By Tom Salvatori

I’m fifty-one years old and I finally attended the parade of my dreams.

In 1971, before any of today’s 2010 Hawks were even born, I was twelve years old. As a kid, I watched or listened to every Hawks game. I even wrote a summary of every period–––pre-season through post-season––in a journal that soon became a two-inch thick binder revealing my own opinion of which Blackhawk was hot or not, who hit the net and who missed the net. I was tracking plus-minus before the league ever did.

Thanks to my dad, my brothers and I were raised on a steady diet of hopes and dreams of Chicago hockey glory. It showed up in our street hockey playing all the time. Every game… a game seven. The dinner bell … the start of overtime. Next goal wins!

There were the occasional special nights when my dad would take us to the Hawks game. I remember catching a quick bite to eat at Freddie Caserio’s or the Como Inn, then riding their game bus from the restaurant to the Stadium, the eighth wonder of the world in my eyes.
It came to pass in 1971 that the ultimate moment in hockey’s Holy Grail – a Stanley Cup Finals Game Seven – was blacked out in Chicago (although nationally televised). Tickets were not easily obtained, and even if they were, certainly a Game Seven was for the adults.

Remember 1971?

Every 12-year-old boy in Chicago in 1971 has a story to tell about trying to cope with the blackout that night. Many of us scrambled to the attic with our dads to try to reposition the antenna in the hope of grabbing a signal from a far away beacon. Others settled in with their transistor radios under their pillows, hungry for the visual cues that AM radio offered.

But I have a great story to tell that is one of my fondest memories, even through the pain of the Hawks loss that night. I was able to watch the game because my dad and his buddies concocted a scheme to outrun the blackout and rent a hotel room in Indiana that had a TV! In my mind, it seemed somehow illegal. I imagined there were some Wirtz police that would step in and stop this flash of brilliance. “Can you do that?” I asked my dad.

Enter Mr. Z

Mr. Z's hearse. That's me in the lawn chair.

Mr. Z, as we affectionately knew him, was a good friend of my Dad. He had recently purchased an old hearse from an auto graveyard. For its former occupants, it was the last ride, a journey to eternal rest. For me, it was to become a most unlikely ray of hope.

I heard banter back and forth between my mom and dad about the idea of grown men driving to a hotel room in Indiana in Mr. Z’s hearse. “If we decide to take the boys, we can all fit in one vehicle,” my Dad said, an outlandish suggestion that somehow won approval.

Rows of lawn chairs, coolers, booze, soda and cans of oil were loaded into the back of the hearse. My dad and his buddies – Mr. Z, Uncle Ray, and Little Eddie – then did the coolest thing adults could ever do: they rounded up my brothers and packed us in as well. The men sat in lawn chairs in the old hearse while we sat quietly on the floor watching them. Seat belts? Who ever heard of them?

None of us boys said a peep. When a dad does something like this for his sons, good behavior abounds.

Game Seven, 1971

We arrived at the hotel room to see the old Chicago Stadium on TV, full of life and rabid fans, more clearly than I’d ever seen it in the snowy picture we got at home. The Hawks enjoyed a 2-0 lead midway through the 2nd period. Then Bobby Hull hit the crossbar over what looked like a beaten Ken Dryden. And then, in what seemed like a fleeting second, we collectively lost our innocence. A Jacques Lemaire slapshot skittered past Tony Esposito for the first Canadiens goal. Then Henri Richard scored another. Just like that, it was 2-2 at the end of the 2nd period.

Ken Dryden, 1971

I don’t remember the second intermission or ever breathing at all when watching the 3rd period. Richard scored again in a power move past Magnuson; Jimmy Pappin missed an open net, even raising his stick in false hope. The Hawks pulled Tony-O, sent in six attackers, but both hands on the old stadium clock suddenly went dark.

The Stadium Thud

There are those among us who remember the sound when an opposing team scores a goal. In our personal family folklore, it is referred to as “The Stadium Thud.” It is the collective sigh of despair that fans express when they see their hopes go up in smoke.

It happened that night not once, but twice: when Richard scored his goal and again at game’s end when the Montreal Canadians won the Stanley Cup.

I don’t remember leaving the hotel room. I know we didn’t stay. I remember, sitting on the floor of the hearse in the silence, crying, knowing the parade the next day would take place in Montreal rather than Chicago.

The Blackhawks Resurgence

The 1971 seventh game loss left a personal wound that has stayed with me for nearly 30 years. True blue to the core, even though the last time the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup was 1961, I attended as many games as I could over the past few decades, taking my own boys to instill a love for the game through their eyes.

Fast forward to 2010 – this year we watched as soon as all of Chicago climbed aboard the Blackhawks quest. Going into Game Six of the finals vs. The Flyers, there was plenty of nervousness to go around. Tied at the end of regulation, the prospect of another Game Seven loomed large. That is when Patrick Kane found the shortest distance between two points: first the head fake, then the straight line of his unexpected, low angle shot… and The Cup was ours!

And it all brought me back to that moment in 1971 when my dad drove us in a hearse to watch the playoffs in an Indiana hotel room. There have been many ups and downs in my life since then – admittedly more downs than ups in Blackhawks’ history – but this victory has left me with my own Cup filled with gratitude.

Thank you, Chicago Blackhawks. You’ve made the 12-year-old in me very happy. And thank you, Dad, for instilling in me a love for the best sport in the world, one I now share in common with my boys.

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