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Dawn of New Ice Age in Chicago

by Paul Ladewski / Chicago Blackhawks

The NHL standings may separate the winners and losers, but at least as they concern Chicago, they don't tell the whole story this season.

The real winners could turn out to be the Glenview Stars, Joliet Jaguars, Winnetka Warriors and dozens of other local club, high school and house league teams that count on the Blackhawks to lead the way for them.

After a downward spiral in participation at youth levels across the state in recent years, the trend has been reversed this season. And more than one person will tell you it's no accident that the turnound has coincided with that of the Blackhawks themselves.

"There's a buzz in the rinks now," Mount Carmel High School head coach Nick Iaciancio says. "There's excitement that wasn't there before. You see more kids with Blackhawks jerseys and hats now. For years, you would see them with something else. There were no local players for them to associate with then. Now I have one kid who's a Patrick Kane fan and another who's a Jonathan Toews fan."

Says Jim Smith, who serves as a liaison for the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois and the team, "It's great to have hockey back at a prominent level in Chicago. Because of the greater exposure, especially with the home games on television, more kids are attracted to the sport. From an amateur hockey standpoint, we're not just encouraged by the revival but excited about it as well."

While it's premature to gauge how far the momentum will carry the sport here, many observers believe it will result in a new ice age, the early signs of which may be seen in and around the Chicagoland area.

In New Lenox, the Providence High School program has nearly doubled its numbers, a development that assistant coach Kevin Oliver links to to popularity of Kane and Toews, the 19-year-old kids who have more than lived up to the hype thus far.

"I can't remember one time that our players didn't talk about the Blackhawks before a practice, and Kane and Toews usually are in the middle of the conversation," Oliver says. "I even hear teachers who don't normally follow hockey talk about them now."

Likewise, Barrington Redwings Hockey Organization director Rob Hutson considers the Blackhawks to be a major factor in a 15 percent increase in participation there.

"The Blackhawks have stepped up to the plate and given back to the community," Hutson says. "From their commitment to youth hockey organizations to the presence of their players at the rinks to their decision to televise home games, they have started to build a solid fan base.

"They have a young, talented, competitive team. Everyone sees their potential. They will be good in the near future. They'll be really good. Will that have a ripple effect on amateur hockey across the state? Absolutely. When a Chicago sports team does well, more kids want to get involved themselves."

The hope is that the resurgence will also translate into greater numbers in developmental programs, perhaps even elevate the sport to a status commensurate to the third-largest market in the country eventually.

The Addison-based Flames Youth Hockey Organization reports 50 percent growth in its learn-to-skate program, a hike that coordinator Dominic Sole attributes in part to the Blackhawks efforts in the community.

"There is definitely a buzz around the building," Sole says. "My main goal is to make kids falls in love with the game and be hockey fans for life, and it's the Blackhawks' responsibility as well. The Blackhawks have made a commitment to the community, and as a group, we're excited about it means for the future of the sport here."

When Nick Pollos showed up at the Arctic Ice Arena in Orland Park on the day that Kane and teammate Adam Burish were scheduled to make an appearance earlier this season, he could barely believe it was the same area he had left to coach a Junior A team five years ago.

Three hours before the event, fans began to line up outside. On a Monday afternoon. In mid-December, no less.

"I was a bit overwhelmed by what happened that day," admits Pollos, marketing director for the Arctic Ice Arena and head coach of the Chicago Fury, a nationally ranked Midget Major team. "A lot of us were overwhelmed. It's a credit to what the Blackhawks have done on and off the ice this season. It was great for us to be able to show off our facility, but more important, it was great for hockey in general."

For Pollos, who waited for autographs outside Gate 3 1/2 after games at Chicago Stadium years ago, it was like old times again. According to one estimate, upward of 2,000 fans were on hand throughout the evening. By the end of the night, there wasn't a Blackhawks souvenir to be bought in the place.

Kane and Burish helped conduct a youth clinic, then they signed autographs. The demand was so great that they stayed an extra half hour to accomodate the masses.

"It's great the way the fans have responded here," says Kane, a Buffalo native. "We want to be nice to them, because they're the future of the sport. As a young player, one of my goals is to help promote hockey in this country. If the fans are willing to wait in line for three hours, then it's no big deal to stay an extra half hour. The smiles are worth it."

As a rule, the NHL franchise sets the tone for the sport in a given city. Because the Chicago area has no Division I college team to call its own -- the University of Illinois-Chicago had the last such program, which disbanded in 1994 -- the onus on the Blackhawks to carry the puck in local circles is that much greater.

Under owner Bill Wirtz, the organization had been active and generous supporters of local youth hockey for years, but its efforts off the ice were often dwarfed by a lack of success and visibility on it. No sooner did Rocky Wirtz take over as board chairman in October than the organization embarked on an aggressive game plan, which featured televised home games, the return of former greats Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita to the Blackhawks family and the arrival of John McDonough as team president.

Still, as Hutson points out, "This Blackhawks season will only be considered a success if they continue to do what they've done five years from now. If they reach out for just one season then say, 'Our job is done,' well, that won't work here."
Based on his conversation with Wirtz at a local youth function last fall, however, Hutson is convinced that Rocky Hockey is here to stay.

"Mr. Wirtz was very optimistic at the time, but what he had to say wasn't a lot of baloney," Hutson recalls. "He stood behind what he said he would do. Now when we talk about hockey, a lot of it is positive. That's very good for youth hockey."

In fact, the vibes are so positive that Smith has a vision that would have been unthinkable only months ago.

"I'd like Chicago to become the next Hockeytown," Smith says. "The title was taken away from Detroit, because Red Wings games don't sell out any more. It was given to Minneapolis-St. Paul, which has a hockey culture unto itself. From what I've seen lately, though, we may be able to steal it one day."

Hockeytown? No, make that Hawkeytown.

The Daily Southtown contributed to this story.

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