The generations of sports fans who grew up learning and loving a sport and team through the radio are disappearing these days. Another one came to a close on Thursday night in Chicago, though this one was a little different. We were a group out of place and time, which we came to identify ourselves by.
Pat Foley, longtime play-by-play man for the Chicago Blackhawks, announced his last game on Thursday. He was in the role, either on radio or television or both, for 39 of the past 41 years. That two-year gap tells its own story, and I’ll get to it. Foley became synonymous with the Hawks here in town, and for many of us in my generation of Hawks fans, he was the gateway.
It’s not enough to simply say he was the voice of the Hawks, because that doesn’t encapsulate all that he meant. He wasn’t just the announcer whose calls we can hear in our memories at a moment’s notice. Foley also symbolized the Hawks’ decades-long mismanagement, mistreatment, and downright incompetence that both he and we as fans had to overcome to be fans and enjoy ourselves (not much has changed sadly, based on the past few months). In so many ways, Foley was one of us.
For those outside of the city, and unfamiliar with the tale, Hawks home games weren’t on TV until 2008. If you didn’t know, that might sound like the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard, because it was. But previous owner Bill Wirtz was an ardent believer in the “Why would they buy the cow if they get the miik for free,” theory of business, and kept the games off TV to protect season ticket holders. Seriously.
So for every generation of Hawks fan until this latest one, we had to consume half our games through the radio, much like baseball fans of yesteryear. And because Wirtz was also unfathomably cheap, there weren’t separate radio and TV broadcast teams. Foley and partner Dale Tallon did both, with the TV coverage simulcasted on the radio when the Hawks were on the road and they both were the radio broadcast when they were home. Foley was the only voice we knew, and when he and Tallon were on TV broadcasting from Joe Louis Arena or the Checkerdome, it always felt a little like some sort of inmates had escaped and were taking over something they definitely should not have been in charge of.
Again, Foley was one of us, literally. It was as if the Hawks had just plucked some fan out of the second deck of the old Chicago Stadium and put him behind a mic, because they basically did. Foley was from here and grew up a Hawks fan. To say he perfectly represented what hockey at the Old Stadium felt like would do both a disservice. There really is no way to perfectly sum it up in words.
Chicago Stadium existed in a then-abandoned (certainly politically and usually physically, too) neighborhood west of downtown. When attending Hawks games, or Bulls games before Jordan arrived and made it the place to be, you certainly understood why. It was as if the city had to keep us all at a distance and surrounded by a moat so we couldn’t get at the rest of the city and sully whatever image the higher-ups wanted. As I wrote in my book, you’ll never convince me that the makeup of those Stadium crowds for hockey games wasn’t 15,000 people who were kept in a dungeon underneath the Stadium at all times except for when they were let out to attend Hawks games upstairs. You never saw these people at the grocery store or on the L.
The atmosphere was raucous, wild, and many times dangerous. You weren’t always completely sure you’d get out of there. And Foley was the perfect ambassador through the radio on what was going on, both on and off the ice. Because he was one of us, after all.
Foley and Tallon’s call of Hawks games from the Stadium were probably as close to Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon doing actual sports as we’ll ever get. Though we couldn’t see it, Foley made sure we could feel the sheer bedlam the building was most nights. Whether it was a big goal or yet another line brawl, Foley’s description always matched the mayhem on the ice and in the stands. We had to sneak radios into our bedrooms to listen long after our parents had ordered us to bed, but how could anyone sleep listening to this racket?
No one got the big moments better than Foley. Everyone has their favorite Foley calls, and he rose to prominence with this one:
Hockey is supposed to be that exciting, that uplifting at its best moments. The kind of breathless action you can’t believe you made it through. A personal favorite of mine came in 1992, the first Hawks run to the Stanley Cup Final I saw, and it was Game 4 in the second round against the loathed and heavily favored Red Wings, when the Hawks somehow swept them. They didn’t break the 0-0 tie until two minutes left in that game:
I can still clearly put myself back on the couch in the apartment I grew up in, sitting with my headphones on listening to that. Perhaps my first feeling of total elation in sports. Foley was just as excited as we were, because he hated the Red Wings as much as we did. You can hear not just the joy but the smug righteousness of, “We got you, motherfuckers!” in his call.
Something was always going to change when the Hawks moved out of the Stadium and across the street to the glorified airport terminal known as the United Center. Foley seemed to know it during the last great moment in the old barn. There’s a wistfulness in the postscript to this call, both knowing the Hawks likely couldn’t beat the Leafs but that something would be different after that:
“Hawks win! Hawks win!” You can have your baseball bat cracking or birds singing, there was no sweeter sound to a fan than that. And there wouldn’t be any more moments like that for over 20 years.
Further encapsulating how much Foley was one of us, as the team’s fortunes soured through incomprehensibly stupid stewardship from Wirtz, he couldn’t hide his disdain. Most would tell you it all came to a head during his famous Alex Karpovtsev rant:
We were no less disgusted about what the team became, and Foley was merely channeling the rest of us. But the team wasn’t going to have this sort of honesty about its product on the airwaves, and Foley was forced out. Much like a lot of us were.
Foley came back when Wirtz died and his son took over, and was yet another marker of the team’s rebirth (sadly sullied now) and perhaps the biggest blinking sign for lapsed fans that it was OK now.
In my previous life when I wrote about the Hawks exclusively, I was harsh on Foley at times. There were moments when it felt like the game moved too fast for him. His constant grabass with Eddie Olczyk would grate. He seemed a little too willing to echo the propaganda the team wanted out there about a player or decision. He definitely said some things he shouldn’t have. But it only came from a place where Foley meant so much.
And goddamn if he still couldn’t get the big moments so right:
I watched this one in a crowded and loud bar. Thanks to the camera angle we couldn’t quite see if Toews had tucked that puck behind Ryan Miller. The place was palpitating with anticipation as Toews skated in, but fell silent for just a brief second, giving the perfect stage for “Hawks win! Hawks win!” to cut through the tension. That call was the tearing off the lid that bottled our delight and relief.
We are perhaps the last generation of hockey fans to be tied to a radio announcer in such a way. And we were certainly the last to be forced to. But Foley was locked in there with us, and he made it OK. I don’t know what Syracuse-baritone-big-voice guy they got to replace him, and I don’t much care. No announcer of this generation with their polish and training will ever compare. They’re all far too soulless and robotic. It’s almost an assembly line.
Foley rolled out of the same seats and bars we were in, bitching about the power-play, and right into the booth. He was the first voice of sports for me and so many others, and likely will be the last. It’s been a rocky relationship at times, but isn’t love always?
Farewell, Pat. Thank you.