clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Blackhawks and the year that changed how I view sports

Thinking about the best and worst year of sports in my life.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

I remember going to ballgames as a kid with an incredible sense of wonder. Everything was so much bigger and grander than you could imagine, even seeing it on TV. It was, in many ways, an experience of simple pleasures -- hot dogs, smells, sounds, excitement, even just hanging with my dad. Sports wasn't really an escape because when you're nine years old there's not necessarily much to escape from yet.

I think 2015 was the year that officially changed all that. Maybe it was the slow build of countless heartbreaking stories from practically every corner of life, reminding us that sports really are a microcosm for so much else of society. Or it might just be that I'm now 24 years old and as you mature, those experiences start to frame things in ways you didn't anticipate. But after an unimaginable year of highs and lows, one that I will surely never forget, I'm undeniably a changed sports fan. I feel like an adult sports fan now.

The year started off in a truly somber way in the aftermath of the death of Clint Reif, a beloved member of the Blackhawks' equipment staff who committed suicide in December 2014. That's the kind of thing that makes sports feel pitifully unimportant. Here was a member of the Hawks' family -- everyone from players to teary-eyed Joel Quenneville said as much -- and suddenly he was gone far too young and in such a tragic way.

The interview Coach Q gave prior to the game the team played right after the news came out was, to me, a defining moment for him as a coach. Here was the hardass known for screaming curses, putting guys in the doghouse and grabbing his balls on national TV. Talking about Reif, he really couldn't contain himself. There was love. I can't tell you how many times, because of my own personal experiences, that I've thought about the Reif family and what everyone involved in that must still be going through.

And then the team went on to win the Stanley Cup. For a few months, watching Blackhawks hockey was as glorious and intoxicating as being a sports fan can be. I'm really not sure there's anything like staying up late to watch a triple-overtime playoff hockey game. The degree of intensity in a winner-take-all format like that turns every second into possible ecstasy or heartbreak. What it feels like to watch the final five seconds of an NBA game when a team is trailing by one and has the ball, that's how an NHL playoff OT feels until someone scores. It's like the moment right after you tell a girl you like her and you're waiting for something really good or really bad to happen. You can't even go to the bathroom because you might miss the single moment that determines who wins and loses.

We were treated to those kinds of games as the Hawks went on to the victories, first over Nashville, then through Minnesota, Anaheim and finally Tampa Bay. And in the most ideal fashion, the final victory, the Stanley Cup laps, it all came on home ice. Covering Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final for this very website will go down as one of my great highlights as a media person and a lover of sports. It almost makes all those nights of working late writing recaps that would only get maybe a few hundred eyes completely worth it.

And seeing the way the community blossomed around all this, with the Wirtz family perfectly orchestrating the Hawks' return to relevance after quite literally being a joke for the first half of my life, was special. Some people might say their favorite part of sports is watching the games or the nitty-gritty details, but for me, it was always the shared experience in rooting for the same thing. That doesn't happen much in life, aside from like Star Wars. Nothing makes sports better than watching it with friends and now because of the Internet I feel like I'm always watching with a group of thousands.

Except 2015 also fractured that fan base in a way that's changed everything to come since. The Patrick Kane rape investigation, which never led to any charges from the district attorney's office, was the biggest story surrounding the Blackhawks in the lead-up to the season. You could hardly talk about the makeup of the roster, not only because of the much larger issues at play but because you had no idea what the heck the team would even look like if he couldn't play. Celebrating the Cup win felt out of place. The tug and pull between being fair to the alleged victim and to the presumed-innocent-until-guilty Kane unearthed a lot of problems in the way the media covers these things. I've never thought more about the way I write about sports, and about the importance of sports in general, than I have since that first news dropped in early August.

And now part of the community is undeniable fractured. There are still Kane fanboys who, not satisfied in being able to watch their favorite player absolutely wreck the league next to emerging star Artemi Panarin, mock those who just wanted to make sure the accuser had a fair shake in the justice system, a perfectly reasonable thing. There are those who now believe Kane is guilty even though the DA's office was adamant in the lack of evidence while explaining why charges wouldn't be filed. In many ways, the case has simply given people on both sides of the spectrum the evidence they need to dig in their feet. Instead of a shattering event that changed the complexion of the way that the league handled these matters, it's been back to business as usual, even as another player named Kane is now under investigation for a similar crime in the same area where Chicago's Kane was originally accused.

It's been heartbreaking because I think the thing I want more than anything is a strong hockey community. There's a palpable sense of anger among many hockey fans. There are those who feel the league doesn't care about them, often rightfully so, and those who just want those other people to shut up and go away. You look at other communities and this kind of resentment doesn't really exist, or at least not to same degree.

I started my writing gigs in baseball and then moved to basketball in college. Of course every community has its problems, and maybe I was just being exposed to certain niches, but there's something different about hockey. There's a culture of meanness and aggression -- we're talking punching down against folks who don't deserve it -- that not enough people speak out against. I imagine part of it is an extension of the fact that hockey is such a violent sport. But there's so much amazing humor and wit coming from smart people that it feels like we can do better. And it feels like we're so close to getting there at times, too. Things like the Women's Classic outdoor game give a glimpse toward a better, more inclusive hockey world.

I don't really have any answers, I just know that I approach some of my favorite things in different ways now. I can't help but consider the grander implications when I'm watching a sporting event. I laugh and roll my eyes at the occasional, casual misogyny and racism that's slowly but surely being weeded out. I notice little things, even on the ice when you're not watching the puck, that would've gone straight over my head in the past. It's no longer just simple smells and taking in the ol' pastime. And I'm at the point where I'm okay with that. I know there are others who will look past most of what I'm saying. And I'm sure the way I watch sports will change again after another 24 years, when I'm probably strapping some virtual reality thing around my head so I can literally sit on the bench next to players and watch the game.

The last year was both a sport's fan dream and something much darker. Literally the greatest thing you can possibly imagine as a fan -- being just feet from your favorite players minutes after they won the Stanley Cup -- sandwiched by two truly horrible situations. Indeed, this was often a bothersome year of sports.

But life, as a fan, as a friend, as a person, is about learning and growing and understanding. I feel like we did a lot of that in 2015 as a result of both amazing and miserable circumstances. I hope we don't get more of the latter, but at the very least, let's keep this thing moving forward. I'm excited for the future. I just care about a lot more than what's happening on the ice nowadays.