|The Bombs Bursting in Air: The Blackhawks and the National Anthem Display their Local Pride Among Area Hockey Fans|
For those who have ever been to a Blackhawks home game at the United Center (or even better, the Chicago Stadium), you know the game begins when organist Frank Pellico strikes the first note of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The crowd roars over the voice of Jim Cornelison, reaching a frenzy at “. . . the bombs bursting in air.” The cheering segues into the customary “Let’s Go, Hawks!” chant as the puck is dropped to start the first period.
In a recent Chicago Sun-Times article, Blackhawks goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin was quoted as saying the national anthem tradition before each game as, “the best in the league. The fans are really into it, and this is the only place the fans are into it like that. When you hear it, you get an adrenaline rush. It doesn't matter how many times you hear it, you never grow tired of it.”
Just close your eyes and listen at the start of any Hawks game. Whether they are playing the Red Wings in the playoffs or a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning in the middle of the season, the roof shakes and the players get pumped.
Since its birth at Game 3 of the 1985 Western Conference Finals versus the Edmonton Oilers, the national anthem tradition has only gained momentum. It has now become an entity greater than the sum of its parts. It is no longer just a tradition that happens before each game, it is part of the game. Most fans are unaware of when the tradition even began; for all they know, this is how it has always been.
To an outsider, this over the top behavior during the national anthem would appear to be an act of outright patriotism. Some going so far as to say it is nationalism. Nowhere else in Chicago sports is this behavior seen—not at Wrigley Field, U.S. Cellular Field, Soldier Field, or even at the United Center when the Bulls are playing. Other sports teams simply do not have this tradition (some fans try in Toronto during “O Canada” before the Maple Leafs play, but has yet to catch on so strongly). Even in international tournaments where the celebration of team and state amalgamate into a behavior similar to this does not exist during the singing of any national anthem.
The national anthem of almost every country is regarded with a religious reverence. During sporting events, the stadium turns into a church, where the state is God, and the players are disciples sacrificing themselves for the greater good. Hats off and silence, the required actions of the audience in the stadium and the believers in church are one in the same. Polite applause follows the final note and the game begins.
To mistake the thunderous noise rocking the United Center before each Hawks game for patriotism or nationalism is an easy one. Patriotism, nationalism, and the United States go together like skates and ice. Many in the United States fail to see patriotism and nationalism from an objective perspective as one is either a patriot or anti-American (particularly during the George W. Bush years). Removing your hat and singing along to “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the act of a true patriot; not doing so makes for an anti-American act, anything else is unthinkable, which is precisely why the lung-bursting applause before a Blackhawks game goes beyond patriotism and nationalism.
The cheers that fill the United Center have nothing to do with the United States; it has nothing to do with whether one has a great love for this section of land sandwiched between Canada and Mexico. It is about the Blackhawks—nothing more, nothing less.
German native Lisa Sturm told me during the intermission of a recent Blackhawks game, “The first game I went to, I thought it was ridiculous. I thought it reinforced my stereotypes about America. Then I went to see other Chicago sports teams, and they don’t do that. Now I realize that it is just for the Blackhawks.” I then asked if she cheers along. She did not come out and say it, but she implied that she did so with a smile.
The idea of sports and patriotism/nationalism often go hand in hand. It is a common mistake to see the act of cheering during “The Star-Spangled Banner” as an act of patriotism. Using the word patriotism to describe this act is a filler word used to describe the surface, failing entirely to deconstruct the moment. The UC crowd is not cheering on the United States; they are cheering for the Blackhawks. They are offering encouragement and support for the team and ultimately pride in the city. At most, it is an act of regionalism, no different than the way the people of Texas feel about their home state.
Regionalism existed long before nationalism, and it is beginning to reemerge as the world becomes post-national (think of Flanders and Wallonia in Belgium or Catalonia in Spain). If Chicago had a city anthem that was played before each game, it can be guaranteed that the crowd would be even crazier for that than they currently do for the national anthem; city/regional team pride should not be confused with patriotism. The national anthem before each Hawks game ideologically goes beyond the borders on a map, if not extending outward. However, inward as it is, it’s all about the team, and less about the nation.