Hockey is alive and well in Chicago -- in the middle of July.
The Blackhawks welcomed a capacity crowd of 8,000 fans to their inaugural Blackhawks Convention this past weekend. Fans got their first look at newly acquired all-star defenseman Brian Campbell, and legendary greats like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita happily welcomed fans along with familiar faces such as Martin Havlat, Patrick Sharp
, Adam Burish, Brent Sopel, Patrick Kane
, and new captain Jonathan Toews
The fans buzzed over Toews, dubbed "Captain Serious" by some, along with the recent announcement that the next Winter Classic will be held at Wrigley Field on New Year's Day.
The convention, which ended Sunday, was the idea of Blackhawks President John McDonough, who first introduced the fan-friendly event to Chicago while working for the Cubs' front office.
"I think it's awesome," Burish said of the festivities. "To be the first one in the NHL, it's a pretty special weekend."
Among the highlights was the opening ceremony when Toews, at the tender age of 20, was introduced as the 34th captain in team history. It was also announced that the No. 3 would be retired to honor the late Keith Magnuson and Pierre Pilote. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Throughout the three-day event, fans were treated to a comedy improv act with Chicago's renowned Second City performers and Blackhawks players Burish and Brent Seabrook. The younger generation participated in a Kids Only Press Conference where they could ask Sopel, Craig Adams and Tommy Hawk anything hockey. Hockey 101 was also a hot ticket, allowing fans to participate in seminars such as Train like an NHL Professional, Equipment of the Pros, Ask Hockey Operations, and Story Telling with Hawks Legends.
Viga Dibenedetto of Chicago took her daughter, Paula, to the Kids Only Press Conference, where she asked Sopel how long he's been playing hockey.
"They were all very nice and super funny," she said of Sopel, Burish and Adams. "It's great that they are letting fans and the players talk more and find out a more personal side to them."
And in the middle of it all were player autograph lines and photo opportunities.
Cary Cohen, 21, and Laura Reilly, 20, both of Glenview, Ill., stood in the long, zigzagged line to get Toews' signature Saturday afternoon. It was worth the wait and they barely got to Toews before he was escorted off the signing platform. Cohen, who has followed the young careers of both Toews and Patrick Kane
, was relieved he got the autograph because his jersey was one-of-a-kind.
"I told him it was the gold medal jersey that he wore in the 2007 World Junior Championships when Canada won the gold medal, and he was surprised," Cohen said. "It was amazing to have him sign it and he actually signed it 'World Championships '07.' We're having an awesome time. The team has really kicked it into high gear."
The opinion was mutual in a hotel full of club jerseys, tees, and ball caps.
"I walked into the hotel lobby and it was packed," Burish said. "You couldn't move. Everybody is excited to be here and it's just as neat for us to have the chance to show our appreciation for what the fans have done."
The NHL is also taking notice, as 15 team representatives attended to gather ideas for their own future conventions.
"Being here this weekend to see what they're doing has been amazing," Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador said. His company, Fan-TasticSports Interactive Games, had a strong presence at the convention. "They're really the first team to do an exhibit like this, having most of the team come in for signings during the summer, with tons of fun stuff for fans and ton of exhibits.
"They've basically filled this hotel. To see that everything is hockey and everything is promoting their brand, promoting the Blackhawks, promoting their players, giving back to the community, it's just great for the game. They're pioneering the year-round hockey brand because the summer is a great opportunity to stay in touch with your fans. They're keeping hockey in their minds."
"Hockey in July, what a concept," said McDonough, addressing the cheering fans.
For Blackhawks fans, hockey in the midst of a 90-degree, humidity-filled summer day in Chicago never felt more right.
Author: Marcie Garcia | NHL.com Correspondent