At high noon on a frigid Saturday 21 years ago, an international television audience saw and heard what it was all about. Since the mid-80s, Blackhawk fans at the Stadium greeted the Star-Spangled Banner with a tradition unlike any other. Audience participation, loudly and lovingly, with pride and passion.
On Jan. 19, 1991, the local fervor was shown worldwide, as it will be again Tuesday at 7 p.m. when Comcast SportsNet airs another rousing rendition of “Chicago Blackhawks Classics”: the 42nd National Hockey League All-Star Game at the famed Madhouse on Madison.
Only two days earlier, "Operation Desert Storm" was declared. Coalition forces from 34 countries, authorized by the United Nations and led by the United States under then-President George H.W. Bush, embarked on the Persian Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, which had been invaded by Iraq. Could the NHL, in good conscience, stage its annual mid-season gala under such circumstances?
Wayne Gretzky, hockey’s greatest player and ambassador, thought absolutely not. “It doesn’t seem right that we’re having a good time while our soldiers are risking their lives,” he insisted. And he was not alone. But, after considering all options, NHL President John A. Ziegler decided that the All-Star Game would proceed as scheduled.
What ensued was a display that shall not be forgotten by those who watched from a distance or the sellout crowd of 18,472 in the Stadium. That includes Gretzky, who was shaking his head after the Campbell Conference defeated the Wales Conference, 11-5, and the noise had abated.
“I was standing next to Mark Messier during the national anthems,” gushed Gretzky, then with the Los Angeles Kings. “I said to him, ‘This is unbelievable.’ I’ve heard it as loud in here before but never this emotional. The flags of both countries, the banners, the vibrations. The sparklers, the bedsheets for troops overseas. The moment of silence. The only moment of silence. You could tell that the fans, like us, were thinking of other things. There was such a mood in that rink, such patriotism. It was good for hockey. It was a good show, period.”
The Great One played his first NHL game in Chicago in 1979 as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. He soon selected the Stadium as his favorite venue as a visitor. Nothing changed on that Saturday in 1991, even when NBC broke away between periods for updates from the Pentagon. “I love this place,” concluded Gretzky.
Plots and sidebars abounded for the 42nd NHL All-Star Game. Among them:
> The Stadium was also standing room only on the previous Friday evening for the skills competition and a "Heroes of Hockey" game that featured NHL legends against the Blackhawks. The last two icons announced were Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. They were treated as one would have expected: the building shook.
> Fans paused from concerns about tense world events to express displeasure over the exclusion of Eddie Belfour, the Blackhawks’ rookie goalie, from the Campbells. Edmonton coach John Muckler chose his own Bill Ranford as a backup for Mike Vernon, a selection that did not go over well in this precinct. “I feel cheated,” said Belfour, who wore a baseball cap pulled down low and sat in the stands with infant son Dayn wrapped in a blanket. Eddie the Eagle went incognito for a few minutes until being discovered. Meanwhile, fans chanted “ED-DIE!! ED-DIE!” throughout the contest, especially after either Vernon or Ranford surrendered a Wales goal. Muckler, a good sport, volunteered after the shootout, “I thought Eddie Ranford played a good game.” Belfour, who didn’t require any extra motivation, finished the season with 43 victories, the Vezina Trophy, and the Calder Trophy as the Blackhawks earned the Presidents’ Trophy with a league-high 106 points.
> Denis Savard, who will be part of Tuesday night’s Comcast SportsNet telecast, was on the Wales team as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. He had been traded during the previous summer for Chris Chelios, but when Savvy came up the stairs from the locker room, the Stadium rattled and rolled. “I was so sick, I wouldn’t have played if it wasn’t Chicago,” recalled Savard, who had lost 10 pounds with the flu the previous week and planned on resting during the All-Star break until teammate Brian Skrudland was injured. Savard sat beside idol Guy Lafleur in the visitors’ locker room, but points to the open stall beside Lafleur during an interview between the second and third periods. “I felt so bad,” Savard said, “I went straight to my hotel room downtown and spent two days in bed.”
> Bill Wirtz, president of the Blackhawks, lobbied hard for Savard to replace Skrudlund. As chairman of the NHL board of governors and the most powerful owner in the league, Wirtz did not have to lobby long. Wirtz loved Savard and it’s not as though Wirtz was acting gratuitously. Savard led the Canadiens in scoring at the All-Star break. Nor was Wirtz trying to sell tickets. There were none available. It was simply a statesmanlike gesture by Wirtz toward a prodigy who had brought the fans back to the Stadium in the 1980s.
> Savard has an interesting take on his trade for Chelios, as does Pat Foley, the voice of the Blackhawks who joins Tuesday night’s panel with Pat Boyle. Chelios had won a Norris Trophy with Montreal, but Foley points out that it was not a one-for-one deal. The Canadiens had to give more. Foley also tells a vignette about Savard, who won the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1993.
> Jeremy Roenick, who performed a spin-o-rama in honor of Savard, was all set to be All-Star MVP with one goal and two assists. Then Vincent Damphousse of the Maple Leafs scored three goals in the last 12 minutes for four overall, and the voting changed. JR and Steve Larmer assisted on an all-Blackhawks goal scored by Chelios.
> Mario Lemieux missed the All-Star Game with a back injury that restricted him to 21 regular season games. But he played 23 playoff games, collected 16 goals and 28 assists, and led the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first Stanley Cup behind coach Scotty Bowman, now a senior advisor with the Blackhawks.
> The 1991 All-Star Game was televised to service personnel in the Persian Gulf, and a tape was requested by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the coalition forces. He saw and heard all about it too.
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