The Decision

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John Hughes’s Day Off

With the Stanley Cup playoffs under way, we look back on the filmmaker's history with the Red Wings, the Blackhawks, and NHL fandom

It was the second intermission of the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field, and we were bundled to our eye sockets in winter gear. A reporter going gloveless with a notepad descended on our seats to ask my father, John Hughes, for his take on the scene. It was one of countless hockey games we attended over the years, and certainly not the first between the two Original Six teams representing his home state of Michigan and the city he adopted and loved all out of proportion, Chicago. After nearly a decade of skirting interviews, outdoor hockey provided the perfect icebreaker.

My father had long savored his anonymity in Chicago, in some small measure to ensure easy access to Blackhawks games, for which we’ve had season tickets since the Reagan administration. He stuck with the team throughout, particularly during a fallow stretch in the late ’90s that provided only intermittent sparks (Krivo overtime goals; Bob Probert’s second act), to say nothing, and better for it, of the uneventful mid-2000s, all the way through what Forbes deemed “the greatest sports-business turnaround ever” in 2007, after ownership was passed to Rocky Wirtz. A Cup was soon within reach.

When this Winter Classic piece ran on the NHL site, my brother John and I shared a familiar, albeit harmless cringe. A technicality provided fodder for an ongoing but never contentious Chicago-Detroit divide within the family. One of my father’s quotes was misconstrued, implying that he was happy that Detroit had the edge in scoring, not that he was happy simply that Chicago was hosting Detroit.1 Or was the quote misconstrued? Was this maybe another instance of him smuggling a Detroit reference into a Chicago narrative? Anyone familiar with Cameron Frye’s outerwear can attest. After the release of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, my father’s brief correspondence with Gordie Howe — a childhood hero who, much to his relief, appreciated the plug — was a personal milestone. In a sense, they swapped jerseys.

Gordie Howe

My brother and I remain Hawks fans for life, though we were always mindful that our father could never quite shake the deep impression the Red Wings made on his childhood, the first 13 years of which were spent in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The Blackhawks were the team he chose to follow as an Illinoisan, and his ratio of attendance between games in Chicago versus games in Detroit must have been at least a hundred to one — though that one time was Game 4 of the 1997 Stanley Cup finals. When Steve Yzerman skated a well-earned victory lap around Joe Louis Arena, my father was there, in the second row.

As he often said of his days as a Michigander, he was drawn, in part, to the mysteries of sharing a border with Canada. He could pick up CBC on the dial and he always carried at least one maple leaf penny in his pocket. His lifelong appreciation of Canadian humor was as entrenched as his love for their national pastime. But it was his hometown Wings that first captured his imagination — intensified, as he often told us, by the fact that when he visited the dentist as a kid, he’d occasionally spot Red Wings in the waiting room. The work they were about to endure in the dentist’s chair most likely made a couple minutes in the Olympia Stadium penalty box feel like paradise. The encounters were a sobering reminder of the players’ sacrifice for the community. He was hooked.

In adulthood, he wasn’t a hockey fan in the trainspotting sense — box scores, trade deadlines, scouting reports — but more an admirer of the overarching narrative of the NHL and its odd heritage. The slang and secret language the sport cultivated. The otherworldly stars who seemed to be imported from distant planets. How the Russian Five looked like they stepped out of a Sergei Eisenstein movie to run a power play in the present. He liked terms like “saucer pass.” He liked Michel Goulet’s mustache.

At times, the primary activity at games was people-watching. For decades he kept a running commentary on the crowd, like Alvy Singer holding court on a park bench, assigning voices and brainstorming character profiles back in the days of big-sweater, satin-jacket fandom at Chicago Stadium. Ideas seemed to click at games. I remember my brother calling and reminiscing about Dad sketching spectators in his notebook between whistles the night Patrick Kane lit up Roberto Luongo for a hat trick en route to a series clinch.2 Stashed in those notebooks, some of the last he kept before passing away that summer, are firsthand dispatches from the playoff run that revived the franchise before his eyes.3

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My wife was eight months pregnant and I was living in New York during the 2009 playoffs, a run cut short by the Wings in the conference finals. Knowing it wasn’t the same watching on TV in an apartment 800 miles away, my father snuck a digital recorder into the stadium, recorded the roar during the national anthem, and e-mailed me the audio the next morning.

An entry in his notebook from that game, a victory over Calgary, reads:

Hockey is a decent sport. It’s a surprise that it is still relatively pure and honest and no reason yet to destroy it. Not big enough. Not threatening. A world all its own. The wretched silliness of the soft, savage, larger world doesn’t make its way into hockey barns. Hawks 3-2.

As transplants to Los Angeles in the mid-’80s, we frequented the Forum, Kings games far outshining Showtime. My father often spoke about how the crowds for the Kings in the purple-and-gold era were the closest he felt to being back home in Chicago. The Laker Girls were nowhere in sight, Dancing Barry had the night off, and the stands were scattered with castaways and Canadian expats more attuned to catching Tiger Williams ride his stick after a greasy goal.4

Upon moving back to Illinois, we settled into the steep seats of Chicago Stadium, more for Jocelyn Lemieux than Jordan, and shrugged our way into the United Center years later, after the Stadium was reduced to parking-lot dust. As our Cup drought dragged on, the one true test for the Blackhawks — more for the fans, I imagine — was squaring off against visiting Detroit. Even the nights when we battled to the finish holding a slim lead, inevitably there’d be Brendan Shanahan celebrating an equalizer or game-winner in the goalmouth, all goatee and teeth. My father knew how deflating those losses could feel, and he kept quiet.

The rare occasions when he expressed anger over the rivalry came when a scoreboard video before Detroit matchups in the late ’90s would mock the opponent’s urban blight. Over the funereal bongs of AC/DC’s “Hells Bells,” images of Detroit decay would slowly roll by, culminating in a particularly harsh shot of a General Motors water tower being leveled. It then cut to an array of gleaming tourist gems along the Magnificent Mile, accompanied by Sinatra and all that boastful brass. The presentation was greeted by a smidgeon of manufactured applause, in part because Michigan exiles occasionally outnumbered Illinoisans, but also because fans knew what mattered most was the play on the ice, not the campaign ads.5

The video would plunge my father into a familiar trap defense. Like many of his generation, he suffered the plague of constantly having to remind skeptics that Detroit was once the richest city in the world, once home to millions. Once, we’d say. Once. It was in those moments when you could sense a switch flipping. Perhaps he was rooting for a spoiler.

The switch could just as easily flip back to the Hawks. One night in particular comes to mind, following a melee at the conclusion of a Hawks-Wings playoff game in 1995. Our seats were on the aisle, and when a Wings fan scurried down the steps and pulled an octopus from his pants and flung the rotten specimen onto the ice, he splattered my dad and his companions seated beside him with a trail of octopus juice.6 It was a rude awakening, a reminder that Detroit was rightly a bridge too far.

However, he did honor the odd traditions and quirks of his hockey-centric home state, several of which were funneled, octopus-free, into a piece he wrote for a short-story collection published by Broken Wrist Project in 2003. (The story, titled “The Tit Jar,” can be read in full here.) He wrote under the pseudonym JL Hudson, a sly reference to the Detroit department store still lodged in the revolving door of his memory, and chronicled an idealized Grosse Pointe of the 1960s, back when backyards were replete with homemade ice rinks and neighborhood kids spent their days painting CCM logos on their sisters’ figure skates.

The Hudson pseudonym freed him up to revisit the prose style he refined for years as an editor and writer at National Lampoon, which he wedded to the more innocent contours of adolescent independence in Home Alone. In one passage the neighborhood kids, who equip themselves with nicknames like Basset and Snowman, find a $20 bill “sticking out of the rotting elm leaves in the gutter in front of the bank” in town. After exhausting every weird scenario that might unfold if they turn the treasure over to the police, the group decides to keep the bill and buy the poorest member of the pack, Winky, a pair of ice skates to replace his decrepit hand-me-downs. This episode, in the voice of the sixth-grade narrator, captures the stunted but compassionate logic of the hockey-crazed kids as they leave the store with their prize:

Winky got a pair of skates exactly like Gordie Howe’s, only smaller. They were twenty-two dollars and Snowman paid the extra two bucks. Winky was almost crying when we left the store. Normally he didn’t like sympathy or charity or help or people feeling sorry for him … One time a kid offered him half his lunch because he noticed that Winky’s sandwich was made out of the end pieces of a loaf of bread. Winky hit him in the stomach so hard the guy crapped in his pants.

The skates were the only new thing Winky ever got, including underwear and socks. He played a lot of pocket pool because by the time Basset was done with the underwear and turned it over to Winky, the elastic parts were all worn-out and Winky’s balls would fall out of the leg holes. Winky said how good the skates smelled because he never smelled leather that wasn’t hard and dark from toe slime and foot sweat. It was still warm out but Winky wore the skates anyway.

In the last decade of his life, my father reflected more on his Michigan roots than ever before. Detroit and its downfall, in particular, were often on his mind. It’s fascinating to wonder what he would have thought of the Hawks-Wings rivalry being permanently altered by realignment,7 or the troubling news that the onetime richest city in the universe is now being run by an emergency manager.

He would certainly have upheld his commitment to tracking Michigan culture from afar, a sideline to his predominant infatuation with Chicago. Detroit music was paramount. When he heard J Dilla’s Donuts, he was awed by the range of samples and promptly began combing music blogs and his own record collection to assemble a series of mix CDs that eventually encapsulated the source of every prominent break — an assignment he surely wouldn’t have engaged in had Dilla been from Duluth and not Detroit.8 When his cache of mix CDs grew too voluminous, he resorted to passing along preloaded iPods to friends and family. I couldn’t help but notice how frequently he slipped Glenn Miller’s “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo” onto playlists — another chance to shoehorn the peninsula into the conversation.9

Those mixes still get play in my house and remain some of my most cherished mementos. For the time being, I’ll have to resign myself to not having encountered the ultimate find: footage from the night Uncle Buck visited Chicago Stadium.

It’s comforting to see homemade “Griswold double-zero” jerseys, as we call them, still pop up at Blackhawks games — proof that local pride in Christmas Vacation endures. (For the uninitiated, in one scene Clark Griswold sports a telling number opposite the Indian Head — balancing the scales somewhat from Cameron Frye’s omnipresent no. 9.) But no hockey sequence on film10 can eclipse my admiration for the deleted scene from Uncle Buck in which John Candy stood at center ice in Chicago Stadium in full Buck wardrobe — a movie moment witnessed by 17,000 hockey fans in attendance that night, and never again.

I should clarify that “deleted scene” is perhaps a misnomer. The game, between the Blackhawks and Candy’s hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, was played on New Year’s Day 1989, a week before principal photography on Uncle Buck began; it’s possible the shoot was simply part of the preproduction process of gathering test footage. I recall my father explaining that a character was going to ask Buck what the greatest moment of his life was, and it would cut to him making a shot during the Blackhawks’ “Shoot the Puck” contest, held between periods at every home game. If Candy made the shot, perhaps they’d use the footage in the final cut. He didn’t prevail, despite the overwhelming encouragement from the crowd. When I found an album of production photographs documenting that game, which I attended, it was like finding the blueprint to a dream.

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Also in attendance that night was the late Ralf Bode, the German-born cinematographer of Uncle Buck who was responsible for capturing two of the most iconic struts in American cinema: Travolta coursing through Brooklyn in Saturday Night Fever and Stallone’s sprint though Philadelphia in Rocky, which Bode contributed to as a second-unit cameraman. I spoke with both the editor and second-unit director of Uncle Buck, neither of whom could recall the fate of the footage capturing Buck’s strut to center ice. The search continues.

One onlooker I spoke with who recalled the evening in full was Doug Wilson, the longstanding general manager of the San Jose Sharks. Wilson was the Blackhawks’ marquee defenseman from 1977 to 1991, and he still holds the franchise record for points at his position. His tenure was a bridge to the team’s gloried past — his first roommate, he reminded me, was Stan Mikita, the Hall of Fame center who assisted Candy on his warm-up shots that night.

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Wilson laughed that he still has an Uncle Buck jacket, a gift from my father, hanging in his closet nearly 25 years later. “I remember John Candy coming to practice that morning,” Wilson said by phone from the HP Pavilion. “We had to find a pair of skates for him because he loved the game and wanted to skate with the rest of the team. I remember we put a Blackhawks jersey on him. Your dad was there, too, and he was smiling. Hopefully he wasn’t wishing it was a Red Wings jersey.”

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James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has contributed to Slate, The Atlantic, Wax Poetics, and The Village Voice. For a decade, he was an editor and publisher of Stop Smiling magazine and its book imprint.

Filed Under: Hockey, Fandom, General topics, Movies, NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Sports, john hughes, john candy