years of waiting, that came pouring out after that very exciting and satisfying Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals.
It was the lovefest to end all lovefests. It left you breathless. I dare say, the only thing that might ever top this celebration would be a Cubs World Series Championship celebration, and we all know that the day that takes place will be the day the devil has a snowball fight in his own front yard.
The Blackhawks’ fan convention is scheduled to be held the middle of July at the Chicago Hilton & Towers. Good luck getting into that!
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