Chicago Blackhawks anthem singer Jim Cornielson still gave it everything he had and the thousands of fans inside United Center cheered the official start of the 2010-11 season with as much noise as they could muster at 10 a.m. on a fall Saturday.
It wasn't exactly like a Stanley Cup Final game, but the third Blackhawks Training Camp Festival was still an impressive sight to see and hear. Scores of fans paid $5 a ticket merely to watch the defending Stanley Cup champions practice for the first time since they skated off with the Cup in Philadelphia in June.
The building wasn't full, as some had anticipated with tickets selling out weeks ago, but there were enough who showed up to make a statement about just how much this city adores its Hawks. Inside there was ice hockey. Outside was a street hockey tournament and 5K run.
All around the Madhouse on Madison, fans flocked to a place that's recently become the center of the Chicago sports universe -- all just to watch a practice. That fact alone left Hawks players of all ages and experience levels stunned.
"That was by far the coolest practice I've ever had in my whole life," said 23-year-old forward Jack Skille, the Hawks' top pick (No.7 overall) in the 2005 Entry Draft. "Usually you've got to manufacture that motivation some days to get in there and practice like that, but today was just easy."
It was -- once he actually got to the arena, that is. Arriving on time was a challenge for some players, who found themselves weaving their cars through crowds of Hawks fans headed to the United Center on foot.
"I actually had to drive on the wrong side of the road to get past everybody, just so I wasn't late," said Skille, who will likely break camp with the Hawks for his first full NHL season. "It was a lifetime experience, and I'll never forget that one."
Neither will new goaltender Marty Turco, who also got caught in heavy foot traffic near the building.
"It's the first time coming to work on a Saturday, and it's smooth sailing until about four blocks from here," Turco said after manning the nets for the red team and getting a win in the first scrimmage of the day. "There were some runners and then just all the red, white and black jerseys out front. But I think it's great that the organization has capitalized on the opportunity to share this with the fans, and then the fans in turn coming out here in droves to just be a part of it."
Turco allowed four goals in two 25-minute, running-time periods. He said there are still things to tighten up before the season starts and would like to get some action in next week's first exhibition games -- but considering his dislike of scrimmages, Saturday went pretty well.
At the very least, having such a charged atmosphere added some juice to what's usually a hard first day back.
"I usually try to avoid scrimmages as much as possible, but I got my fill there early today," Turco said. "It was fun. It's a great environment, of course. I hadn't experienced anything like this before."
Forward Patrick Kane was on the No.1 line of the white team and beat Turco with a pretty breakaway backhander during the scrimmage, but Turco paid Kane back with a pretty poke check to negate a spin move during a post-scrimmage shootout contest.
"I don't know how crazy (his move) was," Turco deadpanned. "I didn't let him finish it. He's had enough fun in the last two and a half months."
So, apparently, had Hawks captain Jonathan Toews – who continues to thrive on being challenged. "Captain Serious," also took a little extra satisfaction out of winning both scrimmages that his team played after the white team's Patrick Sharp told the crowd during an interview with Eddie Olczyk the goal was to make sure Toews' team lost the three-team tournament.
"Sharpie comes out saying to Eddie Olczyk that he wants to see us in the consolation game, and now they might be the first team to get bounced," Toews said, smirking. "It's fun and we get competitive with it."
Fans were allowed into the building at 8 a.m., while streets around United Center were closed for the street hockey tournaments and the 5K run. There was a scrimmage between teams from Robert Morris College before the Hawks took the ice and also a 30-minute window of time when the Stanley Cup was displayed on a stand at center ice – a spotlight making the silver chalice shimmer.
There were bench interviews with familiar fan favorites before and during the scrimmages, video montages about the Hawks "Summer with Stanley," and coach Joel Quenneville even wore a microphone as he put players through the paces in drills.
It was a much different flavor of training camp start than most players are used to -- but one they knew was special just by looking into the stands.
"That's what makes being part of this organization so special now," said Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Duncan Keith. "Not only is it such a great city, but the support we get from the city and our fans especially, who come in for something like this and fill a building … I don't think too many teams can say that."