Blackhawks celebrate rare bond with fans
Usually a championship parade enables a team's fans to celebrate players.
Today's Blackhawks' parade will enable them to celebrate their fans, as they have for most of three seasons now.
In fact, a nice touch would be for players and fans to ride around the Loop together in open-air convertibles.
Seriously, a bond exists between team on the ice and fans in the stands that is rare in professional sports today.
Hawks players routinely went to center ice after victories in the United Center and raised their sticks to salute fans.
Another common practice had a star of the game, in an on-ice interview, thank paying customers for their support.
Patrick Kane put it this way after a playoff victory over the Sharks: "We love you, Chicago! - What a crowd! - You're the reason we're here! - You guys are unbelievable."
The young core of Hawks players seemed to sense way back that they had to help resurrect hockey in Chicago.
Hawks senior vice president of business operations Jay Blunk insists that players took it upon themselves to be goodwill ambassadors without much coaxing from management.
Hockey players long have been considered the most fan-friendly, media-friendly athletes in pro sports.
"This is a different breed of athlete," Blunk says.
Before joining the Hawks, Blunk and club president John McDonough each spent a couple decades with the Cubs.
Baseball players, Blunk says, "are great guys." But he marvels at how hockey players embrace the public.
The Hawks have taken that to a pleasant extreme. Few athletes try harder to accommodate fans than these players have, from the stars down to the spares.
The sports landscape is different these days. Players bounce from team to team to team, so they and the city don't get to know each other.
Yet Hawks players came to realize that their mission was to win fans as well as games.
"We set attendance records and these players are very conscious of that," Blunk says.
The Hawks sign autographs and pose for pictures. On off-days they do radio and TV interviews. They attend charity and community functions.
Refreshingly, all the while the Hawks give the impression they're selling their sport more than themselves.
Blunk tells a story about a Christmas party for season-ticket holders over two days at Navy Pier. Players were asked to consider attending for a couple hours on one of the days - and every Hawk did.
It's difficult to imagine players in town on any other team in any other sport participating like that unless their contracts required it.
"Enough of the guys were on the team in 2007 when the (United Center) was empty," Blunk says. "You can tell these guys appreciate these fans."
Three years ago the Hawks' season-ticket base was around 3,400. Ticket prices were at the low end of the NHL because there was no demand.
Blunk says, "We weren't going to get this thing mainstream in Chicago without the players and the business staff working together."
Now the Hawks sell 14,000 season tickets, due in part to players committing to the Indian and helping build the brand.
Yes, today's parade to celebrate the Stanley Cup also will be an opportunity for players and fans to applaud each other once last time this season.