My First Hawks Hero: Eddie The Eagle

This one comes from reader tgo909

Foreword: By all rights, I should have been a Wings fan. I began watching hockey regularly in the early 90s with my mom, herself a devout Wings fan owing to the fact that the majority of her family grew up in Michigan. But whether by massive chance or divine grace, I was somehow spared this unfortunate fate. Growing up in Dayton, the then-successful Cincinnati Reds were the biggest game around. However, with the possible exception of Bostonians, Cincinnatians have to be the most insufferable group of people unreasonably obsessed with their home city in the entirety of the United States (but hell, at least Boston’s got something to offer), and even at six years old, I was turned off enough to root for the other guys (those sad sacks in blue that looked like a little league team by contrast). My interest in baseball has since waned, but at least it lasted long enough to make me a Hawks fan once I was introduced to hockey.

The first NHL game I ever saw was on a hotel room TV in the late spring of 1992: one of the four games (I’m not sure which) of the ’92 Stanley Cup finals. That one game was all it took for me to fall in love with the sport, and being a Cubs fan, I naturally cheered for the team from Chicago. At the time, I was just shy of nine years old, and was ignorant of the storied history of the franchise. But I liked what I saw on the ice, I liked the uniforms, and I especially liked that guy in the goalie pads – so much so, in fact, that ever since then, whenever my brother and I played hockey or soccer (pronounced: "football") in the basement, I insisted on being the goalie. Sadly, the end of the ’91-’92 season was about the worst time ever to become a Hawks fan.

Accountants and architects will tell you that the reason the UC replaced Chicago Stadium was because it would be cheaper to build a new stadium with more seats (i.e. more revenue) than it would be to renovate the old building. But I know better. I know that the real reason they tore down Chicago Stadium was that the roof was about to cave in from the sheer weight of the tremendous dump Dollar Bill Wirtz was taking on the franchise. At a time when I should have had the names of current and future greats engraved into my consciousness, I was instead learning a dozen new names a year, each belonging to a player slightly less talented than the one he replaced. It was a difficult time to admire the skill of the players who played for my newly beloved team. So instead, I focused on hard work.

Eddie Belfour spent almost the entirety of his career being overshadowed. When he was a teen, he went undrafted, and was not offered a single college scholarship. Once at the NHL level, the Eagle was never the most talented goalie in the league. Hell, most times, he wasn’t even the most talented goalie on the ice. But nobody worked harder. By the end of his career, he was near the top of most meaningful statistical categories for goalies. He had had the misfortune of playing in an era with those very few ahead of him, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Those same very few are the only goalies who were so vastly superior in raw skill that Eddie couldn’t make up the difference in effort.

This always struck a chord with me. I have, for as long as I can remember, been athletic enough to put forth a good effort in most every sport (that doesn’t involve water), but never quite skilled enough to be among the elite. I know what kind of effort it would take to play alongside those more athletically gifted than myself, and I know that while most of those like myself finally relented when the gap became too much to fill, Eddie never did. He was the first on the ice in the morning, and the last off it in the evening. A true representation of the love of the game.

As a fan, I was crushed when the Hawks let him go. Word was he was incredibly difficult to get along with. His backups had to scratch and claw for every ounce of practice time, because he would never give up the ice. He was fiercely competitive in everything he did, on and off the ice, and in the end, his competitiveness in contract talks doomed his time in Chicago. But his disputes with management never bothered me as much as did others’. While other players demanded more and more money based on the amazing skill that everyone told them they had (yes, Alexei Yashin, I’m looking directly at you), Belfour knew exactly how hard he had worked to get where he was, and wanted fair compensation from the owner probably least willing to pay. Wirtz may have held it against him, but I never did.

After he was dealt, it took me a long time to renew the level of fervor I’d previously held for the Hawks. It took the Brian Campbell signing for me to finally trust that the Hawks organization gave a damn about the fans. Sure, I always held out hope that they would be successful (I still do cheer for the Cubs, after all), but I also went through some stints rooting for the Sharks, Stars, and Leafs (sorry Panthers – you just suck). Wherever the Eagle went, I desperately wanted him to succeed. I wanted to see him have the success he should have had in Chicago, and was absolutely thrilled when the Stars won the cup* in ’99.

Years later, my Hawk fandom has been fully restored. 15 years after that fateful trade, the Hawks are actually fun to watch again. Current greats like Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews will captivate my interest for years to come, and words can’t quite explain the joy I felt when they brought the Cup back to Chicago for the first time since ’61. But as far as I’m concerned, they will always take a back seat to the man that made me the fan I am today – my first Hawks hero: Eddie Belfour.

*Before all you Brett Hull haters say anything, you can fuck off.

Afterword: I would be remiss if I didn’t include one of the more hilarious moments in hockey lore, one provided by our very own Crazy Eddie (though he was no longer a Hawk at the time). The story, as I heard it in 2000, was that while being detained by police, apparently for being frighteningly drunk, he offered a million dollars for his release. I thought it amusing that he would make an offer that was so much more than the actual fine he’d end up having to pay, but what the hell – he was drunk, and he was, in fact, a millionaire – he could afford it. Years later, I came across the story on the web only to find out it was a billion dollars. I think I was laughing for the rest of the day