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Verdict: Blackhawks prepared for long spring

by Bob Verdi / Team Historian

When the Blackhawks opened their 2016-17 schedule on October 12, inclement weather hampered the red carpet ceremony outside the United Center, and the St. Louis Blues rained on the parade inside, winning 5-2.

Symmetry appeared to be in play, for the long-range Chicago forecast seemed partly cloudy, given the chance of participation by six rookies on the roster: Gustav Forsling, Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza, Michal Kempny, Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz.

In a National Hockey League pledged to parity, could the Blackhawks possibly finish atop the Central Division and maybe even the Western Conference? At least to a fretful fan base, there would be a better chance of seeing Brent Seabrook take a faceoff in sudden death.

But the Blackhawks surprised adversaries, if not themselves, by amassing 50 victories for only the second time in franchise history, and their 109 points were just three shy of the most-ever for the organization. Thus, with all that kinetic energy joining a locker room populated by decorated veterans, the Blackhawks secured the No. 1 seed in the conference as the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin Thursday against the Nashville Predators.

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Frozen Four a yearly treat for some Blackhawks fans

by Austin Miller / Web Contributor

On a whim 22 years ago, David Wolff, then living in Cleveland, bought a ticket to the 1994 Frozen Four in Cincinnati.

He has not missed an NCAA hockey championship since.

Wolff, who now lives in Aurora, Ill., and is a Blackhawks season ticketholder, is among a number of Chicago-area residents who have impressive streaks of consecutive Frozen Fours attended. For Wolff, a self-described "hockey guy," attending each year is a chance to take in what he says is one of the sport's (just confirming definitely just hockey's most exciting as opposed to all of sports) most exciting spectacles.

Like Wolff, Chuck Sikaras of Warrenville, Ill., has been to every Frozen Four since the mid-1990s. Sikaras has been a Blackhawks season ticketholder for 40 years, and served as the penalty box timekeeper for the now-shuttered UIC program from the early '70s until the program folded in 1996. Sikaras and a friend first bought tickets to the 1993 edition in Milwaukee, which was then simply called the NCAA Ice Hockey Championships, to see a Lake Superior State team that had impressed them during the season.

Since then, Sikaras and a group of friends -- anywhere from eight to 12 each year -- have attended every Frozen Four, making a weekend out of going to the event. Each Friday of the championship weekend, they try to take in the sights of the city they're in, whether that be a baseball game in Boston or Pittsburgh, the tourist spots of Philadelphia, or a minor league hockey game in Tampa. What has kept Sikaras and company coming back all these years is the environment and pageantry that takes over a city during the tournament. This year, Sikaras is thrilled to see the event finally come to the United Center and Chicago.

"It's exciting to be the host after all these years," Sikaras said. "The Blackhawks have done such a great job of reenergizing hockey in Chicago and the state of Illinois. I think it'd be great if [Chicago] gets in the rotation to get it every couple of years."

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Spotlight on Gilbert, Hillman in Frozen Four matchup

by Emerald Gao / Digital Content Coordinator

Out of uniform, the average fan wouldn't recognize Dennis Gilbert or Blake Hillman walking down the street. Actually, some eagle-eye scouts might even have trouble picking them out of a lineup. But on Thursday at the United Center, the pair of sophomore defensemen will share a unique spotlight when they face off -- Hillman with the University of Denver, Gilbert with the University of Notre Dame -- with a spot in Saturday's NCAA championship game on the line.

They'll be playing not only in front of their school's faithful fans, but also in a building they might call their own one day, and perhaps most importantly for their futures, there will be a captive audience from the organization that drafted them.

"I try not to think about that," Hillman said when asked about any added pressure he might be feeling. "It's more about me and the other guys in the locker room going out there to achieve a goal, and that's to win a national championship, and that starts tomorrow night against Notre Dame."

The Pioneers came close last year, losing in the semifinals to North Dakota on a last-minute winner from Nick Schmaltz, who might still be able to walk down the street unrecognized in Chicago, but probably not for much longer. According to Hillman, the memory of that heartbreak provides Denver with not only a motivating jolt but also a valuable shard of experience that gives the top seeds an edge over the other three teams in the field, which also includes Harvard and the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Notre Dame might have something to say about that. Although they entered regionals as a four seed and squeezed out one-goal victories over Minnesota and UMass-Lowell (the latter coming in overtime), the Fighting Irish have actually put together a 13-5-3 run since New Year's, and arguably have home-ice advantage at the United Center as the host school of this year's Frozen Four.

"It's a great building, a lot of history happens here, a lot of winning happens here," Gilbert said. "It's a very exciting time to be in the Frozen Four, obviously, but having it be here close to Notre Dame and where I played for a year [with the USHL's Chicago Steel] is extra special for me."

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Verdict: Oduya fitting right back in with Blackhawks

by Bob Verdi / Team Historian

When Johnny Oduya returned to the Blackhawks at the trade deadline in late February, a dear pal unwittingly served as spokesman for the team, the organization and the fans.

"He fit right in just like he did before," noticed Marcus Kruger. "It's like he never left."

Oduya did leave Chicago, of course, after winning his second Stanley Cup in 2015. It was difficult, he said, but it was business. The National Hockey League's unforgiving salary cap plays no favorites, even when one of everybody's favorites is involved.

But relationships are tallied on a different bottom line, and when Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman had a chance, he pounced on Oduya. He arrived from Dallas as if he had been away on an extended sabbatical.

Still classy. Still humble. Still physically fit. Annoyingly fit, to us flaccid types. You don't dare ask what his body fat is because you will be shamed by the answer. Niklas Hjalmarsson suggested that his fellow Swede, though 35, is in a league of his own when it comes to being in shape.

"I watch what I eat," said Oduya. "Red meat maybe once a week. No dairy. But if I'm at a wedding or a party, I'll have a glass of wine. I'm not an absolutist. I'm not going to drink [only] water."

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Blackhawks Magazine Excerpt: Homegrown

by Bob Verdi / Team Historian

The following is excerpted from the March/April 2017 issue of Blackhawks Magazine, featuring local product Ryan Hartman. Pick up a copy at the next Blackhawks home game, or by calling the Blackhawks Store at 312-759-0079.

How important is it for a young guy like you to be on a team with so many other young guys? The other day at practice, you were sitting between Patrick Kane and Nick Schmaltz.

Right. That's another great thing about being part of this team. Most of the veterans, they have families and other lives. But us single guys, we like to hang out and do things. Vinnie (Hinostroza) and Schmaltzy, we do stuff together. Lunch, dinner, whatever. We're really close. Schmaltzy is walking my dog right now while we're doing this interview.

Dog?

Riley, a white German shepherd. Got it when I was in Rockford. My girlfriend and I were at the mall one day, just looking around. I always had a dog at home when I was a kid. Anyway, we just wandered into this store and saw this cute little pup. The lady there lifts it up and lets me hold it. "Go play with it in the back if you want." And that's it. It's part of the plan. They know it's all over when you hold it. You're taking that dog home with you. I called my mom, Kim, and told her I bought a dog. She says, "We have a family dog at home, take it for a week if you want a dog." I didn't want to call my dad, Craig. No way.

He's going to say, "You're trying to concentrate so you can make it to the National Hockey League, and you bought a dog?"

Exactly. About a week after I bought Riley, we're going on the road with Rockford. So now I had to call my dad and break the news. I bought a dog, Dad. I asked him if he would look after my dog. He said, "You did what? No you didn't." So I dropped the dog off with my parents, and they fell in love with Riley too.

Dogs are amazing.

They really are. Think it about. You are their entire life. You provide a dog shelter, food, water, attention. And in return, they give you unconditional love and loyalty and protection. If I take a shower, Riley will spread out and lie down right by the bathroom door to make sure I'm OK. An unbelievable watchdog. A real friend. No judgment, no grudges.

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Prospect Roundup: DeBrincat has another monster week

by Emerald Gao / Digital Content Coordinator

1st Star: RW Alex DeBrincat, Erie Otters (OHL)
The Line: 3GP, 6G, 5A

DeBrincat's torrid run continued last week as the 2016 second-round pick compiled 11 points in three games, including a five-point outing and a four-point outing on consecutive nights. The 19-year-old has extended his point streak to nine games, compiling 23 points (10G, 13A) over that span. DeBrincat's 44 goals are just seven away from matching his career high of 51, reached in each of the last two seasons, and his 92 points are 10 more than the second-highest scorer in the Ontario Hockey League. His 202 shots on goal rank fifth in the league, and he has gone without a shot on goal in just one of his 45 games this season.

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Verdict: A remarkable 9 Blackhawks in NHL's top 100

by Bob Verdi / Team Historian

LOS ANGELES -- Chicago is justifiably proud of the modern Blackhawks, but fans need not feel their passion is parochial. On Friday night of this All-Star weekend, it was announced that an international panel voted three current players on the team -- Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith -- among the 100 greatest ever to perform in the National Hockey League.

They joined all four of the Blackhawks' Hall of Fame ambassadors -- Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito and Denis Savard -- on the honor roll as the NHL celebrates its centennial season. Eariler this month, Max Bentley and Glenn Hall were cited as top 100 individuals who excelled during the first half-century, when the league consisted of the Original Six franchises.

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Prospect Roundup: Sikura logs five-point weekend

by Emerald Gao / Digital Content Coordinator

On Mondays, chicagoblackhawks.com will highlight players who stood out for their minor-league, junior, college or European teams in the previous week's action. All prospect/system stats will be updated weekly throughout the season.

1st Star: C Dylan Sikura, Northeastern University (H-EAST)
The Line: 2GP, 1G, 4A

Sikura's strong junior campaign continued with a five-point performance to help Northeastern sweep Merrimack last weekend. The 2014 sixth-round pick scored his 13th goal of the season and added two assists in Friday's 4-1 victory, and he collected a pair of helpers the next night in a 4-2 win. He assisted on both game-winners. Sikura now has seven points over his last three games and has been held off the scoresheet just once in his last 13 outings dating back to mid-November; his 38 points this season ranks second on the team and fifth overall in the NCAA.

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Prospect Roundup: Bondra shines for Prince George

by Emerald Gao / Digital Content Coordinator

On Mondays, chicagoblackhawks.com will highlight players who stood out for their minor-league, junior, college or European teams in the previous week's action. All prospect/system stats will be updated weekly throughout the season.

1st Star: LW Radovan Bondra, Prince George (WHL)
The Line: 3GP, 2G, 3A

Bondra was acquired by conference-leading Prince George of the Western Hockey League last Tuesday and provided immediate dividends with points in two of his first three games with his new club. The 2015 fifth-round pick posted a goal and an assist in his debut to help the Cougars secure a 4-3 win over Medicine Hat last Wednesday, then collected three points (1G, 2A), including the game-winner, in a 5-4 win over Calgary on Saturday. Bondra has 21 goals and 15 assists in 35 regular-season games split between Prince George and Vancouver this season.

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One Minute Remaining: Remembering Ken Wharram

by Harvey Wittenberg / Web Contributor

Kenny Wharram passed away at the age of 83 this week. While there aren't a lot fans still around that ever saw him play, I am fortunate to be one. Not to mention, his Hall of Famer teammates -- Bobby Hull, Pierre Pilote, Glenn Hall and Stan Mikita -- have high praise for the speedy right wing who would fit in well in today's game.

He had a tough time breaking into the Chicago lineup in the days when the Blackhawks were known more for being a physical team, and at 5 feet, 9 inches, and only 160 pounds, Kenny didn't seem to fit their style. He ended up playing parts of 14 seasons, appearing in only one game in 1952 at the age of 19 and skating in 29 games in 1953-54. He bounced back and forth with the Buffalo farm team before winning a regular spot in 1958-59, when Stan Mikita made his NHL debut for the last few games of the season.

Head Coach Rudy Pilous united Wharram with Mikita and Ab McDonald for the 1960-61 campaign, when the Blackhawks eventually won the Stanley Cup in Detroit with McDonald getting the Cup-winner in Game 6, and Wharram scored the final goal of the game on a breakaway, unassisted.

Wharram became the first Blackhawks right winger to be named to the NHL All-Star Team, twice -- 1964 and 1967 -- and in fact the only other Blackhawk on the right side to be so honored twice is Patrick Kane.

Wharram also won the Lady Byng Trophy honoring sportsmanship and proficiency when he tallied 39 goals and 71 points in 70 games in 1963-64. Hull and Mikita captured the same award over the next three seasons.

While playing with Mikita and Doug Mohns in 1966-67, the trio set a Blackhawks record for most points in a season by one line with 222 points. Wharram had seven consecutive 20-plus goal seasons, and when he was forced to retire because of a heart condition before the start of the 1969-70 season, he ranked fourth in Blackhawks career goals (252).

Although he retired at the age of 36, he was coming off his second-best season with 30 goals and 39 assists, and like Marian Hossa, who just turned 38, seemed to be on his way to continued success because of his speed.

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