CHICAGO – The cold temperature was merely an afterthought on Saturday afternoon, lost in the bright sunlight that made Millenium Park's famed chrome "Bean" sparkle with the reflections of ice skaters down below.
Lacing up hockey skates that were either new, well-worn or rented, Windy City hockey fans converged upon Millenium Park's McCormick-Tribune outdoor ice rink to skate with a couple of Chicago Blackhawks and celebrate the sport of hockey.
It was the perfect setting to drop the puck on the NHL's Hockey Weekend in America, which aims to showcase the sport at all levels on Sunday with day-long programming shown nationwide on NBC. The day will culminate with the past two Stanley Cup champions – the Pittsburgh Penguins and Blackhawks – playing a game at 3:30 p.m. at the United Center.
Saturday afternoon, however, was more about celebrating a sport that's seen a big revival in the Chicago market over the past three years. In fact, this was the third year the Hawks have held the "Skate with the Hawks" event at Millenium Park – and its popularity is undeniable.
While rookies Nick Leddy
and Jake Dowell cruised around the rink with fans of all ages, Blackhawks legendary goalie Tony Esposito signed autographs and posed for pictures for a long line of fans -- who had no problem shivering while they waited.
"It's great for the sport," Esposito said of hockey's vibrant comeback in the Windy City. "When I played, Chicago was a huge hockey market – and now it's gotten a big revival here. You see all these people here, and it just gives you a great feeling to be involved."
Leddy and Dowell probably didn't feel quite as pleased after 9-year old Austin Beller gave them both snow showers with well-executed abrupt stops right near them.
"I told him I'd give him five bucks if he iced them," said Austin's mom, Johanna Beller – a life-long Hawks fan from Grays Lake, Ill. "Sure enough, he did. I've got a good picture of it, too."
It was just one of many pictures snapped of Dowell and Leddy – both American-born players who've played for the United States in elite amateur tournaments, including the World Junior Championship.
Both said they've noticed a recent uptick in hockey's popularity in the U.S., and not just in traditional cold-weather markets like Chicago. Having an entire weekend devoted to the sport and celebrating it on NBC can only help the cause, according to Leddy – who chose hockey over baseball and football while growing up in Minnesota.
"It's an awesome event," Leddy said, after skating with dozens of kids and adults alike. "It's just awesome to have all these people out here and enjoying it. Hockey is becoming more and more popular and it's good to see here in the [United] States. It's definitely growing."
Not just in the cold-weather markets, either.
Leddy and Dowell both said they've noticed more Americans breaking into the NHL from non-traditional hockey areas -- and pointed to the 2010 Entry Draft as evidence. That draft featured a number of Americans selected high, including Californian forward Emerson Etem – whom the Anaheim Ducks took in the first round (No. 29).
"You see kids from everywhere now playing, and it's exciting to see," Dowell said. "It's cool, you know? There's a lot more American kids being drafted and making it to the NHL, and you see more guys who are not from the typical hotbeds of hockey – kids from down South and out in California and Arizona and some of those areas. It's cool to see hockey spread out everywhere."
On Saturday, they were spread out all over the rink – zipping along forward and backward, all anxious to skate with NHL players.
"There was one kid out there in a Jonathan Toews
jersey who wanted to race the whole time," Dowell said. "He was flying around there pretty good. No helmet, [but] flying out there pretty good. It was just fun to see everybody out there."
One of the little guys bopping around the rink was 8-year old Mikey Marquardt, of Park Ridge, Ill. – a wing on his minor hockey team who proudly wore a black Jonathan Toews
alternate Hawks sweater.
Mikey's older brother, 12-year old D.J. Marquardt, had to play in a hockey tournament on Saturday, so little brother had bragging rights for a day after skating with both Leddy and Dowell. He also got their autographs on a red Hawks home sweater and got his picture taken with both young players – the smile on his face probably lasting the rest of the day.
"I'm so happy for him," said Jill Marquardt, his mom. "This was a 'must-do' event once we found out that we were chosen among those who won the contest to skate with the Hawks. His brother just wanted to learn how to skate when he was younger, and then he started playing hockey and loved it. [Mikey] started playing next and he loves it, too. We're a hockey family now."
The Kleberg family, of Hampshire, Ill., is too. The reason?
Jason Kleberg, a 10-year old forward for his minor hockey team, fell in love with the sport after going to one Blackhawks game a few years ago.
"It just looked really exciting," he said. "I just wanted to try playing it and I really liked it."
Author: Brian Hedger | NHL.com Correspondent