The Blackhawks have always been my hockey team and always will be. Hockey consumes a major portion of my life. Of course, I have a family and they are my priority, but I also devote a lot of my time to hockey. I talk about hockey on Twitter and I write about hockey too. I not only watch the games like many others, but I go back and watch them again to manually track zone entries, defensive play and special teams strategy. That takes a long time as you would probably guess. I say this so you will understand that I am not a person who just follows the Blackhawks when they are in the playoffs or something like that.
I would love the Blackhawks regardless of their style of play, but I really enjoy the style with which they have played for the last several years. That style is basically highly skilled hockey while keeping the extracurricular activities, i.e. fighting, to a minimum. This style of hockey has been a great source of pride for me and many other Blackhawks fans over the years. I like a good clean hit as much as the next hockey fan, but there is just something about watching a player like Jonathan Toews steal the puck at his defensive blue line, thread through the retreating defensemen and score on a strong move to the net that is so much better. Things like this make me not care at all about which team is leading in hits at the end of a period.
When the Blackhawks are playing a team with an aggressive in your face physical style, they have done a great job over the years of sticking to their game and getting even by scoring. One such instance has become a bit of a rallying point for some Blackhawks fans and has been used by fans of other teams to show what they would want their team to do in such a situation.
During the Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins, Brad Marchand was giving Patrick Kane the business and challenged him to a fight. Kane responded by saying he didn’t think that was a very good trade off and the two continued to verbally jab at each other. Shortly after that happened, Toews ended up scoring and so did Kane. On the ensuing faceoff, Kane was lined up with Marchand and said “You shoulda kept your mouth shut” to him a couple of times. This is really a microcosm of what Blackhawks hockey has been for several years. Attempts to intimidate them have more often than not been met with an offensive onslaught in lieu of fists.
Of course, the Blackhawks have had their share of fights over the past few years but are usually near the bottom of the league in fighting majors. It’s been a wonderful time watching them stick to their game and be successful. There have been a few moments during that time that have been a bit tough to take though. Actions that have led to suspensions for Blackhawks players are what I have in mind here. For the most part, the Blackhawks tend to play a pretty clean game but sometimes tempers get the best of them or a split second decision goes wrong. Brent Seabrook’s hit on David Backes is one of the latter. Duncan Keith’s stick slash to Jeff Carter’s face during the Western Conference Final last season was one of the former. Neither is something I feel good about as a Blackhawks fan or a hockey fan in general. I will not defend either of those actions.
I used to argue the legality of hits on Twitter. I learned after banging my head against a wall for a while that this is futile for me. All it has resulted in for me is unnecessarily elevated blood pressure and annoyance so I decided to stop doing it. Sometimes it is really hard. It is not easy to see some of your favorite players bashed by others who only watch them play a few games a season. I think that’s true for any hockey fan. The urge to say “but he’s not always like that!” and defend one of your favorite players is very compelling when you feel he is being wrongly characterized, but this is never going to change. People will not suddenly go back and watch all of a player’s clean hits on the season to determine only then if he is a “dirty player” when he makes a hit that breaks the rules. I have probably done this to players on other teams and driven their fans crazy just like people have done to my favorite players. It’s just how it is.
At some point, I have had to accept that all of my favorite hockey players, and other athletes in general, may not be the nicest people while playing their sport. It sounds so simple that it is almost silly but in actuality it has been a difficult realization to come to. So much of sports, particularly championship runs, become so romanticized that we build up grandiose notions of who these athletes really are. Regardless of their skill, regardless of the hours and hours of charity work they do off of the ice (court, field, etc…), regardless of how fun they are with their family and fans, they are still ruthless competitors. That ruthlessness is what has gotten them into a professional sport. They have another gear of competitiveness to go along with their amazing talent and skill that they have honed to the point of exhaustion for years. That drive can also lead to being so competitive and so ruthless that they do things that cross the line. This is particularly true in hockey, where physicality is a major part of the game and where punching someone in the face to resolve your differences usually gets you little more than a 5 minute rest in the penalty box.
We do not have to like the bad hits and we certainly do not have to condone them. I do not like seeing dangerous or reckless play in hockey from any player. I like it even less when it is a member of the Blackhawks doing it. It makes me angry and sad at the same time because I know that the Blackhawks do not have to play like that. They have enough talent to win without the dirty stuff. If it were a normal part of their game, I would constantly complain about it and beg for change from the coaches and front office.
I know it’s hard to deal with this type of situation on social media. Just by reminding people that I do not want to discuss the legality of hits, I opened the floodgates to people complaining at me about how “convenient” that was since it was a player on my team at the source of the most recent controversy. Next time I will just keep my mouth shut. Lesson learned. I saw a flurry of tweets from Blackhawks fans calling Seabrook’s hit on Backes dirty and being generally angry about it. I think a big part of it is their actual feeling and part of it is an effort to distance themselves from other fans, who were defending a player on their team regardless of the dirtiness or cleanness of the hit or the actions that led up to it with some serious vehemence.
I, for one, at this point in my life, think it is pointless to fight over whether a hit was legal or not. You, of course, are free to think differently and disagree with me. You do as you wish and do what makes you feel better in that situation. That is not to say that I condone all of the behavior I have seen from fans on Twitter, because some of it I find pretty disturbing, but hey, it’s a free country.
Back to my point though…
My point with all of this is that I have to keep reminding myself that sometimes people that I really admire for their sporting ability do things that I really dislike. Sometimes it is even some of my favorite players doing things I do not like. The truth of the matter is that I can and will continue to be a fan even when things go wrong. I will still be a fan even though players I really like make bad decisions and do things that I disagree with. I hope that as this series continues against the St. Louis Blues, the Blackhawks will remember what got them to this point and leave behind a period of play during which they acted like a completely different team. Some of the play during the third period of Game 2 versus St. Louis made me feel pretty ashamed. I don’t think that makes me less of a fan somehow. I think it’s okay to be disappointed in the actions of the players on your team sometimes. It doesn’t mean that I suddenly hate the Blackhawks or am disloyal. If anything, I think it is a testament to how much I love the team. I hold them to a high standard and I do not think there is anything wrong with that.
Every team has a low point of the season and particularly in the playoffs. I think that was it for the Blackhawks. I hope that was the low spot because if they go any lower than that we will be seeing a roster of Black Aces instead of Blackhawks and it will be an early end to the season. Essentially, if they want to play Blackhawks hockey and win, they have to be better. They have to get back to playing their game instead of getting involved in all of the extracurricular business that leads to tempers eventually blowing. I hope they can do it, because I would really like to watch them play their brand of highly skilled hockey and be proud of how they handled themselves for a lot longer than two more games.
*reposted to correct a bug with the sharing button **originally posted on April 20, 2014