The thread that binds the Chicago Wolves hockey team, the host of TV's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and thousands of suburban elementary school kids is a brightly colored rubber band.
Actually, millions and millions of rubber bands, sold as part of Rainbow Loom, the 2014 Toy of the Year that teaches kids how to weave bracelets, figures and works of art.
The four young girls setting up shop around the table at the twice-a-month Rainbow Loom classes at the Learning Express toy store in Naperville diligently wrap rubber bands around the pegs on their looms to make colorful monkeys.
"I enjoy it, too," admits 30-year-old Ashley Humberstone of Lombard, the manager of Learning Express and teacher of the latest in Rainbow Loom art. "I learned how to do this by watching a lot of YouTube videos."
Steve Zdunek, the store owner and Humberstone's father, learned about Rainbow Loom from another Learning Express store in Georgia. He started selling the kits at his Naperville store in October of 2012 before most local kids had heard of Rainbow Loom.
"Through that Christmas, it picked up a little bit. The word spread," Zdunek remembers. "In May of 2013, it exploded. We'd sell everything we could get."
Parents would cruise the parking lot waiting for shipments to arrive.
"The frenzy has died down, but it's still a top seller," Zdunek says. "It's just a nice, good craft."
Malaysian immigrant Choon Ng, a mechanical engineer working on crash testing for Nissan, invented Rainbow Loom in 2010 as a way to join his two daughters in making bracelets out of rubber bands. Ng will be the headliner at Sunday's Rainbow Loom Expo sponsored by the Chicago Wolves.
Expert loomers, demonstrations and the rubber-band "Suit of the Loom" worn by Jimmy Kimmel and auctioned off for charity will be on display at some of the 25 Rainbow Loom booths at the Allstate Arena. The expo runs from noon until the 3 p.m. game time, and admission is free with the purchase of a game ticket. Visit chicagowolves.com for details.
Sporting a bracelet featuring a charm of the Wolves' mascot Skates, which will be given to the first 2,500 kids at Sunday's game, Zdunek says that one of the nice things about Rainbow Loom is that about a third of his sales are to boys, who use the loom to make bracelets in the colors of their school sports teams or favorite professional teams.
As their daughters loom, moms Valerie Cuasay of Naperville, Melissa Wloch of Romeoville, and Janine Patterson and JoLynn Mitchell of Aurora recall childhoods of weaving strings into friendship bracelets or using combinations of safety pins and beads to craft pins in the 1980s. But they did nothing as extensive as Rainbow Loom, which sells for $14.99 and includes the plastic loom with pegs, a hook, instructions for 24 bracelets and 600 rubber bands in bright colors.
Similar to the Loop 'n Loom kits that taught a generation of kids how to weave potholders, the Rainbow Loom should have lasting power, Zdunek says. The creativity required makes Rainbow Loom different from the Silly Bandz craze of 2011.
Those cheap, colorful Silly Bandz rubber bracelets came in pre-made shapes and became a hot collectible that spring, Zdunek remembers. "When school ended in May, the fad stopped," Zdunek says. "It was like they turned off the switch."
As a reward for a good report card, 8-year-old Hailey Mitchell came to Learning Express in June. "She got a Rainbow Loom and that was the rest of her summer," her mom says. "I like that it gives her a chance to be creative."
Hailey says her favorite creation is "the heart charm I made for Valentine's Day." Setting up a booth alongside adults at her school's fun fair, Hailey made $30 in two hours selling her bracelet creations at 50 cents a pop.
Having moved to Aurora from Albuquerque, 11-year-old Ellery Patterson picked up Rainbow Loom from her new classmates at recess, and "now I have rubber bands all over the place," her mom says.
"I like to be with my friends," Ellery says, explaining how they all loom together and share ideas.
Kaeli Wloch, 10, not only made an intricate panda, she accessorized it with a tiny backpack.
"It's just cool," says Eleanor Cuasay, who not only works hours on her projects but crafts bracelets for her older sister's high school friends.
"We joke that she's a little sweatshop," Valerie Cuasay of Naperville says of her 8-year-old daughter. "But it's nice to get away from the iPads and the smartphones and everything."