As a blue-collar kid growing up in Chicago, Phil Brooks – now better known to the world as pro wrestler-turned-UFC-figher CM Punk – fell in love with hockey and his hometown Blackhawks.
"I was fortunate enough to have seen a couple games at the old Chicago Stadium," Punk said. "I got to see Denis Savard skate, I got to see Chris Chelios, I got to hear the national anthem there. It was easy to fall in love with hockey then."
However, the 36-year-old wasn't rewarded for that fandom right away. He had to suffer through the franchise's lean years under late owner Bill Wirtz, and although he always appreciated and respected the athletic skill it took to perform at hockey's highest levels, the combination of his burgeoning career in the squared circle (which included multiple world championship titles in the WWE and other wrestling promotions) and the Hawks' woeful decisions on and off the ice made it impossible for him to remain as much of a die-hard fan as he was in his youth. But the organization's resurgence as an NHL powerhouse over the past few years has brought him back in a big way – his Twitter account's image is of Paul Newman in the iconic hockey film Slap Shot – and he sometimes finds it hard to believe how much things have changed for what once was a moribund franchise.
"I'm not afraid to admit it – I lost touch," Punk said.
"It was really hard to be a fan of hockey in Chicago. Blacking out games, some ridiculous ticket prices, trading off star talent, not wanting to spend the money to get anybody to come to Chicago. It was really bizarre, too, because we had this brand new stadium, but you couldn't get any traction. After a while, because I was focused on my career so much, hockey just fell to the wayside. So the resurgence of hockey in Chicago, for me, it really felt like it happened overnight. I was shocked at how quickly it happened."
Punk has made no secret of his affection for the Hawks since he's earned a name for himself in the public arena, wearing Hawks jerseys to the ring for matches. And after Chicago's 2013 Stanley Cup win, friend and veteran NHLer Sheldon Souray came to him with an offer that sounded too good to be true.
"Sheldon got in touch with me and said, 'Hey, I'm going to give your number to a couple of the (Hawks players)', and I thought it was a joke," Punk said. "All of a sudden, I get a text - 'Hey, it's Patrick Sharp'; then another – 'Hey, it's Duncan Keith'. I'm thinking Sheldon's pranking me, so I'm replying, 'Sure, "Patrick Sharp", go f*#$ yourself" ', and I could only imagine Patrick is on the other end of the phone going, 'What's this guy's problem?' But Sharpie invited me out to celebrate their win at Harry Caray's, and I showed up. For the next eight hours, I was hanging with the Hawks, and I got to talk to a lot of them that night. Brandon Bollig and me still stay in touch, and those players, they're just the nicest, most down-to-earth sweethearts. To be able to share that night with them as they celebrated their hard work, I was just like a fly on the wall.
"And Duncan Keith was especially great – he'd disappear for a while and then reappear and say to me, 'You're still here!'," said Punk, who lives his life with a "Straight-Edge" philosophy that doesn't include the use of alcohol or drugs. "It was a wild night. Everybody was amazed I didn't drink and they were completely accepting of it. I could've left that night and got hit by a bus crossing the street, and I would've been like, 'Yeah, that's OK, I've had a good life now, being able to celebrate with the Cup.' I'm forever in their debt for allowing me to share that night with them."
Punk, who left WWE in January of 2014, has yet to engage in his first UFC fight. And there's not a whole lot of hockey fight technique he can use to help himself in his new line of work.
"Proper technique and hockey fighting probably don't go hand-in-hand," Punk said. "I think it's two different animals. If I had a shirt or sweater to grab onto, maybe. The only similarity I see is there's some aspects of Muay Thai clinching when you're getting into a hockey fight. You want to grab the back of somebody's sweater, and tug down on their neck. That's like a Muay Thai plum. Maybe me and Brandon Bollig have traded some secrets, but they're not too extensive."
For much more on Punk's love affair with hockey – including which NHL arena he desperately wants to see a game at this year, which NHL mascot he's engaged in a friendly feud with, and which Hall of Fame goaltender was one of his favorite players as a kid – be sure to pick up THN's upcoming Playoff Preview edition when it hits newsstands in early April. Or have the issue delivered to your door by subscribing.