Stranger things: Blackhawks get set to play bizarre home opener

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith looks forward to Friday's home opener against Detroit, but would much prefer it with fans in the stands.

    Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith looks forward to Friday's home opener against Detroit, but would much prefer it with fans in the stands. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 1/21/2021 5:45 PM

"Detroit sucks! Detroit sucks!"

Tomorrow night -- when the Blackhawks begin the home portion of their schedule against the hated Red Wings -- that chant should echo across the cavernous United Center in all its glory.

 

During warmups. Right after the national anthem. Right after puck drop. And about 20 or 30 more times during the game.

Of course, we all know that's not going to happen. Not with the world still dealing with a pandemic.

"It's too bad that this is the way it is, but obviously the NHL has made these rules and we can't have fans," said veteran defenseman Duncan Keith after Thursday's practice at Fifth Third Arena. "Hopefully, sooner or later we can get back to having fans in the building and a little more of what we're used to because it's a good time of year.

"The start of the season -- especially playing the Red Wings -- it's exciting. It is what it is right now. We just deal with that."

No other opponent inspires such raw emotion and sizzling energy from the UC crowd than Detroit. These Original Six franchises began playing each other in 1926 and have been involved in some of the most epic battles in league history.

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The most recent came during the 2013 postseason when the Hawks stormed back from a 3-1 series deficit and advanced to the conference finals on the strength of Brent Seabrook's overtime goal in Game 7. The veteran D-man picked up a loose puck at center ice, wove his way into the offensive zone and ripped a shot that gave the Hawks a 2-1 victory.

An overjoyed Seabrook was mobbed by his teammates while the United Center went absolutely berserk.

"We just kept fighting and crawling back," Keith said. "To be out there and see that puck go in for Game 7 overtime was a very rewarding feeling for our group."

Keith's memories of Hawks-Red Wings go back to his time at Michigan State, where he played from 2001 to 2003. The future Hall of Famer hasn't forgotten about those days or high-profile Red Wings players from that era. Just an up-and-coming D-man at the time, Keith clearly learned a lot during his time in East Lansing.

"I always watched the defensemen," said Keith, who was drafted by the Hawks in the second round in 2002. "Playing against (Chris) Chelios was pretty surreal. Even in morning skates, getting a glimpse of what they were doing was always pretty cool as a young guy."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

One player who always stood out was Nicklas Lindstrom, who played until he was nearly 42. A seven-time winner of the Norris Trophy for best defenseman, Lindstrom scored a whopping 264 goals in 1,564 games from 1991 to 2012.

"Tried to learn and see everything he was doing out there," Keith said. "(I would take) little mental notes -- whether it was decisions with the puck or just how he handled himself in certain situations throughout the course of a game when there were changes in momentum.

"I feel like he was very good at handling his emotions. That's a huge part of it. I learned a lot from him and the Red Wings, and I'm excited to play them again tomorrow night."

Fans -- watching in living rooms or perhaps in the rare bar/restaurant that's open -- will see two teams trying to climb back to their previous heights.

The Hawks, winners of the 2010, '13 and '15 Stanley Cups, have been outscored 20-9 during an 0-3-1 start. The Red Wings, winners of the 1997, '98, 2002 and '08 Cups, are 2-2-0 after splitting their first two series against Carolina and Columbus.

It will be the first of eight meetings this season, with the second coming Sunday.

Sadly, we won't hear -- or feel -- the emotions from an overflow crowd. But the players are making the most of the situation, thrilled that they're able to renew a rivalry that dates back almost 100 years.

"We're all happy and excited that we're playing in the first place," Patrick Kane said. "Big game for us. It's a situation where we didn't really have the start we wanted to the season, but we have a chance to rebound, get a big win and hopefully build off that.

"I think everyone's excited to get it going on home ice."

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