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Blackhawks returning hope to Windy City

Wednesday, 12.31.2008 / 10:17 AM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Bob Verdi - Special to NHL.com

This is Chicago, city of big shoulders, according to Carl Sandberg and tiny trophy cases, thanks to local sports teams. It's a tough town with brutal winters and brief summers and extended athletic droughts.
 
The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908, the Blackhawks have not won a Stanley Cup since 1961. No franchise in baseball, no franchise in hockey has waited so long since its last parade. But Chicago has perhaps the most loyal fans on the planet. Some might say loyal is synonymous with forgiving.
 
There is also a mention, in that famous poem by Sandberg about the Windy City, of rebuilding. And these Blackhawks, under new management full of vitality, are not trotting out any five-year plan. That would be much too slow for the fastest game on earth.
 
Only 15 or so months ago, the Blackhawks could not entice people to come in out of the cold, to watch hockey in the warmth of a state-of-the-art United Center. Back in the golden days, when the gates opened at the ancient Chicago Stadium, fans stormed inside to secure standing room only perches. Thousands would be in place, two hours before the puck was to be dropped.
 
Now, after a period of disenchantment, the buzz is back. The Blackhawks lead the NHL in attendance, and the most cherished ticket in memory, maybe ever, is for Thursday’s Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio, XM Radio). Fans lucky enough to gain admission are leaving their living rooms to battle the elements and watch two Original Six teams, the Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs.
 
There have been days and nights recently when the Blackhawks played host to the Red Wings that the crowds at the United Center were liberally adorned by red sweaters of Detroit fans who couldn't get ticket there, so they came here. But not today. This is a Chicago moment, a Blackhawks coming out party. Literally.
 
Chicago loves its buildings, as well as its teams. "The Stadium" is no more, yet Wrigley Field perseveres. It is not so old that it housed the last Cubs' world championship team, but it has touched all bases. There were summers when the Cubs gladly would have counted their attendance figures as the fabled 16,666 that crammed the Stadium on hockey nights. There were days at Wrigley when the entire upper deck here was closed,
for lack of interest.
 
But in the last couple decades, Wrigley Field has become a destination point, packed every day. Seats have been added to the stadium proper, and to rooftops beyond the outfield. Wrigley Field is a monument even in the winter, when there is no ivy.
 
Chicago's North Side is Cubs territory, the South Side is White Sox country. The Blackhawks skate on the West Side, Madison Street, the imaginary dividing line between North and South. The Blackhawks belong to everybody, white collar, blue collar, no collar. At hockey games, you'll see jerseys of all Chicago teams, but especially the Blackhawks. Fans will honor present players, like Kane and Toews, and legends, like Hull and Mikita and Hall and Esposito and Savard.
 
The Stadium staged every form of entertainment imaginable, from concerts to heavyweight fights to political conventions.  That's where FDR first mentioned the words "New Deal." It was also the site of the first NHL afternoon game, against the Red Wings. The Bears played there, as they played at Wrigley Field. Where the Blackhawks skate today, Dick Butkus once chased quarterbacks into hiding. Until 1988, when Wrigley Field discovered electricity, there were only day baseball games. Now, today, there is a day hockey game. A New Year's Day hockey game.

Hockey, part of the Canadian gothic, has always been part of Chicago's bloodstream. One of the greatest pitchers in Cub history, Ferguson Jenkins, was Canadian. Two pitchers in their present rotation, Ryan Dempster and Rich Hardin, are Canadian. They will be watching today, along with both nations, as the Blackhawks rent Wrigley Field from the Cubs, who are upwardly mobile, having finished first in their division two years in a row.
 
The Blackhawks are seeking their first playoff berth since 2002 and they're in a division with their visceral rivals, the Stanley Cup champion Red Wings, but judging by the hockey renaissance here in Chicago, you would have to say the best is yet to come.
 
The Blackhawks, like the Cubs, are asking fans to invest in next year. Wait till next year. Well, this is next year, the first day of next year, and the puck is being dropped near second base, where the other Sandberg, Hall of Famer Ryne, played and who will be hand to watch Thursday’s game. Will Chicago's very own Barack Obama, a White Sox fan, be here? Perhaps not. He's pretty busy. He's headed to another destination point, the White House.
 
Bob Verdi is a long-time sports columnist at the Chicago Tribune. He first covered the Blackhawks as a beat writer during the 1969-70 season — along with two other "rookies" of NHL note, Cliff Koroll and the late Keith Magnuson.