WOSTER: Forming sports alliances
It still feels odd to be rooting for Chicago in the National Hockey League playoffs.
Sure, I'm a Chicago fan. I've cheered for the Bears in the National Football League since before Gale Sayers became the magician in their offensive backfield, before Dick Butkus growled across the defensive line at quarterbacks, even before Mike Ditka became the epitome of a professional tight end. The Bears and I go way back.
But that's mostly because where I grew up, the Bears were always one of the teams that played on television on Sundays. George Halas owned and coached the team. Maybe he owned the television network, too. I grew up watching the Bears and whomever on Sundays.
I might have been a Chicago fan in baseball, too, if they'd had a professional team. Oh, come on, I'm kidding. I know about the Cubs and the White Sox. But I started out liking the Brooklyn Dodgers. They broke my heart a time or two. I noticed that the Boston Braves had moved to Milwaukee and a young outfielder named Henry Aaron was hitting the cover off the ball. Good fortune smiled on me, because my first two years as a Braves fan, they won (1957) and barely lost (1958) the World Series (each time with the Yankees as the opponent.) It's hard to quit on a team like that. That explains why I'm a Brewers' fan today.
Chicago didn't have professional basketball when I was forming my boyhood sports allegiances. Boston did, though, and the year I started rooting for the Celtics was the year they acquired Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones and Bill Russell in the same draft. I was a Celtics fan through a whole bunch of glory years and an increasingly difficult-to-watch dry spell.
When it came to hockey, I picked a team simply to have someone to follow in the sports agate in The Daily Republic that was delivered by rural postal carrier a day late to our farm in Lyman County. I knew nothing about the game. I'd never known anyone who actually played it, although most of the guys had what we called "hockey skates'' for gliding across the frozen bay on the west shore of the Missouri River as we tried to impress the girls.
Well, if a kid in the 1950s was going in search of a favorite hockey team, he could do worse than choose the Montreal Canadiens. Maurice Richard, Bernie "Boom Boom'' Geoffrion and Jacques Laplante were great names and their team was always near the top of the standings. Richard, "The Rocket,'' was a scoring machine. I didn't have a problem jumping on the bandwagon of a winner.
I followed the Canadiens for a long while. I learned a bit about the sport, although it was never on television in my part of the country. Once in a while there'd be an Olympic clip, but I didn't know those guys, and in my formative years, we didn't win very often in the Olympics.
My first live hockey game came during a visit to the Gannett News Service bureau in Albany, N.Y. The River Rats played somebody. Fights broke out about every five minutes and fans tossed peanuts in the shell onto the ice every time a fight broke out. I was unimpressed.
It might have remained that way, too, if my younger son hadn't chosen the University of North Dakota for his doctoral studies. I'd never been to Grand Forks, but the town and the campus were impressive, and so was the Engelstad Arena.
Andy scored some tickets that first fall, and his family saw its first big-time college hockey match. Over Andy's years at UND, we saw several more matches. The hockey was impressive, blazing fast and non-stop. The crowds were nuts. It didn't hurt that the team was winning most of the time.
My favorite matches were when Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie and Ryan Duncan shared a line. Those guys were phenomenal, and even an old guy found he could form a new allegiance.
I guess I liked Toews best, because when he went to Chicago, so did I.
I doubt Maurice Richard would object.