It’s funny when you have something like last night. Because if WGN didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t have known it was the last Hawks game on their station. You would have seen the broadcast schedule released for next year, gone through it, and maybe you would have seen no games on WGN and said, “Huh.” That’s it. So it’s really a celebration/mourning they’re throwing for themselves, which is weird, and also have to make you aware of the occasion, which makes it weirder. You don’t go out with a friend and then have them tell you later it’s their birthday. Or maybe you do, I’ve lost touch with what people do.
Still, I couldn’t help but think back to when the Hawks first came back on WGN in 2008. It was just so bizarre. Before that season, the thought of the Hawks on television was something of an anomaly, at least the home games. McDonough and Rocky had only taken over the year before, and though they jammed as many home games onto CSN that first season as they could, there were still more than enough that were still house shows. We knew a full TV deal was coming of course, it was the most basic and first order of business.
But the Hawks on WGN? It didn’t really add up. Not only were the Hawks on television at the United Center, but they were on a free-to-air station? The home of the Cubs and Bulls? Yes, and Sox too, but the Sox have always felt like an intruder to everyone involved on WGN. Hawk Harrelson pretty much treated it as such. Not so much anymore, of course. There was an air of legitimacy that being on WGN gave the Hawks instantly. It was like they were fully part of the Chicago sports scene, not some dark corner where only the true creatures of the night would lurk. It was an invitation to everyone.
If memory serves, the first game on WGN was a home game against Detroit, a bonkers 6-5 shootout loss that was sealed by Marian Hossa making Nikolai HarveyBirdMan look superfluous in net. Yes, Hossa did play for other teams, and if you can believe it that arrogant as fuck slapper into the top shelf sent Hawks fans into a rage back then. On the ice it was an indicator that the Hawks were almost ready to be the heir to the Wings, but also very much not ready. It being on the Chicago Superstation meant the same for their place in Chicago. The latter would change within months.
Anyway, it was exciting to see the Hawks treated in such fashion back then. And we didn’t really mind that WGN didn’t have any clue how to cover a hockey game then. Or that their filters on their cameras were exceptionally dark and made it look like every game was in a garage. It was just so new.
But like a lot of things with how the Hawks are run and covered, once the novelty wore off then the glitches were the only thing you saw. The lack of anything new or effort beyond, “Look what we did!” became harder and harder to ignore from both sides. Mostly, it looked like WGN never really cared to look like it cared about covering the Hawks. Whether it was the vacant stare of Dan Roan or Rich King, having them positioned in some closet in their studios on the northwest side looked decidedly high school AV Club. Of course they were never going to hire their own analyst/expert, so Steven Konroyd would just stroll on over and provide the most listless, uncomfortable intermission segments known to man. The sets looked like something you would build if you were spoofing sports coverage.
The angles were off at times, the cuts rough, the replays never matching up. It seemed like WGN thought it had been doing Cubs baseball for so long it knew everything, and could apply the same principles. But baseball has no intermission, no postgame show, and the “Leadoff Man” was something the game broadcasters basically handled themselves (or Len Kasper has since he arrived, which is a really long time ago now). And by the end, it felt like both the Hawks and WGN were asking, “What are we doing here?” throughout the broadcast.
It’s only been 10 years, so it’s not like there’s much to hold onto. The Hawks want every game on CSN now, and I can only hope that being even more greatly invested in it as a third-holder instead of a quarter might up the quality. But I doubt it. It still amazes me how much better games look on NESN or MSG than they do on CSN. It’s like CSN forgot to turn a light on. Even after all this time Pat Boyle is still uncomfortable being a host. They’ve tried to do better by rotating in Jamal Mayers, Adam Burish, and Patrick Sharp as intermission and pre- and post-game analysts. But only Sharp has a knack for it, while Burish seems to be auditioning to take over Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em hockey. And the thing is I think there’s an analyst within Burish that could be pretty good. You can keep Mayers around for the clothes.
Still, it’s kind of startling that it only took 10 years for something that at once seemed to fresh and cool to not only lose its luster and become annoying but for everyone to be glad it’s over. I know the cycles of news and emotion and sports have been quickened in the last decade. The Hawks were on top just four years ago and now look at them. It doesn’t take long. It would take longer if either side had tried, though.