Torn: The sweet agony of fans who grew up with the Hawks but learned to love the Bolts

Me: Go Hawks! Wait, no. Lightning. I meant go Lightning.
Dad: You are a Chicagoan!
—Texts exchanged between the author and her father, a Chicago-area resident and Blackhawks fan, last Saturday night.

For Chicago transplants like myself, it’s pretty rare that sports teams from both our adopted and original homelands face off in a championship. A Bears/Bucs battle royale? A Rays/Cubs World Series? The chances are extremely low. So, with the Stanley Cup Final, many of us face a question we’ve never had to answer before: when it comes down to it, which team is Our Team?

On the one hand, we spent our formative years with fathers and uncles who’d watch Blackhawks games during family parties; they’d explain the rules to us with nasal Chicago accents over beer and bratwurst. On the other, we’re here in Tampa Bay largely because we want to be; one too many of those winters nearly drove us out of our damn minds.

Chicago is already a great city that doesn’t need our help, and neither do its professional sports teams. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, is a work-in progress, as are its teams.

Admittedly I’m something of a fair-weather fan; I don’t really have the desire (or time) to watch every single regular-season game, but will take one in on occasion. But when a team from a place I love does well, I pay close attention, and find it entertaining when friends and family go nuts on social media.

So as the Bolts gear up to face the Hawks, I’m torn, as are many other transplants from the Windy City. It’s similar to the dilemma former Bostonians experienced when the Rays and the Red Sox faced off in the playoffs a couple seasons ago, though perhaps the divide isn’t as bitter among those of us who grew up in the friendly Midwest.

A Chicago-Tampa Bay rivalry may grow, though, with last year’s departure of former Rays manager Joe Maddon for the Cubs. The city’s other baseball team, the White Sox, plays the Rays the second weekend this month, in the midst of the Stanley Cup finals (or close to their finale, depending on the first four games). There’s also the fact that Brad Richards, who played for the Lightning in 2004, the last time Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup, is now playing for the Hawks. The gentle ribbing between my family and me (see above exchange) is not unlike the torment we all unleash on our northern counterparts by way of gorgeous beach pics in January.

Sure, I’m pulling for the Lightning a little bit, but would be happy either way.

Here are some perspectives from others who have swapped Portillo’s for Taco Bus, the Morton Arboretum for Fort DeSoto, Millennium Park for Curtis Hixon, Lake Shore Drive for Bayshore Boulevard, and cruel, unending winters for harsh, relentless summers.

Mark Schreiner, a producer and reporter with WUSF Public Media, grew up on the city’s northwestern edge (“one block over from John Wayne Gacey,” he says). When he’s not on the radio, his Chicago accent is strong. He said he’ll be wearing his Blackhawks jersey under his work shirt on game days.

“I don’t feel you need to just cheer for the home team because it’s where you live,” he said. “It’s where your heart is, and that’s my attitude.”

Not every former Chicagoan roots for the Blackhawks. Alison Lighthall-Miller, a psychiatric nurse and jewelry designer who spent most of her life in Chicago, was a lifelong Hawks fan until she moved down here to be with husband Marc Haze (the two grew up together in the city; he’s now a Bolts fan), who also works for WUSF Public Media but moonlights as a sports radio broadcast engineer.

“When I first moved here, I honestly couldn’t care less about the Bolts. I was still keeping an eye on the Blackhawks,” Miller said in an email. “You know, I watched some Lightning games, became familiar with the players’ stories, started following their track record and before I knew it, I started to care who the Lightning were playing and how they were doing… I am now firmly in the Bolts camp. I marvel at Ben Bishop’s agility and am blown away by Tyler Johnson’s skill. Watching them is a treat. But after 45 years in Chicago, I’ll always love the Blackhawks.”

Dave Wills, a radio announcer for the Tampa Bay Rays, said he was a Blackhawks season ticket holder for more than a decade. He remembers crying in 1971 when the Blackhawks lost the Stanley Cup to the Montreal Canadiens. He said he’s pretty close to split down the middle.

“I went to about three or four games this year and rooted for the Lightning in those games,” he said. “They’re a fun team to watch. I think they’ve got a great group of people running that franchise… Deep down inside of me I’m still probably going to be rooting for my home team.”

Michelle Bonk, with whom I attended grade school and part of high school, tends bar at the Brown Boxer on Clearwater Beach. She said a lot of Blackhawks fans come in to watch the team on the bar’s many TVs. “I’m super excited to watch both of my home teams play for the Stanley Cup,” she said in a Facebook message. “Although I’m pulling for the Blackhawks to win, if the Lightning win, I’m still really happy.”

Same goes for Velva Lee Heraty (a.k.a. “Dream Momma”), author of The Dream Belongs to the Dreamer and host of the show “Let’s Talk Life” on Life Improvement Radio. “St. Pete may have my heart but Chicago has my spirit,” Heraty said in a Facebook message. “Being a fifth generation Chicagoan and having briefly dated [hockey great] Bobby Hull in my heyday, I’m for the Blackhawks.”

For Will Shepherd, an attorney with the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s Web site, who grew up in the western suburbs and also cried when the Hawks lost to the Canadiens, it’s a little less clear-cut.

“I’m in agony,” he said. “For this to happen is utterly inconceivable for me. It’s like every Christmas and birthday I’ve had combined.”

Shepherd said in the rare instance the two teams play each other, he wears a jersey for both teams. He’d like to see the Lighting win because it’s been 11 years since they’ve won the championship. By the same token, he said, a Stanley Cup win for the Blackhawks would give them dynasty status, given that they won in 2010 and 2013.

Ultimately, he has decided not to decide. “Now that both my teams are against each other I can’t root for one because I’d be rooting against the other,” he said. “So I’m just going to enjoy it.” 

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