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Passion for Blackhawks still burns

CHICAGO – Harvey Wittenberg tried to coax an opinion out of coaching legend Scotty Bowman, the NHL’s all-time wins leader and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Come on, Scotty. Name your all-time favorite player of any team and any time period.

“I tried to pin him down, but he defined it the way it should be defined,” Wittenberg said. “He said, ‘You have go by decades. Because the game has changed so much.’ ”

Few have followed the game for as many decades as Bowman.

Wittenberg is one of the select few.

At 76 years old, Wittenberg is more than three times the age of Blackhawks superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

Like them, Wittenberg joined the organization as a young man with a willingness to work hard and a passion for the game.

This is Wittenberg’s 53rd season with the franchise.

Think about that for a moment.

In a season filled with eye-popping numbers, Wittenberg’s year No. 53 might be the most impressive. Many employees don’t last five years with a company, let alone five decades.

These days, Wittenberg works as the team’s press-box announcer and online contributor. He also helps with postgame interviews for the media relations department.

It’s not so different than his first job with the team in 1960, when he was hired to call games on the radio alongside Johnny Gottselig. His current position followed his longtime role as the stadium’s public-address announcer from 1961 to 2002.

Wittenberg arrives to the United Center in a suit and tie almost two hours before every game. From his vantage point near the stadium’s rafters, he watches intently from the opening faceoff until the final horn, logging every scoring play and penalty.

There is no such thing as a long day at the office.

“It’s a job that I do get compensated for, but it’s a job I love,” said Wittenberg, who also works as an account manager for WDRV-FM. “I mean, I’d go there for nothing. To me, it’s the most exciting spectator sport there is.”

As always, he appreciates a good hockey story.

Wittenberg gathered dozens of Hawks insights in a book titled “Tales From The Chicago Blackhawks Locker Room: A Collection of the Greatest Blackhawks Stories Ever Told.” He first published the book in 2003 and updated and revised it a year ago.

The Hawks’ locker room has been filled with strong leaders and fun-loving pranksters throughout the decades, and Wittenberg has met many of both.

“The captain of the team sets the tone,” Wittenberg said. “Dirk Graham was a very similar personality to Jonathan Toews. Keith Magnuson was, too. They were very business like.”

Discussing the Hawks is nothing new to Wittenberg, who attended his first game in 1946 as a 10-year-old living on the city’s West Side. His father took him to a playoff game between the Hawks and the Montreal Canadiens, and he was hooked.

As a teenager, Wittenberg would hop on the streetcar heading east on Madison Street and hop off at the stadium. Every game was different, but the intensity was the same.

Goalies didn’t wear masks. Wins were more precious than teeth. Every bruise and scratch carried purpose, which was to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup at the end of the season.

Back then, Wittenberg never could have imagined that he would earn a Stanley Cup ring some day.

It happened in 2010.

Kane’s game-winner against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final marked the franchise’s first championship in 49 years. Everyone in the organization celebrated, not only the sweat-soaked players on the ice, and the Hawks thanked many longtime employees by distributing Stanley Cup rings appraised at $30,000 apiece.

Wittenberg was surprised and honored to receive a ring, which weighs a pound and a half.

If the Hawks perform as well in the playoffs as they have during a shortened regular season, a good chance exists that another ring could be on the way.

“The chemistry has to work,” Wittenberg said. “In 2010, I don’t think anybody predicted that the Hawks would win the Stanley Cup.

“But they came together at the right time.”

So did Wittenberg and the Hawks.

• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at tmusick@shawmedia.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.

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