It’s a roar unlike any other in sports.
The organ plays, the voice of Jim Cornelison bounces off the rafters and the crowd cheers for its country (and hockey team) with a sound so loud you’d think Keith Moon or John Bonham were banging on your ear drums.
But have you ever wondered how the Blackhawks national anthem first began, and who is actually responsible for making this raucous tradition come alive?
You can thank one man and one team.
Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers.
Over the years, the specific date when the cheering anthem occurred for the very first time has been lost in history, buried somewhere in the annals of Blackhawks lore (a topic I’ll cover later). But if you’re looking for the moment that tipped the scales, the game that turned the Blackhawks anthem into a hockey phenomenon, it happened on May 9, 1985.
The Blackhawks and Oilers met in the Western Conference finals. The Hawks were a young squad on the rise, but on paper were no match for the Oilers, who were the defending Stanley Cup champions with a roster filled with six future Hall of Famers; Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr and “The Great One.”
“They were the best team I ever faced, no doubt,” recalled former Blackhawks forward Denis Savard. “I believe in today’s game they’d be scary. They’d be very, very scary.”
Back then, the Oilers were downright frightening. In the first two games of the series in Edmonton, they beat the Blackhawks by a combined score of ... 18-5.
The Hawks seemingly had no chance.
“When they came back to Chicago down 0-2, people thought they were going to lay down and let Gretzky and the gang roll over them,” said Wayne Messmer, who sang the anthem at Blackhawks games during the 1980’s and part of the 1990’s.
But when the Hawks returned to Chicago Stadium for Games 3 and 4, they had two things going for them: a totally rabid fan base, plus an old barn that could sound like a jet taking off at O’Hare.
“I was never too stunned at anything that happened in that old building,” said Blackhawks team historian Bob Verdi, then a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. “I don’t know if there was a building quite like that in sports. It was part of the scene, very much part of the landscape.”
“I remember vividly skating during warm-ups [before Game 3] and the place was up for grabs,” said Eddie Olczyk, a Chicago native and rookie on the 1984-85 Blackhawks team. “I’m skating around, I’m only 18 years old, a year ago I was in the stands watching the Hawks play. Obviously, I knew it was a big game because we’re only four wins away from getting to the Stanley Cup, and who do I see standing up in the second row? Gale Sayers. I was like, ‘This must be a big game.’”
You could feel it in the air. There was a different kind of buzz.
“I don’t know whether Blackhawk fans thought that the Blackhawks were disrespected in the first part of that playoff series or during the ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ or both, but I think they felt they needed to give the Blackhawks some extra energy coming back to the old Stadium,” Verdi said.
As he stood in front of the organ in the balcony, Messmer took the microphone, first to sing the Canadian national anthem for the visiting Oilers, which for Blackhawks fans who watched their team get destroyed in the first two games was the musical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.
“They were kind of groaning during the Canadian anthem. It was weird,” said Messmer. “And all of a sudden I sing, ‘Oh say can you see ...’ Wow!”
Chicago Stadium erupted like never before, creating a loud, deafening roar that shook the building to its core. With every verse that Messmer sang, the decibel level went higher and higher.
“Had I not been singing, I’d be screaming myself!” Messmer exclaimed.
Standing on the ice, hearing this incredible blast of sound was a stunned Savard.
“It was like a whistle in my ear. You couldn’t hear anything. It was like a big buzz,” said Savard. “I turned to Steve [Larmer]. I say, ‘Can you hear me?’ He shook his head no. That’s how loud it was.”
Olczyk, who grew up a die-hard Blackhawks fan and played for the US hockey team in the 1984 Olympics, couldn’t help but get caught up in the moment.
“It was very emotional for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “I can only speak personally because being from here and being a fan and playing in the Olympics the year before. And then being here as a Blackhawk? You talk about chills for a half-hour later, that’s exactly what it was.”
Riding this powerful wave of emotion, the Blackhawks outscored the Oilers 2-0 in the first period on goals by Jack O’Callahan and Larmer. Savard added a memorable breakaway goal in the third, faking out a helpless Fuhr in front of the net. The Blackhawks won Game 3 by a score of 5-2. Three days later, both teams were back for Game 4. So was the cheering anthem. The Hawks won again 8-6.
A tradition was born.
“Once it hit in that one series with Edmonton, it became a thing,” Messmer said. “It became, ‘We’re going to bring these boys to the first drop of the puck to the highest level of support that we can.’”
It definitely gave the Blackhawks an emotional boost, a home-ice advantage that continues to this day. However, over two decades later, someone remembers the anthem and its effect quite differently.
“It fired our team up as much as them,” said Gretzky, who had an astounding 47 points in 18 games during the 1985 playoffs. “If anything it inspired us as much as them. Obviously you want that hometown flavor and hometown pick-me-up, but it didn’t really faze our team. We truly enjoyed it and had so much respect for the fans of Chicago. I think it rallied our troops as much as theirs.”
The Oilers crushed the Blackhawks in Game 5 in Edmonton, 10-5, and then returned to Chicago and pounded the Blackhawks again, 8-2. Gretzky and company would go on to beat the Flyers for their second straight Stanley Cup title.
But while everyone agrees that the Oilers series made the cheering anthem a Blackhawks ritual, there are some people who recall fans clapping during the anthem even before that.
Actually, it might not be “some people.” I was only able to find one person: Olczyk, who is unwavering in his belief that it began earlier in the decade.
“I remember in the early 1980’s clapping and cheering and imagining what it would be like at the age of 15 or 16 standing at the blue line at the Stadium,” Olczyk said. “To me, I know there’s lots of debate and argument about when it really started, but I remember Blackhawk fans cheering, and me being one of them in the early 1980’s at the old Chicago Stadium during the national anthem.”
In the CSN library there is only one Blackhawks home game from the early 1980’s -- remember almost every home game wasn’t televised in Chicago until 2007. It was against the Minnesota North Stars in 1983. I put the tape in the machine, hit play, and watched the anthem.
Nothing but crickets.
Everyone stood. Nobody cheered. So who knows.
But what we do know is how and when the anthem became the tradition that it is, a patriotic display of emotion for our country and troops, a bone-chilling experience that’s one of the top spectacles in sports.
Wayne Messmer was there at the beginning. He can still hear the echoes.
“I always thought that if I ever wrote a memoir of that particular time, it would either be ‘The Origin of the Roar’ or ‘Shut up I’m Trying to Sing Here,’ he said. "I’m not sure which one.”
It’s a roar unlike any other in sports.