Friday, June 11, 2010
By Brett Ballantini
Almost five years ago, the Chicago White Sox threw a chilly World Series celebration party for their fans that qualified as the largest outdoor gathering in Chicago history. Today's Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup parade might not quite have matched the Pale Hose in sheer mass, but it certainly did for joy -- and far surpassed it in sweat, sunburn and empty water bottles.
Five years ago, I was just another fan taking it all in and recording with a video camera. Today, I was lucky enough to ride on top of one of the parade buses, shooting video, snapping photos, and waving like a Kennedy. Here's a notebook of vignettes straight from the parade, some you may have seen, and some that eluded the cameras.
Patrick Kane's stubborn mane
Stanley Cup clincher hero Patrick Kane was the rock star of the entire affair. He sat in the last seat of the last bus alongside Conn Smythe winner and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, and was the last to leave the parade bus when the caravan came to a stop on Michigan Avenue. Clearly Kane is taking it all in, and after Wednesday's heroics, why shouldn't he? But surprisingly, someone else accompanied him to the parade: his unruly, hilarious mane of playoff hair.
We could have seen this coming. First, he walked into a barber shop knowing just what to ask for (a Billy Ray Cyrus 'do with a side of Vanilla Ice). Then he added side flair in order to make it clear everyone knew his mullet "was a joke." Then he got the entire affair "touched up" for the Stanley Cup Finals. And now, while teammates from Andrew Ladd to Patrick Sharp had seized the first opportunity to de-caveman their faces, Kane's mane remained.
As you could tell from the parade podium, Kane was really happy today. So happy, he might not have heard my question clearly as he walked toward the podium. But when asked why he remained so dedicated to the particular 'bouf, Kane said, "I don't think I'm ready to give it up yet. We've been through a lot."
Getting out of the garage
Punctual Scandinavians all, the Hjalmarsson family was the first out to the buses after the team photos inside the United Center. Brent Sopel, with collar popped, and his wife and children were next. Fair-skinned Brian Campbell hit the top of a double-decker bus, prepping for sun exposure by getting sunscreen slathered on him and having an umbrella at the ready. Then things got rowdy, with the Adam Burish's and Dustin Byfuglien's ransacking the grounds.
Big Buff was as animated as ever, toting a cooler full of beer, cans which he happily dispersed to teammates on other buses. He also sported the team's title belt, which seemed curious given he surely could not have won the prize for his Game 6 performance, overshadowed by the likes of Kane, Brent Seabrook and Antti Niemi, among others. Buff also had dipped into the box of megaphones the team had provided so players could interact with fans along the parade route. Byfuglien's didn't come with a beep censor.
Oddest sign seen along the parade route: "Bring Back the Winnipeg Jets!"
Minor-league goalie Hannu Toivonen, acquired with Danny Richmond from the St. Louis Blues for Joe Fallon at the beginning of March, was on hand for the rally. Toivonen hails from the former Kalvola, Finland, a bit north of Niemi's hometown of Vantaa, and upon meeting him I mentioned it was a pretty good trade for him. Hannu smiled and gestured at the huge crowd: "For sure. Otherwise, I'd be back home by now." Niemi was walking just ahead of us, and I speculated that now, the two Finnish backstops might hop the same plane home. "Maybe," Toivonen said. "Antti has some good stories, I bet."
Seizing up to Boston?
I spent the Blackhawks rally next to the United Center's "Shipping Up to Boston" jigger, Chris Pisani, who posed for as many pictures with fans as several of the Blackhawks players did. Pisani, in his customary Toews jersey, was unsure whether he'd be called on to dance the rally crowd into a frenzy, but was at the ready. However, the heat was taking a toll on him: "I'm afraid I'll cramp up."
Reach the beach
Did anyone else worry that Blackhawks prospect Kyle Beach would cross-check a Chicago assistant coach or front-office exec once he hit the podium? Even in a jersey and jeans, he looks tough. Hide the women and children when that kid gets called up.
Choose or perish: Kris Versteeg's word jazz or Kane's shirtlesscabbie cracks?
Be honest, again
Was that brief introduction of Kane by Byfuglien, awarding him the title belt for the summer, the longest and loudest stretch you've ever heard Big Buff speak?
All five of the Blackhawks' good-luck superstars of years past were on hand for the rally on Friday, sweating out decades of frustration over Cups unwon. Four of them all feel like family members: Tony Esposito, kindly and soft-spoken, always with a good word or a funny story; Stan Mikita is the one who still wants to head out to the driveway and put a puck past you; Pierre Pilote, as gracious a man you will encounter, and one who lives to surprise you; and Bobby Hull, who holds court and commands a room just by showing up.
But if there's one "cool" legend, it has to be the man they call Savy. He really does have that savoir faire, evident every time he steps out with Blackhawks fans. It's a hot day, he's with his family celebrating emeritus a title he could never win in Chicago, and he's working the walk from bus to podium like a star: bumping knuckles with fans, slipping skin to cops riding police horses, giving the horses themselves some love taps. Forgotten in the hullabaloo over former GM Dale Tallon's role in building the champion Blackhawks is the fact that the first coach for Toews and Kane was Denis Savard. And it was Savy -- cool always but not in this moment -- who angrily called out his team and challenged them to Commit to the Indian three seasons ago. Arguably, that was the moment this group of Blackhawks took its first step toward the Cup.
OK, so Niemi perhaps isn't as misplaced a sensation as the central character in the Peter Sellers movie, but is there a more unlikely hockey superstar than the big-hearted rookie? He's rocking the Norse god look with the bushy beard and staunch countenance, but deep down, he's still a little kid, new to all the trappings of stardom. That's why it seemed perfectly placed that he walked from bus to podium a pied piper, young fans begging for a photo or an autograph all along the way.
I asked him if all of this would ever sink in for him, and he didn't even seem to realize what "all of this" was. So, short answer, no. But then, Antti did something I wasn't anticipating; he put his arm around me and gave me a hug. True, I had written some of the earliest articles endorsing him as a legitimate permanent starter for the Blackhawks, back when such thoughts were dismissed as needless wailing over the plight of Cristobal Huet. While it's certain Niemi hadn't read nor cared much about such articles, he and I had spent a lot of accumulated time together in the dressing room, me asking questions the goalie might not entirely grasp, and sometimes he responding with his own questions, delicious non-sequiturs as they usually were. Always, the big fella packed a lot of meaning into his words. Today, it was a simple statement that spoke volumes to me: "Thank you. I had fun."
That's the sort of stuff that makes all of us happy to be able to hang with this team, at whatever proximity.
Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawks information.