CHICAGO – Hockey is back in Chicago. It's back in a big way. You could see it at United Center on Saturday as the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks opened training camp with a fan festival and sold-out practice.
You could see it even before you got to United Center. The streets shut down at 8 a.m. Traffic backed up, and fans stood in a long line down West Madison Street, waiting for the gates to open so they could snag good seats.
"I actually had to drive on the wrong side of the road to get past everybody, just so I wasn't late," winger Jack Skille(notes) said. "I think I yelled to somebody, 'Hey, can I get by? I need to get to practice.' "
Outside, there was a three-on-three street hockey tournament, a 10K inline skate, a 5K run. A cover band played. Inside, with the lights dim and the music dramatic, the Cup sat upon a pedestal at center ice. Highlights of last season's Cup victory and the summer with Stanley played on the scoreboard screens.
The Blackhawks announced they had sold more than 18,000 tickets at $5 a pop. Not that many fans actually showed up, but the building was at least half full. The fans roared for the national anthem, watched the champs work and listened to coach Joel Quenneville, who wore a mic.
"It's crazy to think that many fans want to come out and watch a practice or Coach Q skate around with a microphone and hear what he's got to say," winger Patrick Kane(notes) said. "I think it's amazing. It shows how crazy the fans are here, how Blackhawk-crazy the fans are here in Chicago."
It shows how far this franchise has come. Just a few years ago, the Blackhawks couldn't sell out their games . There was no positive energy, if any energy at all. The 'Hawks had an Original Six history in a world-class city, but it didn't matter because the product and the marketing were so poor. Rock bottom came in 2003-04, right before the season-long NHL lockout, with a 20-win, 59-point season.
But then came Rocky Wirtz, who succeeded his late father, Bill, as chairman. He hired a president who knew something about marketing a perennial loser, luring John McDonough from the Chicago Cubs. The 'Hawks put home games on television. They reconnected with past greats Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito, while developing future greats such as Kane, Jonathan Toews(notes) and Duncan Keith(notes).
The Blackhawks started winning again, season-ticket sales surged from 3,400 to more than 14,000 and, finally, the NHL's longest Cup drought ended at 49 years. Now look: Generations of Chicagoans feel comfortable committing their hearts to hockey again. They dare to dream again.
Don Ciochon, 53, stuck his head into a life-size cutout of a 'Hawk hoisting the Cup at the fan festival. His son, Don, 23, snapped a picture. Ciochon taught his sons – Don and James – to love the team, as his father, Bruno, had taught him. But when players like Ed Belfour and Jeremy Roenick(notes) left, he left with them. His sons brought him back a couple of years ago.
"Mr. Wirtz was right. He said he had his 16,000 loyal ticket holders," Ciochon said. "But there was a bunch of us that were just kind of wandering in the dark, looking for a reason to come back. Here it is."
Now how do the 'Hawks keep it going?
Repeating will be much easier said than done. "Eight Men Out" used to refer to the Black Sox. Now it refers to the Blackhawks. Eight players who dressed for Game 6 of the final against the Philadelphia Flyers no longer are with the team: forwards Dustin Byfuglien(notes), Ben Eager(notes), Andrew Ladd(notes), John Madden(notes) and Kris Versteeg(notes), plus defenseman Brent Sopel(notes) and goaltenders Antti Niemi(notes) and Cristobal Huet(notes).
Add forwards Adam Burish(notes) and Colin Fraser(notes), and the list of departures balloons to 10 – half a lineup. There has been no more extreme example of the constraints of the salary cap. At least the Blackhawks won the Cup before general manager Stan Bowman started his inevitable dismantling. Can you imagine how dispiriting it would have been coming off a loss?
But this is life in a cap world. You try to build a strong core and keep it intact, while constantly rotating and refreshing your role players.
The Blackhawks' core is locked up. Center Patrick Sharp(notes) is signed for the next two years. Toews, Kane and fellow forwards Dave Bolland(notes) and Marian Hossa(notes) all are signed for the next four years. Keith and fellow defensemen Brian Campbell(notes) and Nicklas Hjalmarsson all are signed for the next four years, too. Bowman would like to sign defenseman Brent Seabrook(notes) to an extension before his last year runs out.
The question is the newcomers. You can try to peg them as replacements on a one-to-one basis, but it's unfair and impossible. Everyone is different, and so, then, is the entire dynamic.
Winger Viktor Stalberg(notes) might bring some of Ladd's size and Versteeg's skill, but it's a unique package. Fernando Pisani(notes) is a checker like Madden, but he's a winger, not a center. Skille could be a colorful guy in the dressing room like Burish, but there is only one Burish. At 6-8, 258 pounds, defenseman John Scott(notes) might be big, but is he Buff?
"It was funny," said Scott, who is known as an enforcer, not a big-game goal-scorer. "I was skating with Buff this summer, and I was talking about that. I was telling him, 'They're saying I'm going to be the next Byfuglien.' He said, 'Well, that's good for you. You only have to get in one fight this year.'
"I can't replace him. I bring my own set of talents. He's a hard guy to duplicate, so I'm just going to do my best to do what I do."
Even Marty Turco(notes) for Niemi in net isn't a straight-up trade, because Turco brings his own set of talents, too. He moves the puck better than any other goaltender, which changes how the guys in front of him might play.
In composite, guys such as Scott and Skille and forwards Ryan Bickell and Jake Dowell(notes) have to replace the abrasiveness the 'Hawks lost. But individually, the newcomers must establish their own identities on the ice and in the dressing room.
"One of the reasons we succeeded last year was, as the year went on, everybody kind of fit in," Bowman said. "They knew exactly what they had to do. For the most part, the players that are coming back, they know their roles, but some of those might change a little bit if they're playing on different lines. Some of the younger players coming in are just going to have to find their niche with our group here."
The Blackhawks must overcome that and the usual obstacles champions face – satisfaction, distraction, drawing the opponents' best game every night. No one has repeated in the NHL in more than a decade, and the last two teams to do it were missions brought about by tragedies.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won a second straight Cup in 1992 after the death of coach Bob Johnson. The Detroit Red Wings won a second straight Cup in '98 after a limousine accident crippled defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and team masseuse Sergei Mnatsakanov.
The 'Hawks, thankfully, have nothing like that to motivate them. But the newcomers do have their own missions. Turco, still seeking his first Cup at age 35, said he was jealous of his teammates' celebrations. Scott said he was annoyed by all the Cup talk
"I'm like, 'I wasn't on the team,' " Scott said. "I don't like it. I want to be a part of it."
The 'Hawks also have a secret weapon: Scotty Bowman. Stan's father is senior advisor to hockey operations. He knows a little something about repeating, having coached both those '92 Pens and '98 Wings.
"I've talked to my dad a lot about that, and I know my dad's got a good relationship with Joel," Stan Bowman said. "They talk fairly regularly about hockey matters. I'm sure that topic has come up. … There's no comparison to somebody who's been through the situation. I'm sure that as the year goes on we'll be able to tap into that."
The Blackhawks began looking forward before they had even finished their champagne last season. In the dressing room after the Cup victory, McDonough said: "Today, I'm satisfied. Tomorrow, I will not be."
"That's the mentality," said Troy Murray, who played for the 'Hawks and is now their radio color analyst. "Where do we go from here? Maybe they've taken it to the next level every year, but they don't want to stop on this. They want to build on this."
How do you increase sales when the building is already sold out every game and merchandise is flying off the shelves? You sell out a practice and, well, sell even more merchandise. How do you climb higher when you've already reached the top of the mountain? You win another Cup.
The bar, once so low, now is almost impossibly high. It's hard enough to win the Cup once, and it's harder than ever to win it back-to-back because of the salary cap, as the 'Hawks already are finding out. Some of the fans we saw Saturday might jump off the bandwagon as soon as the Stanley shine wears off.
"Thirty teams, one champion. It's a tough task. It's a lot to ask," Blackhawks great Denis Savard said. "But expectations are high here. That's one of the key things that John has done, the expectations, they went way up."
But that's the key in and of itself. Here's the secret: It's not really about reaching the goal every year. It's about making the goal reachable every year and – when you have health, puck luck and the right mix – taking advantage. With Toews, Kane, Keith and company, the Blackhawks have the potential to contend for a long time and keep fans coming to United Center to see what will happen next.
The Cup helped bring hockey back in Chicago. Competing for the Cup year in and year out is what will keep it here.