The story goes something like this: The Blackhawks trailed 2-0 against the powerhouse Oilers in the 1985 Campbell Conference finals. The series shifted to Chicago for a pivotal Game 3 at The Stadium. As the organ began playing, and Wayne Messmer opened the Star Spangled Banner, Blackhawks fans started cheering wildly as the song played, in an attempt to inspire the team before the big game. The Hawks went on to lose the series, but the tradition stuck. As a result, for the past 31 years Blackhawks fans have passionately cheered during the playing of the National Anthem before every home game.
Experiencing the “cheering of the anthem” before a Blackhawks game is something that cannot be properly put into words. It’s a crescendo of exhilaration, passion and honor. The purpose of cheering the anthem partially changed during the 1991 season. Chicago was hosting the NHL All Star Game, and the game was being broadcast live to fans in the United States, Canada, and also to American troops overseas fighting in Operation Desert Storm. With the Gulf War in full force, and all eyes on Chicago, fans in The Stadium cheered louder and longer than they ever had before. With the broad audience, the legend of cheering the anthem in Chicago suddenly became a sports-wide phenomenon. Watch the video from ’91, I bet you’ll get chills. It solidified Chicago Stadium as the most intimidating venue in the league. No building was louder in that era (so I’ve heard).
Some people defend the cheering because they say it is meant to honor the country, and especially honor our service men and women. Some detractors say that the cheering is actually disrespectful to the troops. Growing up going the Blackhawks games, my first impression was always that it was a respectful and passionate action intended to honor the nation and our troops. That’s always the way I have looked at it. Others (Detroit writers) have battled against the action for years. Growing up in the early 2000’s when the Blackhawks were really bad, often times the National Anthem was the best part of going to the game. I still say it’s the best part of the game experience at the United Center. It’s something that makes Blackhawks hockey unique.
Before Jim Cornelison was shaking the roof off the building, Wayne Messmer was the singer that brought Chicago to it’s collective feet during the anthem. They are both incredible singers, and Chicago icons. Arguing over who is the best is a futile discussion. If you ask my parents, who attended games in Messmer’s era in the 80’s and 90’s, they would tell you that it doesn’t get any better than Wayne. If you ask more “modern” Hawks fans (most probably could not pull Messmer out of a lineup) they would probably say Cornelison is the best. During this era of Blackhawks hockey, Cornelison has been the voice of the success during pregame, and accolades on the ice that follow. It’s all a matter of preference, I guess.
The National Anthem in the UC before the first Stanley Cup Final game in Chicago in 18 years was sensational. It was my first Cup Final as a Hawks fan. I wasn’t there, but it was deafening even through the TV. Such a special moment, and really shows how even though cheering the anthem has evolved, at it’s core it’s still very much the same.
As I said before, it’s hard to find the words to adequately describe the experience during the National Anthem at a Hawks game. It’s a truly unique feeling that can only be fully appreciated by being in the building for one. It’s an integral piece of fabric in the rich history of this franchise.
31 years ago Blackhawks fans started cheering the National Anthem, and hopefully we’ll never stop.