Wayne Gretzky, hockey’s marquee player, was adamant. The annual National Hockey League All-Star Game, scheduled for Jan. 19, 1991, at Chicago Stadium, should be canceled. Only two days before, President George H.W. Bush declared “Operation Desert Storm” to liberate Kuwait, which had been invaded by Iraq under the reign of Saddam Hussein. The world suddenly was on fire, the atmosphere tense, and The Great One did not stand alone in his opinion that the sports industry should go dark for a spell out of respect to men and women serving in the Gulf War.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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But the games went on in America. The NFL announced that conference championships would be played Sunday; the NCAA concurred and so did NHL President John Ziegler, who said upon arriving in Chicago, “the United States government has had a policy going back to World War II that our citizens should carry on, and professional sports should carry on. We take our guidance from the president of the United States and the prime minister of Canada. Up to now, there has been no indication that these policies should not continue.”
As Ziegler spoke, Keith Magnuson, a former Blackhawks defenseman, was conducting a Thursday afternoon “Legends on Ice” clinic for youngsters at the Daley Plaza rink—one of several events to celebrate All-Star weekend. On Friday night, the Stadium staged a Heroes of Hockey exhibition. The Blackhawk Alumni, featuring Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, beat retired stars from other NHL teams, 3-1. Standing ovations from a crowd of 18,472 were plentiful, for heroes of yore and the anthems—“O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There was more to come, much more.
On Saturday, NBC was ready to roll out its national coverage at noon with nine cameras in place and broadcasters Marv Albert and John Davidson in the booth. Naturally, an overriding caveat existed—the network would cut away from the game for any breaking developments from the battlefront. But what unfolded in the old barn on West Madison Street became news in and of itself—to such an extent that Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the coalition forces, was sent a tape of the 1991 All-Star Game to show to his troops. Which he did, with pride, often.
Fans brought sparklers, waved American and Canadian flags and painted their faces in patriotism. They carried on. Did they ever carry on.
“I was standing next to Mark Messier during the anthems,” Gretzky would recall later. “I said to him, ‘this is unbelievable.’ I’ve heard it as loud here before when we came into Chicago with the Edmonton Oilers. But never as emotional. The flags of both countries, the banners, the vibrations. You could tell that the fans, like us, were thinking of other things.”
Gretzky, then with the Los Angeles Kings, was hockey’s foremost ambassador, and all he meant to convey by urging the game not be played was the obvious: that real life mattered more than goals and assists. What he didn’t know when he spoke from the heart was that he would have a building full of company. And somehow, because everybody cared about issues well above and beyond the final score, it all worked.
For the record, the Campbell Conference pounded the Wales Conference, 11-5, in a typical All-Star no-hitter. Vincent Damphousse of the dreadful Toronto Maple Leafs collected four goals and won most valuable player honors, snatching the award by scoring three times within the last 12 minutes from Blackhawk Jeremy Roenick, who tallied once and assisted twice. Loyal customers were still vexed that Chicago’s own Ed Belfour did not make the Campbell squad; he sat in the stands wearing a baseball cap as camouflage that didn’t work, carrying his young son, Dayn, in a blanket. Meanwhile, Calgary’s Mike Vernon and Edmonton’s Bill Ranford split netminding chores for the “home” team, although they heard a few sarcastic hymns from Belfour backers.
DID YOU KNOW...?
The Blackhawks hosted the NHL All-Star Game four times at the Chicago Stadium: 1948, 1961, 1974 and 1991.
Blackhawks supporters saluted their guys: Roenick, Chris Chelios, who started on defense, and Steve Larmer. There was another roar, too, when Denis Savard stepped onto the ice from the Wales locker room. Savard, traded to the Montreal Canadiens for Chelios the previous summer, was a late addition when teammate Brian Skrudland fractured his foot. Savard led the Canadiens in points at the All-Star break but said he didn’t deserve to be in Chicago. The crowd thought otherwise, as did Bill Wirtz, the Blackhawks’ president, who loved Savard and openly campaigned for his inclusion on the Wales roster. Weeks before the game, Wirtz volunteered that he wanted Savard back in the Stadium he helped fill during the 1980s.
“I remember hearing that,” said Savard, a Hall of Famer who now is one of the Blackhawks’ four ambassadors. “I also remember being sick as a dog. I had lost eight or 10 pounds in the previous 10 days, and if it hadn’t have been for Chicago, I wouldn’t have gone. I would have stayed in Montreal and rested. As it was, I hardly played at all. A few shifts and I was gone. I was supposed to fly out the next day. Instead I wound up in a hotel for three days because I was feeling so bad. But going back to the Stadium for that game, and the way I was treated by the fans, I’ll never forget it.”
After the game, Gretzky was shaking his head.
“What noise,” he said. “I still feel the same as I did before. It doesn’t seem right that we’re here having a good time while soldiers are risking their lives in the Persian Gulf. Between periods we came down to the locker room to watch the news updates. But there was such a mood in that rink, it was good for hockey. It was a good show, period. I love this building. The best in the league to visit. Today was just unreal. The bedsheets, the spirit, the moment of silence before the game. The only
moment of silence. I’m Canadian, but like I was saying to Messier on the blue line, these Americans really know how to rally behind a cause.”
That was 20 years ago this January, and minutes after the 42nd NHL All-Star Game. As Gretzky mused about an afternoon he would not soon forget, he glanced at the TV set in the Blackhawks quarters. NBC had switched from the pond to the Pentagon.