Look around the rink, and notice a sea of red. The Blackhawks are in the building.
Crowds of spectators who surely own closets full of casual, civilian clothes are wearing team sweaters, hats, jackets. These people pay for seats, but often they are seen standing, cheering whenever one of their heroes jumps over the boards, or takes a shot, or delivers a hit. Or even moves. When the Blackhawks score, a roar envelops the arena, followed by high-fives, perhaps even a chorus of "Chelsea Dagger."
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And that's just the road games.
If there is a fan base in North America so fervent or ubiquitous, it can be no better than tied for first with the ladies and gentlemen and children who follow the Blackhawks wherever they go. When Rocky Wirtz took over as chairman of this franchise in 2007, it was assumed that the process of reviving interest in the Blackhawks and retrieving lost generations of fans would be gradual, maybe difficult.
Instead, the sleeping giant of the National Hockey League has risen as hoped, because the Blackhawks are as endemic to this city's winters as shivering and shoveling. Chicago is a vibrant pro football market, yet it did lose a franchise, the Cardinals, to St. Louis. Pro basketball is also huge here, yet twice it failed -- the Packers/Zephyrs left for Baltimore after only two seasons -- until the Bulls gained traction. But the Blackhawks, despite their share of lean years, have been ours, yours, since 1926.
When Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita packed the Stadium during the glory days, the operative theory was that there were only 18,000 hockey fans in Chicago. These Blackhawks have shattered that notion, most definitively when their 2010 Stanley Cup parade attracted a phenomenal crowd estimated at 2 million. When the Stadium and its chummy environs closed, another myth took hold: There would never, ever be a facility as electric as that great old barn, let alone one three times as big, with actual elevators, escalators and luxury suites. But these Blackhawks have conspired to bond with their fans and create a dynamic atmosphere in the United Center.
This shortened regular schedule concluded with 214 consecutive sellouts. Chris Werner, the Blackhawks' vice president of ticket operations and customer relations, says a season ticket waiting list in excess of 12,000 indicates that home games could be played before crowds in excess of 35,000. Moreover, during the lockout, with apathy and disenchantment supposedly in the air (speaking of false urban legends), that waiting list increased by 10 percent.
But it's about more than that, and more than the nearly 90-percent increase in households watching the Blackhawks on TV, or the exponential numbers reflecting what you like to wear these days. Long ago, there was a dress code at the Stadium: jacket and ties for men on the lower level. Now, signs are not required at the UC. It just seems as though everybody has been instructed not to leave the house without that Indian Head on at least one garment.
Various surveys and stories have explored the cultural revolution effected by and affecting the Blackhawks. Forbes Magazine hailed their stunning sense of purpose as the greatest sports business turnaround ever -- and that declaration was published before the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup since 1961. The Scarborough research firm found that interest in the team was five times higher in 2012 than it was in 2007 -- unprecedented for any professional sports franchise. This year, at a time when the impasse between management and labor threatened to cause disaffection for hockey, Sports Illustrated ran a cover and an article about "The Franchise That Brought Hockey Back." A Wall Street Journal feature chronicled the Blackhawks' record-breaking streak of 24 games from season's start without a regulation defeat.
But scores and highlights are data. What separates this team from any other in memory is the absolute, nonnegotiable connection that has been forged with its fans. Restaurants, pharmacies and haberdasheries throughout Chicagoland post banners, flags and signs that indicate total devotion. Drive to the gas station a mile away, and you will cross cars bearing that distinctive red Blackhawks license plate.
Pat Foley, the popular voice who is marking his 30th season, says he never remembers seeing the team logo blanketing the region as comprehensively as it does now. People are talking, thinking Blackhawks.
Why? The Blackhawks were forced by the most restrictive salary cap in sports to deplete their roster after the dream ride of 2010, were eliminated in the first playoff round of 2011, and again in 2012. Yet, the fever persists, and reasons abound. The Blackhawks play the fastest game in the world with an up-tempo style that is thoroughly entertaining. The product is excellent, and not only in Chicago. Even grizzled experts and purists who frown on certain aspects of the NHL -- say, the shootout to solve ties -- agree that the game is better than ever. The skill level across the board is unparalleled. The athletes are bigger, faster and so talented that the one-dimensional skater is virtually extinct.
Also, in Chicago, the players are quality citizens, and not by accident. They are likable, accessible, generous. The team's management encourages them to become involved in the community, but little coercion is needed. These players appreciate their privileged existences -- Patrick Kane noted recently how opponents often sidle up to him and ask what it's like to perform every night before standing-room-only throngs in the United Center, commenting on what a rush it must be to work in such a progressive environment. On occasion, yes, there is some compensation for a player who signs autographs at a grocery store. But when Jonathan Toews visits a hospital because he cares, there is no appearance fee.
By extension, and again, not by chance, the organization has inspired trust. When Bill Wirtz ran the team, he famously remarked that owners are not supposed to be popular. He was absolutely correct. However, Rocky Wirtz has evolved into a folk hero, and on merit. The team that did not televise home games now televises home practices. And when Wirtz hired John McDonough as president and CEO, an era of angst ceased. McDonough declared that the Blackhawks were out of the grudge business. Hull and Mikita and Tony Esposito were welcomed back as ambassadors, Foley returned to the booth, and even the most skeptical fans realized that this regime would be pledged to modernity, excellence and winning. The slogan "One Goal" does not mean simply making the playoffs.
Every night at the United Center feels like New Year's Eve. The pregame fare is a show in itself, and when Jim Cornelison belts out the national anthem, then points to the Stars and Stripes, this huge building rumbles with excitement and anticipation. To portray Blackhawks players as mercenaries oblivious to this mutual admiration society would be selling them short, because they feed off the noise, the energy. You stand for them, so those seats that used to be empty frequently still are, but they're occupied, all of them, by fans savoring a special era in Chicago hockey history.
And that's just the home games.
Editor's note: As part of an alliance with the Blackhawks, the Daily Herald will offer occasional features by Team Historian Bob Verdi, who writes for the team's website at www.chicagoblackhawks.com.