CHICAGO – Greg Burks is a big fan of the Blackhawks. He comes to almost every game.
Yet he misses almost every goal.
“It’s the age-old thing that vendors will tell you,” Burks, 34, said with a smile Monday before the Hawks hosted the Edmonton Oilers. “We hear the roar of the crowd and we turn around, and if we’re lucky, we get to see the replay.”
These are good days to sell cold beer for the hottest team in sports.
The Hawks extended their season-opening point streak to 19 games Monday with a thrilling comeback against the Oilers to win, 3-2, in overtime. The Hawks improved to 16-0-3, which is the greatest start in NHL history, as you probably have heard six dozen times by now.
After every win, reporters crowd around Hawks players such as Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. If you ask me, vendors such as Burks are at least as interesting.
By day, Burks coaches girls basketball and track at Hinckley-Big Rock High School. By night, drives to the city and sells beers at games for the Hawks, Bulls, Bears, Cubs and White Sox.
It’s not uncommon for someone to see Burks in street clothes and to give him another look. It’s the kind of look that says, “You look familiar, but I don’t know why.”
Maybe it’s because you bought a beer from him the last time you were at the stadium.
Few, if any, cities are as passionate about their professional sports teams as Chicago.
However, to Burks, the Hawks’ fan base stands out as the best of the best. The team’s terrific start has put everyone in a good mood, but it’s not the only reason fans are spending money.
Even if the team were .500, Burks said, sales would be good and tips would be generous.
“Blackhawks fans are second to none in this city,” Burks said. “And that’s not to short Bears fans, Cubs fans, Sox fans, Bulls fans. But the Hawks fans are a very loyal breed, shall we say.”
Loyal breed. That’s a good way to put it.
For many years, the barn was mostly empty whenever the Hawks took the ice.
When Burks started selling beer at the United Center in 2005, the Hawks were terrible. Home games weren’t shown on TV. The majority of seats were unoccupied.
The Hawks’ crowd of 21,127 marked the 199th consecutive sellout for the franchise.
“It’s unbelievable the transformation the franchise has made,” Burks said. “I remember selling to 8,000 people. You were happy on a night when the place was half-full. And now, you’re working every night to a standing-room-only crowd that’s really into the game.”
It’s a fine line, though.
Sometimes, Hawks fans are so into the game that they don’t buy as many beers.
“It’s kind of funny,” Burks said. “I’d say some of the toughest sales we had was the year they won the Stanley Cup, [during] the Stanley Cup Final, because everybody was so enthralled with the game that they didn’t want you in their way in the seats.
“But any time there’s more people on a nightly basis and more regular fans in the stadium, that benefits people like us that are working behind the scenes.”
Clearly, sales are good. Burks won’t say exactly how good.
“A good vendor will never disclose that information,” he said with a wink.
Almost an hour before the opening faceoff, Burks lifted a black strap around his shoulders and carried a case of 24 beers – 18 Bud Lights and six Budweisers – to the concourse behind Section 324. For $7.50 apiece, he poured 16-ounce beers into clear plastic cups.
Robin Hachmeister of Carol Stream stopped to buy a Budweiser on his way to his seat.
I wondered whether Hachmeister was more likely to buy a beer from Burks because the Hawks were playing so well. He and his buddy laughed and shook their heads.
“We always buy beers,” Hachmeister said. “It makes no difference to us.”
Hey, when in Rome. Or, I guess in this case, when in Rink.
At this rate, a deep playoff run is likely for the Hawks. That would mean more games at the United Center, which is especially helpful to workers such as Burks who lost out on income during the recent NHL lockout.
Burks thinks that the Hawks can chase another Stanley Cup title. But so much hinges on good health, and luck plays a factor, so there’s really no telling how the season will end.
“We’ve got our fingers crossed that they can make a long run,” Burks said. “There’s no question they have the talent to do that. But the other things we’ll just hope fall into place.”
If so, Burks will be here, rooting on the Hawks.
Hopefully, he’ll turn around in time to see the replays.