CHICAGO -- It has been a long, bitter winter here.
The wind, for which this great city is forever associated, has howled off Lake Michigan and often made sub-zero temperatures feel positively arctic. The snow has piled up with unrelenting consistency. One more storm could push the total past 70 inches, making this winter one of the worst in the city's history.
It hasn't been easy on one of America's great sports towns, either.
Chicago's beloved Bears had their season ended by the hated Green Bay Packers in one of the worst ways imaginable when that Discount Double Check guy, Aaron Rodgers, returned from injury to secure a win-or-go-home victory at Soldier Field on a late-game heave.
The Bulls were positioned to challenge the Miami Heat for NBA supremacy, but the team's one transcendent talent, hometown hero Derrick Rose, lost another season to a major knee injury. The Cubs and the White Sox combined to lose more games (195) in 2013 than any of the previous 112 years they've been in the majors together.
In that environment, a franchise once known as the other tenant at the old Chicago Stadium and its replacement, United Center, has offered salvation for a success-starved city.
The Chicago Blackhawks have risen from the depths of the NHL to become one of its premier franchises. After years of playing to small crowds and being an afterthought for much of the city, the Blackhawks have seized Chicago's attention with the arrival of generational players Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, a much more fan-friendly approach to marketing the club and, of course, success.
Chicago celebrated the return of the Stanley Cup in 2010 and again three years later. The city fell in love with the Blackhawks four years ago, and the sport has taken root with new fans across multiple generations since.
The city and its fans will celebrate hockey again later this week when the Blackhawks face the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday in the Coors Light 2014 NHL Stadium Series (8 p.m. ET, NBC) at Soldier Field, home of the Bears.
"It is not a city where for decades every kid grows up playing hockey and they become hockey fans for their whole lives, but it is starting to get like that," Toews said. "When people just talk about sports in general there, now the conversation includes the Blackhawks. It is so deep into the minds of not only hockey fans but sports fans. We're kind of the modern team. They've had the Bulls and the Bears win a lot of championships, but now it is kind of our turn to take over and be that team."
Kane remembers what the beginning of his first NHL season was like. Toews does too. The place now referred to as "The Madhouse on Madison" was a sea of empty seats, with a few banners near the ceiling to remind people of the pockets of success enjoyed by the Blackhawks.
When Toews and Kane arrived in Chicago together at the start of the 2007-08 season, Toews was a World Junior Championship hero and Kane was the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft, but that didn't do much for sports fans here.
"During my first season, I remember going up in the crowd during an exhibition game in a suit with a couple of the other guys in the 100 level and no one noticed us or recognized who we were," Kane said.
The Blackhawks are the last major professional sports team in this country to not allow a portion of their games to be aired on television. The full regular-season home-game schedule at United Center was not televised until 2008-09. At the start of the 2007-08 season, the team had been to the Stanley Cup Playoffs once in the past decade, losing in the first round.
There were young players in place. Defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and forward Patrick Sharp were joined by the high-profile rookie tandem. A big acquisition in the front office helped set in motion a plan for the franchise to capitalize on the eventual success and restore a once-proud fan base.
John McDonough grew up on the North Side of Chicago. He envisioned the parades through downtown, parties that lasted for days, and being part of something that defined this city as a sports town.
It's just he always thought it would happen with the Cubs.
McDonough joined the Cubs in 1984, but shortly after owner Rocky Wirtz assumed control of the Blackhawks when his father passed away, McDonough decided to try something new.
"[Wirtz] is the architect of all this. He asked me to come over and I did because I believed in him and it has proven to be true," said McDonough, who joined the team as president in 2007 and is now also chief executive officer. "I've always believed in dreaming big but also having a plan. I walked into a very enviable situation on the ice. The epicenter of all this is the team. That's what it's all about. … That was in place, but this wasn't a destination. Now, I think this place is one of the destinations for players in the League. A lot has changed from that period."
Some of those changes have been at the micro level. Players are more accessible to fans, making more appearances in the community and participating in aggressive marketing campaigns.
A couple of the evolutionary steps were on a larger scale, though. Wirtz and McDonough ended the long-standing policy of not televising games, and 2008-09 became the first season when all 82 were available.
The Blackhawks did not make the playoffs in the rookie season for Toews and Kane, but that offseason changed everything. Chicago added a couple of marquee free agents, proving Wirtz would back up a commitment to winning with the necessary finances.
McDonough did what he does best. He used his connections and power of persuasion to bring something magical to the Windy City, the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
"That was going to Yankee Stadium. It was supposedly a done deal," McDonough said. "I had a conversation with [NHL Commissioner] Gary [Bettman] and I just said, 'If that falls through, I think I can deliver Wrigley Field.' I didn't know that I could, but I thought I might be able to. I also think [MLB Commissioner] Bud Selig was pretty nice to me, making some calls to Gary. I think when we announced the outdoor game was coming to Wrigley Field and we signed [defenseman] Brian Campbell, the top free agent, and [goaltender] Cristobal Huet, we went from 3,400 season tickets to 14,000 in the course of one offseason.
"That was kind of a launching point. The fans thought there might be something different percolating, but we had to prove it to them."
Prove it the Blackhawks did, reaching the Western Conference Final. The next season, the Stanley Cup returned to Chicago for the first time in 49 years when the Blackhawks defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the 2010 Final.
Salary-cap considerations forced the Blackhawks to say goodbye to several key role players, but the core of the team was intact.
Three years later, the Blackhawks are again defending champions of the NHL, the first franchise to win a championship twice in the salary-cap era. Chicago is tied for the second-best record in the League at the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics and a favorite to play for the Stanley Cup for the third time in five seasons.
A big part of the success is the ethos of the organization. There is an unwillingness to slow down, to marvel at the accomplishments.
Toews, known as "Captain Serious," is the perfect on-ice leader for such a directive.
"It has been cool to be part of that transformation," Toews said. "Part of it is the guys we have competing and succeeding, but the other half is how well our organization is run, from our owner to the management to the coaching staff. It has just been an unbelievable thing to be part of."
McDonough sets a similar tone with the front office. As with the core group of players, there is a continuity and harmony among the staff, from Wirtz to McDonough to general manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville.
"Our thought process is, 'We're not going to take this for granted.' I'm not getting caught up in the swirl of  consecutive sellouts or two Stanley Cups or five playoff teams in a row," McDonough said. "Our approach, both on and off the ice, is we're not entitled to one more fan, one more viewer, one more win; it is just a really hungry, humble swagger to the approach here. I've been with other teams and it can just (snaps his fingers) go away pretty quickly.
"I think some of the trust is back with the fan base. I think the fact that we brought some of the former players back and have that bridge to the past, which I really believed was important to bring Bobby [Hull] and Stan [Mikita] and Tony [Esposito] back. There is a really unique collaboration between hockey and business that we were able to start from scratch. We work together. People always talk about cultural change. There is a very unique culture here. Stan and his assistants and the coaches buy into the culture. We're all going in the same direction."
John Long was sitting on his couch the night of June 25, 2013, watching the Blackhawks play at TD Garden against the Boston Bruins. He has been the manager of Murphy's Bleachers since 1998, and as Game 6 wound down he actually had some work to do.
"I had started looking at how I was going to schedule people to work for the night of Game 7 when they scored those two goals," Long said, referencing the miracle comeback by the Blackhawks, who scored two goals in 17 seconds to turn a 2-1 deficit into a Cup-clinching 3-2 victory. "It made my night a lot easier."
Murphy's Bleachers sits in the shadow of world-famous Wrigley Field, the focal point of Wrigleyville, one of the most heavily trafficked neighborhoods in Chicago.
On a Friday night in January, the temperature sign at a local bank has one digit, and with the wind it feels like below-zero. Baseball season is months away, but the patrons gathered at Murphy's aren't interested in what will happen in April across Sheffield Avenue.
They're interested in what their Blackhawks will do against the Anaheim Ducks, one of the powers in the Western Conference this season.
When Marian Hossa scores a shorthanded goal to put the Blackhawks ahead, the crowd at Murphy's roars, and one of the waitresses walks over to the corner to ring a loud, large bell. When goaltender Corey Crawford stops Ducks star Corey Perry on a great scoring chance, a couple of the patrons imitate Blackhawks' play-by-play man Pat Foley's signature emphasis on, "Big save by Crawford."
Imitating Foley is the modern version of Chicago fans mimicking Harry Caray. Alan Parsons Project's "Sirius" was once the song affiliated most with Chicago sports, but now that honor belongs to "Chelsea Dagger," the song by The Fratellis played at the United Center each time the home team scores. There's even a new mustachioed leader to mimic, Quenneville, much in the same way Bears coach Mike Ditka was the target of impersonators during his heyday.
"There was this crazy new atmosphere for Blackhawks games in 2010 and it became even more electric in 2013," Long said. "[In] June back in the '90s, the bars were all full because of the Bulls, and June is full now because of the Blackhawks. It has really helped us out. Let's face it; the Cubs aren't that great by June. Their season is pretty much over already.
"Come April, when the [NHL regular] season is winding down and the playoffs are about to start, there is a huge uptick. People get here two hours early to make sure they have a table. We ring the bell and we play the national anthem really loud and it gets pretty wild."
After Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland scored to secure the Stanley Cup with that stunning rally in Game 6, the streets of Wrigleyville flooded with people. Like four years before, the neighborhood the Cubs call home became a celebration of hockey and of winning.
Long's bar is one block from Clark Avenue, where most of the mayhem on that night took place. Along the way from Murphy's to Clark is Sports World, a large store near Wrigley Field offering clothing and accessories of the Chicago-area teams.
Blackhawks gear was at the front entrance, with jerseys and T-shirts to commemorate the upcoming Stadium Series game with the Penguins taking prime real estate. One shirt says "Next Stop: Soldier Field" with a map of part of the Chicago Transit Authority L lines behind it.
Turn left onto Clark Avenue and one of the first stores is Clark Street Sports, a popular sporting goods chain in Chicago. This one is a few hundred feet from Wrigley Field, but there is more Blackhawks merchandise than any of the other local teams.
One shirt has Shaw's face on the front, complete with the cut on his face he played through in Game 6 against the Bruins.
"Actually, I have seen them," Shaw said of the shirts. "One fan tweeted one of them at me at one point. He actually sent me a few of them. They are pretty cool, and I guess they've been a pretty big hit. Well, when you have a face like that on a T-shirt, how can it not be a hit?"
Eddie Olczyk grew up in the Chicago area and had two tours of duty with the Blackhawks as a player, beginning and ending his career in his hometown. When he's not working as NBC's top hockey analyst, Olczyk calls Blackhawks games with Foley on Comcast Sports Net Chicago and WGN.
Olczyk has three sons who play hockey, including Tommy Olczyk, the captain at Penn State University. Eddie helps run hockey camps and has seen firsthand the explosion of interest at the youth level.
"The interest has gone from one of, we got spots open for our camps, to now where we say, 'We're sorry, even if we did another 10 [camps], we wouldn't have room for everybody,'" Olczyk said. "It's gone from lots of availability and lots of ice time for anyone who wants it to, you can't find ice and you can't find room in the camps. I think that speaks to the success of the team, not only on the ice, but I think off the ice with the way the team has promoted itself. The surge in youth playing and the enrollment at all levels of boys and girls has been remarkable.
"I've always compared it to this: We live in a fast-food society. We see it. We want it. We want to try it. We want to go there and we want to buy it. People want to be a part of it with hockey in this city. They want to play it. They want to come to the games. It has gone to another level here."
The Blackhawks practice at one of two Johnny's IceHouse locations along Madison Avenue. On a Saturday in January, they take the ice and fans fill the viewing areas on two levels to watch drills.
A men's-league game finished before practice, and a youth team is hanging out in full gear, waiting for its turn as the Blackhawks close out their work.
Fans will cheer for a team and be engaged, but cultivating new fans, ones who want to play the sport as well, is how the Blackhawks have helped make hockey what it is in Chicago.
Annie Camins is in her sixth season as the director of youth hockey for the Blackhawks.
"She is exclusively responsible, with her staff, for dealing with our rink partnerships," McDonough said. "We think there is a direct correlation between the Hawks' success and the increase of interest in youth hockey in the area. We are very involved with youth hockey. The way I've been led to understand the numbers, that percentage-wise hockey has grown more in Illinois than any other state in the country, and that is really gratifying.
"We do a very good job with our rink partners. We need to make sure that while this sport is growing, we need to make sure we're serving these people, we're engaged and supportive of these new facilities because they are our future fans and, who knows, maybe our future players. It is incredibly important for us to stay on that."
The Blackhawks have looked for other ways to help grow the sport in the area and connect with even more people. United Center will host the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four, one of the great events at any level of hockey in North America. McDonough said the Blackhawks might be interested in helping in a bid for a future IIHF World Junior Championship.
There's no Division I NCAA hockey in the state, but the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., has always been Chicago's local college. The Blackhawks went to South Bend and Notre Dame's new Compton Arena for a portion of training camp this past fall.
"Stan [Bowman] graduated from Notre Dame and I liked the idea because I've been a fan my whole life," McDonough said. "It is about 80 or 90 miles from here. It is a great location. It is a great rink. They couldn't have treated us any better. All of the practices were sold out. It was close, but far enough for us to get out of Chicago and to introduce a lot of this to our fans in Indiana. I think we plan on going back there. It is a wonderful alliance for us to tap into."
George Lemperis has owned the Palace Grill on Madison Avenue for 35 years and, in a typical year, might spend about 10 days away from the restaurant.
On this Sunday morning, with the Blackhawks set to welcome the Bruins to United Center for a nationally televised rematch of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, Lemperis was nowhere to be found.
"Oh, was I sick," Lemperis said. "I was sick for eight straight days."
His restaurant was fine without him. The Palace Grill has been on Madison for 76 years and is an especially popular destination for breakfast.
Mornings are typically busy, but at 9:30 a.m., three hours before the rematch, there were people willing to brave a wind chill of 5 degrees to stand outside and wait for a table or a spot at the bar.
Other establishments along Madison, including the Billy Goat Tavern and West End Grill, were filled with patrons clad in black-and-red.
"I know people who have lived in Chicago their whole lives, elderly people, that have been watching the Blackhawks now," Lemperis said. "They had never really paid attention for their entire lives. Everyone is watching them now. They're the only game in town right now. The rest of the teams have all been losers.
"Blackhawks games are very, very busy. They can make us busier during the games than I am during the daytime, and we've always been busiest during the daytime."
The line to get into United Center at 10 a.m. reached beyond the first parking lot to the construction area for the Bulls' practice facility. The cold does not seem to affect these people.
They're the ones who have filled the NHL's largest arena and made it one of the great game-day experiences in the League. Everything starts with the national anthem, of course, a unique tradition, which is the initial reason the place is known as "The Madhouse on Madison."
"You notice now that other teams are gunning for you," Sharp said. "They want what we have. I've definitely noticed that every game at United Center is a big game, and we're getting our opponents' best effort; I think that has made us better."
The "Madhouse on Madison" sign inside the arena is no longer there, but a version of it has been revived down the street at the Palace Grill. Lemperis' college roommate, Jim Kraemer, has a sign business in Atlanta, and he made a large one to put in his pal's restaurant.
"We've been here for 76 years on this street, so we're kind of like the original madhouse," Lemperis said.
They were there the night of Game 6 against the Bruins. Lemperis kept the Palace open all night as fans celebrated another Stanley Cup.
"It was one of the greatest nights of my life. We were here partying with champagne and it was crazy, literally crazy, but a hell of a lot of fun," Lemperis said. "The Blackhawks lost probably two generations of fans because of their lack of putting a good team on the ice and trading away all their stars over the years. People were very disillusioned by the Blackhawks.
"You've got kids now that are like 20 years old who are going to their first Blackhawks games. By the time I was 20 years old, I had gone to 100 Blackhawks games. These kids are just finally going to games.
"They're getting all of these fans back. You have people just walking down the street in Blackhawks hats and jerseys. They're incorporating so many different people now and it is really cool."
The players returned from their championship victory in Boston in the early morning and parties were raging all over town.
"We felt like rock stars," Shaw said. "Everyone treated us so well. I think we were maybe treated too perfectly at times. It was fun, and I'm sure a lot of people in the city of Chicago had just as much fun as we did. It just shows the support that they have for us. It is a city anyone would love to play in. I'm excited that I get to be part of it. I hope that we can give the city more championships."
Wrigley Field has been in operation since 1916, making it the oldest stadium in the National League. Soldier Field opened eight years later and is the oldest in the National Football League.
Soldier Field recently underwent major renovations, but the building that hosted a fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, the 1926 Army-Navy game, and the first Special Olympics Summer Games still stands. United States soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann scored in three matches for Germany at Soldier Field during the 1994 World Cup, and Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola scored there for Spain. The Bears have played four NFC Championship games there, winning in 1985 and 2010.
"It's a really cool football stadium. It is awesome to watch a football game in there," Toews said. "I feel like there aren't many bad seats in the house. They put an ice sheet on it last winter and we got to go there and skate and it was pretty great."
McDonough had to sell Commissioner Bettman on bringing the NHL Winter Classic to Chicago, but the body of work during the past six seasons, on and off the ice, does a lot of convincing.
When the NHL wanted to start a new series of outdoor games, having the Blackhawks and Penguins, two of its marquee franchises, meet days after the Olympics was a natural fit.
Tickets sold out in less than 24 hours. If Soldier Field was twice its capacity, every seat might be full for the March 1 prime-time matchup on national TV.
"It is very powerful. When [NHL Chief Operating Officer] John Collins and Gary and Rocky and I met about this last year, we were presented with this," McDonough said. "I get worried sometimes that Gary gets tired of me pitching Chicago, pitching the opportunities here, pitching the Blackhawks. We have a very good relationship and I'm not opposed to groveling for things. I told him I think this would be a great destination, and we have a close relationship with the Bears. I went to the same high school as the McCaskeys (the owners of the Bears) and am very good friends with their ownership group. It just fit.
"When we found out we were being considered and then when it was going to be the Penguins, we said, 'Absolutely, this will be great.' For our business, it is great. It is another unique mega-event coming to Chicago that no one could have ever envisioned coming six years ago."
That's part of what makes everything which has happened in Chicago so amazing. The Blackhawks were a forgotten bunch when the NHL returned from the 2004-05 lockout.
This group of Blackhawks spent years chasing the Detroit Red Wings, their opponent at the Winter Classic in Wrigley Field and the team they viewed as the gold standard in the NHL. When Chicago rallied from a 3-1 playoff series deficit to knock off Detroit en route to a second Stanley Cup in four years, the Blackhawks players felt a level of accomplishment they wouldn't have against any other second-round foe.
Not only have the Blackhawks won games and championships, they now have been hosts for two of the League's signature regular-season events.
"I'm not surprised today, but if you had asked me about this in 2007, I would have had a tough time believing it," Sharp said. "I know that John McDonough came in and he told us all of these things that he envisioned for us. He wanted to market the players. He wanted us to be on the front of the sports page. He wanted us to lead the sports highlights on the TV.
"Hearing it in 2007, yeah it was exciting, but I thought to myself, 'How are we going to make that happen?' Here we are in  and everything he envisioned has basically, more or less, come true. We're happy to be here, and I couldn't be more proud to be a Blackhawk and see what other great things can happen in the future."
McDonough's office at United Center is filled with photos of famous people, awards and mementos from his career. Behind his desk, there is a credenza with photos. Behind those, McDonough has two small posters from the 2010 championship parade that remind him to remain motivated.
"We had gone with this 'One Goal' mantra pretty much from Day One. We're going through a glorious time and I couldn't have been more proud," McDonough said. "We didn't know if there would be 50,000 or 100,000 people. We heard on the radio that there was two million people down at the parade. So we're going along and one of the newspapers had passed these out, and there I was thinking, 'This is the last message I want to see for our players and our staff,' is this: 'One Goal Achieved.'
"There is humanity in all four directions as far as we could see and I couldn't get it out of my mind. It's like this is a nice step, but I didn't want this to permeate with our players and our staff. This 'One Goal Achieved,' we're not there yet. We're getting there. They must have passed out 300,000 or 400,000 of these things. I kept one to remind myself that we still have more to do. … The message here has been, 'We want to affect change over decades and decades, not just a few seasons.' We're on the buses to celebrate the 2010 Stanley Cup championship, and we're experiencing this on a Friday. I sent a pretty strong message to the organization that, 'Hey, come Monday the party is over and let's get back to it.'"
No franchise in the NHL has repeated as champion since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. A League once defined by dynasties, from the Montreal Canadiens to the New York Islanders to the Edmonton Oilers, has not had one in more than two decades.
The salary cap makes it more difficult for a team to keep its roster intact, but the Blackhawks appear to have the ability to remain contenders for years to come.
Chicago has nine players under contract through 2015-16, including stalwarts Keith, Seabrook, Sharp and Hossa.
New contracts for Toews and Kane are needed after next season, and they will remain the key to Chicago's place among the NHL elite. If they re-sign with the Blackhawks, the franchise could have the chance to compete for not only a third championship but more.
"It is really exciting. I think it gives people something to do and to cheer about," Kane said. "I know growing up in Buffalo with not only the Bills but the Sabres as well, you kind of live and die by your team. I think we give Chicago something to be proud of, especially with the way we've been going the past few years, and it has been great. Expectations are obviously higher and it seems like even though we've won two Cups people are expecting more, and that's fine. That's good, actually. That's the way you want it to be. When we lose a game people get upset.
"It has been fun to be part of this city. When people see you outside of the rink, it is perfect. They come up and say hi, but they don't bother you too much. They respect you, and my time here has been great."
Toews said, "There's still a long way to go with that. I've seen that as the term, 'modern dynasty,' that people have thrown out. With the group that we have in Chicago, I mean last year we had a great team and a great bunch of guys and once we got through that series with Detroit, if we didn't believe in ourselves before, that was really our moment. To come back like that against the Red Wings, that's when we knew we could come back from anything. There's always something, especially in the past four or five years, with the guys in our leadership group, that whoever comes in and surrounds that group, we are just a team that is really tough to get rid of and tough to beat. A lot of things have to go wrong for us to lose in a playoff series.
"If we can keep that way about us, and continue to believe like we have before, there is no reason we can't find ourselves back in the Stanley Cup Final and competing for another championship."
The on-ice winning and off-ice success have lived in perfect harmony in Chicago. Part of the reason is an insatiable desire for more.
One Stanley Cup parade down Michigan Avenue was not enough. One outdoor spectacle at a Chicago institution was not enough.
"The cross-promoting is obvious. They've played in a baseball venue and now it will be a football venue. I think the League has done an unbelievable job of selling and promoting and entertaining at these outdoor games," Olczyk said. "I'd like to think I know how the Blackhawks do business off the ice. They want to be the best at everything. They want everything. They want the best for the organization. They want the best for their fans. To hustle the Winter Classic and to hustle a game at Soldier Field and to bring in the Frozen Four here in a couple years, that's what they want. You get a chance to sell your game on one of the largest stages."
Fans are going to continue to fill "The Madhouse on Madison." That bell in Murphy's is going to keep ringing. Merchandise is going to continue to fly off the shelves all around town.
For McDonough, everything he wanted to accomplish with the Cubs has happened with the Blackhawks, but that isn't enough.
"I think there is a heightened fervor for hockey in Chicago. It is an Original Six franchise. I think we certainly deserve that moniker, and we are here to stay," he said. "We don't get caught up in the parades and ring ceremonies. We are here working every day to grow this and grow this. We never wanted to be that comet that came and went and people would say, 'Do you remember when the Blackhawks came back for a while?' I impart that to people all the time.
"We're really bad celebrators, and we don't get caught up in all this. Stan has a very, very unique demeanor, very even-keeled, very subdued. That's how he approaches the hockey-operations side of things. I'm more concerned with the process of how we make decisions. I empower people to make good decisions. Every decision we make here has a big-picture label on it. There are no quick fixes, no knee jerks. There is no, 'We've got to sign this guy today by 7 p.m. or we might lose him.' It doesn't work that way.
"The fans have become more sophisticated. They're more engaged. They understand the game more, and they are more familiar with the players. The atmosphere in the arena starting with the national anthem, it creates a unique mystique or aura unlike any other building. We've won a lot, but those are the expectations now and you can sense that in the building. They're not just satisfied with just making the playoffs. The one thing that strikes me is how young the fan base is. That really bodes well for the future."