CHICAGO — It wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t that long ago when the Chicago Blackhawks were bad and the United Center wasn’t sold out. The players carried business cards with their names on them, and on the back was a website offering free tickets.
“We would just pass them around town, and people would look at them and throw them away,” said winger Patrick Sharp, who joined the ’Hawks in 2005-06, when they finished 28th in a 30-team league. “Now it’s like you can’t even …”
His voice trailed off. He laughed at the memory. Now it’s like you can’t even wade through the waves of fans on the street hours before the home opener.
The limousines pulled up to the corner of Wood and Madison about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. The players stepped out in suits and walked the red carpet like rock stars or movie stars, not just hockey stars. They held out their arms and slapped hands with fans on either side, fans held back by barricades, fans standing on tip-toes, fans craning their necks, fans carrying kids on their shoulders, fans holding up cameras, fans standing on cement posts to get a better look, fans in ’Hawks hats and ’Hawks shirts and ’Hawks jerseys.
The Blackhawks brought hockey back in Chicago when they won the Stanley Cup in 2010. Then they became the class of the NHL by winning the Cup again in 2013, the first two-time champions in the salary-cap era. They are a model franchise, an on-ice success, a marketing machine, everything the league wants to be. As Jonathan Toews walked the gauntlet, Captain Serious was smiling. He had a fat ring on his finger, not a business card in his hand. This was a moment to be treasured, not thrown away.
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This was a banner night for the National Hockey League as a whole. A year ago at this time, we were fretting about the lockout, how long it would last, what damage would be done. Now it’s like you can’t even see an effect.
For all the league’s problems – concussions, say, or fights that end with an enforcer’s face hitting the ice – it entered the season renewed. This time it is starting on time with a full, 82-game schedule. The Phoenix Coyotes, New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers are all under new ownership. There is a new alignment, a new schedule matrix and a new playoff format. The nets are a little shallower, and the goalie pads are a little smaller, and so maybe there will be a little more scoring. The players should be safer thanks to rule changes, like mandatory visors for all incoming players and hybrid icing. There will be six outdoor games, including a Winter Classic with a world-record crowd of more than 110,000, plus the Sochi Olympics.
And nowhere is there more excitement than Chicago, because of what the Blackhawks have accomplished, because of what they could accomplish still. After warmups about 7 p.m., the lights went out, and the stands lit up, tens of thousands of giveaway wristbands twinkling in red and white. The scoreboard screen showed a retrospective of the ’Hawks’ run in 2013, the games, the big goals, those crazy 17 seconds at the end, Bryan Bickell, Dave Bolland, bedlam in Boston.
The fans chanted “Rocky!” for owner Rocky Wirtz, who made major changes after inheriting the team from his father, Bill. They cheered advisor Scotty Bowman and his son Stan, the general manager who won with Dale Tallon’s team, tore apart half of it and rebuilt it as his own. They heard John McDonough, the standard-setting, forward-pushing team president, call the Blackhawks a “humble, hungry group.” They watched defenseman Duncan Keith carry out the Cup and set it on the pedestal at center ice, and they roared as the players were introduced one by one, playoff MVP Patrick Kane second-to-last, the captain as the finale.
Toews picked up the Cup one more time, lifted it over his head one more time, then set it down. Eight youth hockey players appeared wearing Blackhawks sweaters and carrying the banner. The Blackhawks skated over, unrolled it, escorted it to a corner and let it go.
“This might sound weird,” said defenseman Johnny Oduya with a laugh, “but it’s nice to kind of get an ending on it and then start a new year.”
The banner is in the rafters now, alongside the ones from 2010, 1961, 1938 and 1934. There is room for more, though. No team has repeated since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and ’98. But that is the best argument against these ’Hawks – the odds alone, the tightness of the league, the fickleness of the game. There is another argument: The ’Hawks already have done what no one else did before by winning two Cups in the cap era, and if they could do that after rebuilding half the team, why can’t they repeat when they return their core and most of their supporting cast? And even if they don’t repeat, with Toews and Kane and Keith and Sharp, with so many other stars and role players, with some up-and-coming kids, why can’t they win more Cups over the coming years?
Though this season probably won’t go as smoothly as last season, when the Blackhawks went 21-0-3 in their first 24 games and cruised to the NHL’s best record, the ’Hawks are in a Central Division that lost a perennial contender, the Red Wings, and includes only one real potential challenger, the St. Louis Blues. They seem focused. They seem driven.
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After all the ceremony and standing around Tuesday night, when they had every excuse to be satisfied and distracted, the Blackhawks went back and forth with the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin, the league’s reigning MVP. They gave up three power-play goals and faced a 4-3 third-period deficit. Yet they rallied and took a 5-4 lead. Yet they killed a long, late two-man disadvantage, with Corey Crawford making saves and Niklas Hjalmarsson blocking shots. Yet “Chelsea Dagger” played one more time when Marian Hossa was dragged down and awarded an empty-netter. The ’Hawks won, 6-4. The United Center lived up to its billing, the Madhouse on Madison.
“To see the turnaround in the eight years that I’ve been there, it’s been incredible,” Sharp said. “They love the Blackhawks. Everyone seems to be a ’Hawks fan.”
If only they could still find that website with the free tickets.
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