On January 23, 1966, a 19-year-old kid bought a standing-room ticket to watch the Blackhawks play the Canadiens to a 3--3 tie at Chicago Stadium, an experience so electrifying that he attended the next home game, and the one after that, and every home game for the rest of the season, come hell or high sticking.
Bob Gertenrich, now 66, never married or learned to drive a car, and has trouble walking because of his rheumatoid arthritis. But there he stood on a salted sidewalk outside Gate 7 at the United Center last Friday night, retired from the restaurant business, waiting for the doors to open on his 2,125th consecutive Blackhawks game. The Sharks were in town, it was 26¬∫, and Gertenrich shivered in the satin team jacket he bought in 1983 for $25 and recently had rezippered for $27.
The Hawks had a streak of their own going: 16 consecutive games to start the season without a regulation loss, tying an NHL record. But that remained the building's second most impressive milestone to Gertenrich's 47 years and one month without missing a Chicago game—exhibition, regular season or playoffs. Gertenrich's run includes the night in 1991 that his dear mother, Barbara, skated off this mortal coil. "She died at two in the morning," he says. "What was I supposed to do that night?" The Hawks lost to the Devils 4--2.
Gertenrich went the day in 1996 that he broke his wrist and was fitted with a cast from hand to armpit (Hawks 2, Canadiens 0). He went in the Great Blizzard of '78, when only a few hundred others made it to the Stadium (Hawks 5, Cleveland Barons 0).
The Barons came and went, arenas fell and rose, Gertenrich's ticket price increased from $2.50 to $64. The Blackhawks waxed, waned and are gloriously awax again, filling the largest arena in the NHL to 109% of capacity, with 198 straight sellouts and counting, and a season-ticket waiting list of 12,000 names—300 of them added during the lockout that kept the NHL season from starting until January.
A few Blackhawks fans have had their season tickets longer than Gertenrich. Ron Swanson (no, not that Ron Swanson) attended his first Hawks game in 1949 and has been a season-ticket holder since 1960. "But I miss games from time to time," the 75-year-old acknowledged in the thin air of the United Center's third deck, where Gertenrich sits in Section 333, Row 1, Seat 18. The first M in the MADHOUSE ON MADISON sign hangs above him, glowing red like a blood moon.
As he watched the Hawks and Sharks warm up to devil music, Gertenrich shouted, "At the Stadium [which closed in 1994], Al Melgard would play 'Somewhere My Love' from Dr. Zhivago on the pipe organ. Now it's like sitting front-row at a Led Zeppelin concert."
He has seen it all, from the helmetless grandeur of the 1960s and '70s—fans rained abuse on referee John Ashley and "he just skated around with his hands behind his back like it was Central Park"—to some two-fisted opera bouffe in the stands in the aughts: "December 23, 2005, against Detroit, two old guys—their hair was as white as your cleanest pair of socks—start duking it out ..."
He can still see Atlanta Flames coach Boom-Boom Geoffrion being hit on the arm with a beer bottle after his team was awarded a dodgy game-winner. (A Hawks coach would later tell Gertenrich, "I don't know what he was complaining about? He got the call.") On the ticket stub for that night—he has saved them all, each season bound by a rubber band, an autobiography in tiny cardboard chapters—Gertenrich wrote: NEAR RIOT.
The Hawks honored him after his 2,000th game, in 2010, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman left a congratulatory message that is still on Gertenrich's answering machine. His 3,000th game will likely come when he's in his middle 80s. Gertenrich lives alone in suburban Skokie. He used to have birds, finches named Pucky and Stanley and Tony (as in Esposito), but no more: "They're all dead." And so he watched TV alone at home the night in 2010 that the Blackhawks, for the first time during his streak, hoisted the Stanley Cup. It was in Philadelphia, a small injustice Gertenrich hopes to see rectified this June. Until then (and beyond), he'll continue to commute to his second home—usually chauffeured by fellow fans, occasionally by public transport—for a series of dysfunctional family reunions of 21,572.
The Hawks took down the Sharks 2--1, the winning goal coming when Brandon Saad, on to help kill off a penalty, snuck in a wrister early in the third period. That made it 17 straight games with a point to start the season, an NHL record. Gertenrich and his adopted family members all sang "Chelsea Dagger" by The Fratellis, the Hawks' latter-day victory benediction, the roof rattling like the lid of a pasta pot at high boil. "I've never seen the same game twice," Gertenrich said. "Game-winner on a shorthanded goal? One of the best nights of my sixty-six years."
Do you know an ironman like Blackhawks diehard Bob Gertenrich?
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