I love the Chicago Blackhawks. I love watching them play, I love talking about them with friends and strangers. I love knowing that, when I give them my time, my attention, my passion, they'll respond in kind by making it worthwhile. Fandom is so rarely as good as it's been as a Blackhawks fan.
Or at least, that's how it used to feel.
Then I found myself Saturday watching a rerun of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. You can't help but feel your heart start to race with all the memories rushing back. In the second period, Duncan Keith scores an amazing goal off his own rebound, the likes of which will go down in Chicago lore. Except, the play was entirely created by a perfect pass from Patrick Kane. I cheered inside. I also felt that gaping hole in the pit of my stomach.
Minutes later, I fast-forwarded to the middle of the third period. You can hear the crowd beginning to grasp how close it is to celebration. The Hawks are pushing like crazy to hold onto a 1-0 win, the Lightning trying frantically to force a Game 7. Then Brad Richards sets up Kane with a pinpoint pass. Goal, 2-0.
I smiled. Then I started to cry. And not in a happy way.
This is what it's like to be a Blackhawks fan for me now, a concoction of joy and melancholy that makes it easy to wonder what the hell I'm doing here in the first place. The questions about Bryan Bickell's contract seem quaint now. How I feel about the team hardly matters compared to society doing right by the woman who has alleged Kane raped her at his offseason home. It's not important whether the Hawks are prepared to deal with the possible absence of one of the sport's most talented players. This is way bigger than hockey, no matter how much it affects hockey, and that should never be lost on anyone. This used to be our little escape from the evils of the world. It's not anymore.
So I cried. I sat there, watching what's undeniably one of the best moments of my life, and couldn't think about it the same way anymore. This situation is so real, so emotionally raw. I want to be the best Blackhawks fan I can be, the best person I can be. I have no idea how to reconcile those things with the possibility that one of my favorite players has completely failed to hold up his end of the bargain. For so long, the Hawks had done that. Now everything is put into question.
When it comes to the real-life implications of the situation, there are people far smarter than me you should listen to. Go read Julie DiCaro's article on how not to talk about the case, or Kavitha Davidson's on the NHL's failure to educate players about violence against women, or Alan Bedenko's on The Buffalo News' questionable reporting. Look at this spreadsheet put together by Carrie (@NearIdleLark) that details the history of NHL players and accusations of violence against women. There are some truly brilliant people trying to shed light on issues that go far beyond Kane or Chicago.
But for the Blackhawks, how the team handles this matter may end up being more important than any personnel move the team has made since turning from laughing stock to borderline dynasty. If Kane is charged, there's simply no way he can return to a franchise that's placed its stake in doing the right thing by its fans. Even if he's not charged, this casts a cloud over the Blackhawks' commitment to being a first-class organization. This stuff doesn't happen in first-class organizations. And in those rare instances when it does happen, you expect a first-class response.
We're still waiting for all the facts, for the situation to develop beyond a series of deeply concerning reports. The Blackhawks presumably are, too, which explains their general lack of action since the news came out. Maybe they're making moves behind the scenes to ensure that they'll be able to move Kane if needed. Maybe they're in a holding pattern hoping to find a way to welcome back Kane with open arms.
Either way, things are different now, and we're all evaluating just what the Blackhawks and our fandom means to us. Everyone is going to deal with these kinds of situations differently. For some of us, straight up disconnecting and taking time to reflect is important. For others, there's the impatient wait until training camp and the opportunity to talk some actual hockey. In the meantime, we're all trying to figure out how to celebrate Keith and Toews and Hossa and Crow and Teuvo and Q and everyone else without feeling like we're supporting the wrong things.
There are things far more important than hockey, and I hope that if the time comes, we'll see the same from the Blackhawks. I still love my team, and I still love just about every person involved in the memories I've forged over the years. I just can't do this if it means questioning what kind of person I am. Winning should not come at all costs. So I'll keep rooting, and keep believing the team will eventually do right by us. Kane can't return if he's charged. It'll be hard to welcome him back even if he's not charged given the difficulty of proving his innocence, when you consider the facts behind most rape accusations. Each fan will have to make his or her own decision on how to deal with Kane should he find himself in a Hawks uniform on opening night. It's hard to imagine a scenario where Kane can restore our collective faith in him, however.
Yes, this is just hockey, but for many in Chicago, rooting for the Blackhawks had been a powerful respite from the evils of the real world. Now it's something different, and everyone has to decide how they want to grapple with that.
I just know that, for me, knowing what we presently know, I can't root for Patrick Kane the same way anymore. I'm positive about this now after breaking down by myself on a rainy Saturday morning. I don't know whether he'll be charged, or he'll be exonerated, or he'll figure out a plea deal with the accuser. I just want to see the world do the right thing, especially by those personally affected by this situation. I want to be proud of being a Blackhawks fan again. How that happens goes far beyond winning on the ice at this point.