The Chicago Blackhawks have suffered through some painful times in the past decade, but their fans in the Windy City are smiling from ear to ear these days, and with good reason.
Led by young guns Patrick Kane
and Jonathan Toews
, the Blackhawks are in the Western Conference Final for the first time in 14 years. Their best-of-seven series with the Detroit Red Wings is set to get under way on Sunday at 3 p.m., ET.
Without a doubt, fans across the Chicago area will be glued to NBC once the puck drops. That's the type of buzz this tremendous postseason run has generated.
"In my mind, we're bigger than the Cubs right now," said Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell, referring to one of Chicago's two historic baseball teams. "If you can be bigger than the Cubs or the White Sox at any given time, then you're doing something right. It's a big event right now to go to a game and to watch a game. I know I've only been in Chicago for a short time, but I can feel the buzz. We're a pretty excited group of guys."
As they should be. After all the years that didn't include postseasons, after going years without having their home games televised in their own city, the Blackhawks have restored pride throughout their city.
"It's great," Campbell said on Saturday afternoon. "You can see me smiling now … it brings a smile to your face when you have 22,000 or whatever they're allowed to announce. You walk down the street, there's signs. Radio stations are talking about it, it's on TV. It's a huge buzz."
It all started in 2006, when Toews went No. 3 in the first round of the Entry Draft. One year later, Kane was selected first overall. The development of the two star players has come awfully quickly.
Then, on Jan. 1 of this year, Toews and Kane were placed on center stage in their city when Wrigley Field hosted the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. Four months later, the Blackhawks are just eight wins away from their first championship since 1961.
"It's taken things to another level, for sure," Toews said of the postseason charge. "Over the two years we've been in Chicago, we've seen a lot of changes as far as fans coming back and the support. The Winter Classic gave us a lot of support in the city. It's been pretty cool."
And almost unbelievable. After all, it was only three years ago when Toews was standing on a podium at General Motors Place in Vancouver as the newest member of the Chicago Blackhawks -- and only two since Kane went No. 1 in Columbus.
"It does happen pretty fast," Toews said. "Last year, you're up against players you watched for so many years. There's an eye-opener there in your rookie season. Coming into this year, there was a lot of expectations and we knew we had a young team and the ability to make the playoffs. Everyone wants to make a difference and be part of that team and make it relevant again. I think our future's bright, obviously, but to make it to this point is really exciting. We’ve come this far and we have a great opportunity in front of us. We know there's a lot to come."
"Just to be a part of the resurgence of the franchise the past couple of years … to see a team and a franchise grow, it's been a helluva ride and really enjoyable," he said. "I don't think you could have predicted it to be any better."
Or faster. Campbell, who signed an eight-year, $56.8 million deal with the club last July, was asked if he ever thought Chicago would reach the Western finals in his first season as a Blackhawk -- which included the firing of coach Denis Savard and hiring of Joel Quenneville just four games into the campaign.
"If you asked me that last summer -- or even in September -- yes … if you asked me that end of November or early December, no," Campbell said. "There's been a lot of growth with the hockey club. I think Joel came in and set some standards of what we need to achieve. As you go along, those stakes go up and you expect more from yourself and from your teammates.
"We feel we deserve to be here and we're looking forward to the challenge."
Without a doubt, the fans of Chicago will show their appreciation next Friday night, when the series shifts to what will unquestionably be a raucous United Center. The only question is, can the building possibly be louder than it was when the Blackhawks sent the Vancouver Canucks home for the summer?
"The building the last few home games has been off the charts," a gushing Quenneville said. "There's a lot of excitement, a lot of enthusiasm. We've recaptured a lot of the Hawks' tradition from years past. It's been great for the city and it's been fun for Blackhawks fans."
Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Brian Compton | NHL.com Staff Writer