CHICAGO — Ray Fisher was sitting near the bar at Francesca’s with his wife and 13-year-old daughter, watching the Blackhawks game Saturday night, on this great city’s North Side.
When the LA Kings came back and tied the game with 10 seconds to go in regulation, Ray Fisher made the most imperceptible head nod to the bartender. I thought it was Chicagoese for, “Can you believe that?”
Instead, a very fine adult beverage was delivered to Ray Fisher’s table. And even though the Hawks had blown a two-goal lead, even as they were headed into overtime, Ray Fisher started negotiating a bet with a guy from Boston.
“We’re playing the Bruins,” Fisher said. “No problem.”
In the second overtime, Patrick Kane made Ray Fisher look clairvoyant, scoring his third goal of the game to pit the Blackhawks and Bruins against each other in a Stanley Cup final featuring two old, great cities.
It would be wrong to conclude from this that Blackhawks fans in particular and Chicagoans in general are a cocky bunch. Quietly confident is more like it. They are comfortable in their thick, Midwestern skin.
And they wanted this matchup. These teams are among the Original Six in the NHL, and this is the first Original Six finals in 34 years. You talk to a person of a certain age in this town and they remember the Hawks had Bobby Hull when the Bruins had Bobby Orr. They remember the Bruins’ Phil Esposito used to duel with his brother Tony, the Hawks goalie.
When it comes to sports in this town, two words: Da Bears. This is a football town. But Chicagoans, like Bostonians, love all their teams, even if they have their favorites.
The Hawks have come of age as a franchise at just the right time. Da Bulls ain’t da same since His Airness retired years ago, and it’s probably unrealistic and unfair to expect the organization to ever match the Michael Jordan era.
The only baseball debate in town is who’s worse, the Cubs or the White Sox. Hard times for hardball in the Windy City. I was at Wrigley on both Saturday and Sunday and it was the first time I ever saw empty seats at the great old ballpark. Theo might be missing his old digs in Brookline, methinks.
Which makes the resurgence of the Blackhawks all that much sweeter. In 2007, the Hawks’ attendance ranked next to last in the NHL. Within two years, it was the best. And if you haven’t heard 21,000 Chicagoans go nuts inside the United Center, well, as Stevie Wonder, of the Saginaw, Mich., Wonders put it, you haven’t done nothin’.
It’s a terrible thing to say, but the soaring of the Hawks can be traced to the death of their longtime owner.
“Bill Wirtz was really old fashioned,” said Phil Rosenthal, the Chicago Tribune’s business columnist. “He refused to let them televise home games, on the theory that you don’t give away the product for free.”
Hmm. Too bad Bill Wirtz didn’t run newspapers. Anyway, Bill Wirtz’s thinking not only deprived the Hawks of 40 or so chances to market their product each year, it deprived West Side businesses, not to mention businesses on the North and South sides, the ability to cash in on Chicagoans who famously spend their money watching Da Bears, Bulls, Cubs and Sox on the tube in this city’s myriad licensed establishments.
Bill Wirtz died in 2007, and his son Rocky took over and the first thing to go was the home-game TV ban. Attendance soared, and so did the Hawks. By 2010, the Blackhawks were Stanley Cup champions, and now a Hawks ticket is like a Bears ticket: dang near impossible to come by.
There are some endearing similarities and some remarkable differences when it comes to Boston and Chicago. The love of town and knowing its place in history is quite similar. Both cities host tremendously opinionated denizens.
The key difference is while we in Boston are notoriously reserved, a legacy of our puritanical, provincial roots, people in Chicago would talk to a telephone pole.
In Chicago, when a stranger approaches and spontaneously engages someone in conversation, the typical Chicagoan says, “What’s up?” When the same thing happens in Boston, we say, “What’s up with this?”
At Bruins games, we stand in mostly respectful silence when the national anthem is played at the TD Garden, bursting into cheers generally around the last verse. At the United Center, the crowd cheers from start to finish.
But here’s one endearing, enduring similarity. The Blackhawks and the Bruins are joined at the hip when it comes to their regular, kitschy tuxedo-clad national anthem singers.
Chicago has the inimitable Jim Cornelison. Boston has the incomparable Rene Rancourt. Believe me when I tell you these guys are brothers from another mother.
It would be pretty cool if these guys sing “The Star-
Spangled Banner’’ as a duet during the finals. I’d pay to watch that without a hockey game. At the very least, it would become a YouTube sensation.
With apologies to Da Bears and Coach Ditka — I mean this in the nicest possible way — for the next two weeks, the Windy City is Hawkeytown.
And right now it’s Beantown vs. Hawkeytown.
Here’s hoping it goes seven.