Arrival. Cheers. Pre-game cannonball. The sound of drums. Cold steel takes to the ice. Debbie Wayne in her jersey (size: circus tent), sporting Bobby Hull, pouring. Shots. Bar coaches: commanders who will never lead a team but know all. Debates. Hell Fire. The jukebox is one of us. Cab. Home... what about the game?
Part 2: November 8th... Hockey Night... Blackhawks vs. Blues.
My Pops started the tradition. During certain games, especially against the Red Wings, he and his buddies would go down to the Village. There they wore the ceremonial garb: Hawks' jerseys with the names of beloved players stitched to the back, and jackets bearing the team insignia, once worn during epic victories and now alive with the spirit of past conquests. The mystical importance of their apparel understood without explanation -- to question is to blaspheme; they gathered in the local tavern to voodoo a victory by simply bearing witness to the onslaught on ice. And even in defeat they still held faith in their magic.
My buddies and I inherited a lot of that tradition, though, as we grew up, we made it our own.
I stop by Sid's on my way to the Village. The game doesn't start for an hour, but we like to get into position. He's got his red Amonte jersey on which is a good and bad sign. That jersey has not let us down, however, wearing it speaks volumes about Sid's appraisal of the situation; we need the strong magic tonight.
At the tavern it's great to see Debbie behind the bar. When games go wrong she can spit fouler than a Nola whore, but she's really a sweetheart. We come in to cheers from some of the Regulars, while she yells, "You pussy drying motherfuckers are late!" then insists, by the wave of her hand, we come over and stretch across the bar to give her a hug. She pours us two shots of rye, asks the usual catch up questions ("How you been?" , "How's your lady?" , "How's work?"), and then gets to interrogating Sid about his opinion of the game. He's the only one she trusts when it comes to such divinations and vice versa. Eavesdropping on their deliberations, I begin to understand the necessity of the red Amonte jersey. But prophecy is not guarantee, so I maintain hope.
Afterwards, noticing the rest of our pack has arrived, hockey night can begin.
Our first ritual is the cannonball. Debbie pulls a box wine out from under the bar. She immediately eviscerates it with a knife, carving the box open to remove its inner pouch. Then, while the stereo plays J. Swayzee's classic 'Here Come the Hawks,' everyone wearing a jersey lines the bar. Walking from one end to the other, she pours/squeezes the pouch, gushing box wine into open mouths. Our one goal is to finish the entire bag-o-wine before the song ends. We have never failed. But this isn't enough to win games.
The jukebox is shutdown as the game starts up. We hammer the bar like a communal drum. Irregulars, unfamiliar with our traditions, quickly pay their tabs and leave. They can sense madness is brewing. Soon the place will be full of screaming fans guzzling epic quantities as they strive to reach a state of shamanistic delirium. We'll pour ourselves through the veil into another reality where our cries can travel through the TV screen and influence the outcome of the game. Now, at the start of the match, is the only chance to leave safely. Anyone who remains must either join the conflagration or be sacrificed in it. And those swiftly ducking out the back know they don't have the nerves for what is coming.
Beers go down faster the more nervous the crowd becomes. The mounting tension gets punctured by shots now and again. Most of the Regulars don't even need to say a thing. They just point to a glass, a bottle, a shot glass, and Debbie knows what to pour. For the next twenty minutes she rarely gets a second to stop, but she knows how to work the room and keep an eye on the game.
When the Blues score their first goal, putting the Hawks behind, we all do a shot, Debbie included. For now there are mutterings along the lines of, "It's only one. We can make it back," which is true but no comfort. Sid looks grim -- The proof of his prophecy a glaring number one. He swallows his drink hard and stares at the screen. With the right kind of eyes a person can almost make out Sid's will pouring into the TV.
By the end of the period, with St. Louis's goal still unanswered, the crowd begins to argue about what needs to be done. Sid and I go out for a few cigarettes before the next period. However, this is also a tactic. Sid can't stomach some of the bar coaches. Men who make declarations like, "What they really need to do is score a goal." Of course! This whole time the team forgot it's not who holds the puck longest, but who scores the most points. Brilliant. Get on the big red phone Debbie keeps under the bar and call head coach Joel Quenneville. He needs to know to score more goals. Or my favorite, the nonsensical arguments that involve the manipulation of time. Dan Pritchet, after a few huffs of glue, is typically the culprit here. He comes back from the bathroom with a smile stuck to his face and argues that the team needs, "to get like Stan Mikita back in there with like Chris Celios, ya know? Pilote, Savard; We put those guys on the ice, and they can't be stopped." Indeed, and as long as we're manipulating time lets go back to before the goal was scored and have the Hawks in position to prevent it. Such are the cries of defeated wills who wish for some deus ex machina to carry the team to victory. Sid prefers reality, regardless of how grim it might get, and I agree.
So we finish our smokes and head back inside. There are two whole periods left.
The old guard doesn't come out much anymore. They all have their reasons: pancreatitis, emphysema, cirrhosis, cancer, suicide, or just plain moved away (like Aldous Loudon who moved to Arizona to save his last lung, the left having been removed after his wife stabbed him in the chest inadvertently leading to the discovery of his lung cancer, but I digress). They still witness the games, often on the radio, preferring the comfort of their home to the raucous tavern. However, from time to time, they venture out, usually when the old witch doctors are needed most. And after the second period, I wished at least one would show up. Solidly behind at two to nothing, defeats feels inevitable. Although, as Sid likes to say, "You haven't failed till you've given up."
Near the start of the third period Sid orders a round of Hell Fire for the bar. John Dowd shakes his head, "Dude, I'm not drinking that shit." Sid stabs a finger at him, "You will, and you'll like it. The games not over." Dowd counters, "Might as well be." To which Debbie hollers, "Then you can get the fuck out ya limp dick ovarian cyst." Before Dowd can ask how a cyst can have a dick the murmur of the crowd forces him to accept his fate.
Hell Fire is a local concoction brewed in Toby Jackson's basement. Only the Village carries the stuff, and if the cops ever cared about humanity they would arrest Toby and beat him with socks full of batteries for ever creating the wretched brew. Hell Fire burns all the way down to the stomach where it roils in the belly for several minutes; and it's known to cause hallucinations, induce disorientation, cure strep throat, and create out of body experiences, which may or may not be instances of temporary death. But it's a key to another level of consciousness -- that plain where our will can manipulate reality. Some might wonder, Why not drink it from the start? Because it's not to be taken lightly. Hell Fire is only for emergency situations. Like stopping people from getting married.
Debbie gets the jug from a cooler. Hell Fire has to be kept cold. Storing it at room temperature carries the possibility it might combust. Toby named it. One weekend, years ago, he brought over a plastic milk jug filled with red liquid. He took the first experimental mouthful, and his first words became the potion's name. Although our buddy Pete still contends Toby might have been trying to say, "Help. Fire!" the current title stuck. And it's the same jug Debbie pulled out of the cooler. Hell Fire scrawled across with a marker, the jug's very presence is ominous.
It's time to get real by going out of our minds. With twenty minutes to go the game is still salvageable. At the very least no one wants to see the shame of shames: a shutout. So we take our shots in hand and as a collective shout, "Go Hawks!" then drink the nectar of demonic gods. Only Toby takes his without grimacing. Most of the screaming that follows seems like roaring for the team, but regardless of their origin, the battle cries are back. Debbie cranks the stereo and 'Here Comes the Hawks' blasts. The whole room cheers. Danny Pritchet openly takes a huff of glue and no one cares. The battle rages on, and even when St. Louis scores yet another goal John Dowd hollers, "That's some bullshit, and I'll tell you why!" But no one cares what he has to say, so he's ignored. Jody Beacham starts to smoke in the bar, and Debbie doesn't stop her. Jody's current boyfriend lets her ash in his hand, so he can use a bit of water to make war paint. The two streak their faces and howl for the Hawks. Sid sits in a corner, a self satisfied look on his face. The room is alive again, and the magic is almost palpable. We're brewing up a voodoo hurricane, however, none of it seems to be leaving the tavern. Despite our trance, the Hawks can't get the edge. In the end, they lose. A dreaded shutout has occurred, and now the team has lost three in a row. But hope springs eternal.
Pronouncements about the next game are already under way. This defeat is shunted aside thanks to the possibility that next time our team will be victorious. There's no time to consider the loss, though there is enough to learn from it. Next time, always next time, winning is in our future.
Though, for a bit, there is a solemn silence. We did our best, only it wasn't enough.
The jukebox comes back to life, randomly playing Cher's 'Strong Enough.' And it feels right. Like the machine knows -- it's been around long enough to be one of us.
There will be another game. Soon. And with a losing streak developing, the Hell Fire might have to come out first.