Last December, Gladys Wheeler was preparing to retire as president of the most venerable fan club attached to a National Hockey League franchise. Then, out of nowhere, her phone rang. It was the Blackhawks, and they wanted to know if the Blackhawk Standbys would consider becoming part of the family.
Not only did Gladys Wheeler delay her plans for rest and relaxation. She is working with the team that has been part of her life, and she’s glad to do so. On game nights, she can found around the Standbys booth at section 118 of the United Center. That is, unless she’s mingling with spectators in the stands, conducting surveys.
“This one is about food,” Wheeler said, prior to last Tuesday night’s contest against the Phoenix Coyotes. “The organization is seeing whether people who come here are satisfied with the food service. I’ve been following the Blackhawks for a long time, and I don’t think they ever had surveys about fan satisfaction, if you know what I mean.
“But that’s part of what makes this new association great for us. If the team had decided to form its own fan club, we’d have been in the water. It was good of them to recognize that the Standbys have been in existence since 1944, through thick and thin, and that they like the idea of being associated with us. We’re now the Blackhawks Standbys, instead of Blackhawk Standbys. And our logo is the same as theirs, the face on the jersey, instead of the crossbows on the sleeve we used to have and was designed, I believe, by the wife of (former captain and coach) Dick Irvin way back when. Plus, there are a few other changes.”
Indeed, since the partnership was announced, membership has increased exponentially—from about 60 to well over 200, and counting. The Standbys will hold meetings in the United Center, management will supply T-shirts and pins, and the fan club will be provided a prominent position during the Blackhawks’ wildly successful summer Convention.
“The Standbys have been loyal to this team for years and years,” said Dave Knickerbocker, the Blackhawks’ senior executive director of marketing and business development. “We’re delighted to have them become part of what were doing here, while also remaining an independent entity.”
Back in the day, the Standbys were visible and plentiful. Their banner hung below the west side press box in the Stadium, their annual banquet was a must-attend social event featuring all active players, and trips to road games were frequent. The Standbys were so popular they had to monitor their numbers. They even had a waiting list at one point, but as Wheeler rued, when the team recently endured lean seasons, interest also waned.
“We used to go just about everywhere,” said Elaine Uhrik, the most senior Standby. She joined in 1952, moved to Las Vegas 13 years ago, but continued to write the club’s monthly newsletter. “To Toronto, we took a train, maybe 200 of us, and had our own cars on it, including a bar car. We took two planes to Atlanta once, one from Midway and another from O’Hare, and when we got there, there was 10 inches of snow. To St. Louis or Minnesota or Detroit, we would pile on busses.
“The Rangers fan club thought they were the longest-running, but they started in 1945. We beat them by a year. After the Hawks won the Cup in 1961, our membership went up to 300 or so. That’s when we closed it off. We wanted people who knew each other. Bill Wirtz was terrific to us. He required the players to attend our banquet—the union doesn’t allow that anymore—and they were happy to go. We treated them with respect. A player at each table. No photographs, no autographs.
“If someone brought a camera to the dinner, we checked it at the door. We did that after one of our banquets when Bobby Hull was trying to eat his meal, and there was a line of people behind him wanting him to sign something. In the Stadium, we were scattered around. A lot of us started in the first balcony, but then we started getting older. There were no elevators or escalators at the old place, so most of us relocated to the mezzanine.”
Uhrik plans to attend the 40th annual convention of NHL fan clubs this August in Pittsburgh. She’s never missed one of those. The gathering rotates among league cities. Wheeler recalls one summer when it was in Chicago. She thought it would be novel to take visitors on a tour of the Stadium, but imagined it might not be possible. Then she contacted Wirtz, who not only opened the building but brought in Nancy Faust to play the organ. Now, Knickerbocker and the front office have designated broadcasters Troy Murray and Eddie Olczyk as honorary co-chairmen of the Standbys.
“We’re thrilled,” Wheeler said. “My dad, Jim, was a hockey nut. I went with him before there was glass above the boards. There was chicken wire. Then my husband and I had front row tickets. After he died, I kept them for a couple years. But the team wasn’t very good, and I couldn’t get anybody to go with me. Those beautiful seats, I couldn’t give them away. Finally, I had to let go of them. Oh, how I wish I had them now for this group of players.
“But, when I’m not at the booth or taking surveys, I get to see some of the game now. Plus, the Blackhawks are going to have us come in to watch a practice and then they’re going to give us a members-only skate at the United Center. That will be super, although I don’t know if I should try that at my age. I’m still planning to retire in 2011. I’ve been president off and on for 20 years. But that day we have our skate for the Standbys…maybe I’ll just bring a sled instead.”