Hockey is a strange beast. Anything that builds off a foundation of strapping knives to your feet while carrying a club with you has nowhere to go but strange. Superstition and tradition reign supreme in hockey culture and the sport carries a collegiate atmosphere into the pro ranks. It seems like every team has a tradition. The Detroit Red Wings, one of the original six teams in the NHL, have their octopus toss. Even the new teams get in on the antics. The Nashville Predators plagiarized Detroit and started throwing catfish onto the ice before big games. Even the brand new Vegas Golden Knights have a schtick. They throw a wildly extravagant ice show featuring a knight fighting whatever the opposing team’s symbol is be it a shark, a king or even a fighter jet.
My point is, hockey culture is super weird, and once a tradition is started, it tends to hold onto them, even when the symbolism behind them fades away. And this brings me to another Original Six team; the Chicago Blackhawks and what has become one of the most bombastic traditions in all of hockey. Cheering the national anthem.
For the most part in North America, the playing of the national anthem, be it Canadian or American, is a somber affair. The fans stand, turn toward the flag, the song plays, and some people mumble the words under their breath. Everyone claps at the end. Then we get to the good stuff. For many years though, the anthem at a Blackhawks game was the good stuff.
The national anthem starts the exact same way in Chicago. The fans stand, they turn towards the flag and the organ warms up. Then the crowd goes nuts. It starts as a low roar, some shouts, but mostly clapping. As the song progresses, the crowd, nowadays about 20,000 strong, gets louder and louder to the point where people are screaming at the top of
their voice and hammering their hands as if they are clashing symbols together. By the end of the song, you really can’t hear the organ or the singer anymore. This cacophony carries into the beginning of play as the crowd settles back into their seats, ready to watch the game. No matter if it is a Stanley Cup final game or post-lockout stinker with 5,000 people in attendance, the anthem is played, it is cheered, and for two minutes, all is right in Chicago. But it wasn’t always this way.
The cheering began in 1985 when the Blackhawks were facing Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs. Down 0-2 in the series, the Blackhawks came back to Chicago with their tail between their legs. The faithful in old Chicago Stadium decided to give them a pregame boost. The amazing thing is that it just sort of happened. Fan’s didn’t mill around the gates that night, brainstorming ideas for getting the boys more juice before puck drop. Someone started clapping, more people followed suit and the mob decided to cheer. The Hawks won that game and so the crowd did it again. Chicago won again and that was enough to keep the cheering going for over three decades. This wasn’t without controversy though when it first started, hell it isn’t without controversy now.
For as strange as the customs in hockey can be, hockey culture is remarkably rigid when it comes to change. As it is said in the gospel of Slap Shot “I’m listening to the fucking song.” That’s how it was for all pro sports in the years following World War I when the national anthem was first sung at baseball games. The NHL hadn’t seen the amount of change it did in the ‘70s and ’80s since its inception. This was the same era in which players were finally forced to wear helmets and less than 10 percent of the league was made up of non-Canadians. On top of hockey’s reflexive disdain for change, a lot of Americans found the cheering in bad taste. And back in the 80’s when the old Chicago Stadium roared, they had a point. The crowd wasn’t chanting for the flag or the US, at least not most of them. They were cheering to intimidate the away team and to back their team. The cheering was carried over superstition. That all changed in the early ’90s.
The Cold War was winding down and thoughts of a future of peace were on the horizon. Then, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and America leaped to the defense of their oil-rich ally. The Gulf War began shortly before the start of the 1990-91 season and continued through the new year. The Anthem was still cheered. With the war fresh in the news every day, Chicago’s anthem cheering started to evolve. American flags would be seen in the crowd. Some people would bring patriotic banners to games. Just as with the first cheered anthem in ’85, no one organized this pivot, it was organic. As the season went on, the patriotic vein of the anthem increased. This rise continued all the way to the 1991 NHL All-Star Game, which was held in, you guessed it, Chicago.
The Chicago faithful poured into the old Stadium on January 19th with nearly enough flags for each person in attendance. The cheer might have started organically, but this night was clearly meant to be a message sent to the rest of the nation and the troops abroad. The game was nationally televised, and millions of people tuned in for a fun showcase of the fastest pro sport in North America. They got this instead.
If you didn’t watch that video, rectify your mistake. I’m a cynical guy who generally distrusts shows of patriotic force since they can so quickly turn into outright jingoism, but my God, that’s an incredible moment. That literal wall of noise basically fries the sound equipment seconds into the song. Everyone is cheering as loud as they can as the organ tries to desperately stay above the crashing waves of sound. If the singer, Wayne Messmer had not been standing right next to the organ, he probably would have never heard it. And those fans are going insane, they snuck in sparklers into the game for god’s sake! On this night, with the NHL’s best players in the house, this night was solely about honoring America, in Chicago’s own, weird way. And this night, more than any other, solidified this as one of the most iconic traditions in Chicago and in sports. If you ever get the chance to attend a Blackhawks game, be sure to get there early, and keep someone special in your mind as the organ starts to play.