It was the third edition of Breakfast with the Blackhawks, but Saturday morning’s madness on Madison Street felt different even before the first player skated onto the United Center ice. At 9:15 sharp, before a larger crowd than used to attend actual games here not long ago, handlers brought the Stanley Cup to the middle of the rink where the ancient mug rested for a half hour after a grueling summer in pubs, airports and more pubs.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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The Stanley Cup was listed as weighing 35 pounds last June, but now it looks a tad lighter, and in need of sleep, following two months on the road with members of the National Hockey League champions. These guys not only know how to win, they know how to have fun.
But joy was everywhere in the building for the Training Camp Festival. It isn’t every year that the Stanley Cup is a guest of honor, which probably explains why coach Joel Quenneville received a standing ovation for blowing his whistle to commence preseason drills. As the goalies for Team A—Hannu Toivonen and Alec Richards—trickled out from the locker room into view, flashbulbs popped.
From the video displays to Jim Cornelison’s distinct rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner to the fog horn after goals during scrimmages, many sights and sounds were familiar. Also, some were new. Coach Q was wired for sound. The team’s professional voices—broadcasters Pat Foley, Eddie Olczyk, Troy Murray and John Wiedeman—were scattered about to provide interviews. Wiedeman even did one outside, where masses also gathered, before the tornado warning. Gone are the days when you will see more people at the table for Thanksgiving dinner than at the United Center for hockey.
“My first game here, December of 2005, against the New York Rangers,” recalled Patrick Sharp. “They announced 12,000, but it was more like 9,000. Not as many as this.”
Jack Skille, a former No. 1 draft choice, experienced gridlock on his way to the rink via Damen Ave.
“I couldn’t get through all the people,” said Skille, who dialed up Tony Ommen, the Blackhawks’ invaluable senior director of team services. “He told me to take matters into my own hands. So I drove on the wrong side of the road for a couple blocks to get here on time.”
That was the best move until Marty Turco, the free agent masked man from Dallas, foiled Patrick Kane during a shootout practice by poking the puck away from the young prodigy as he attempted a Denis Savard-type 360-degree wheel and deal, stop-me-if-you-can-find-me.
“What should you call that move of mine? I guess you’d have to call it the move that didn’t work,” concluded Kane, who correctly noted that Turco’s obvious skills, on skates and with stick in hand, should be a welcome addition when the Blackhawks open defense of their Cup in a few weeks. “He’s very good with the puck, and the way we play, with pretty much of a flow-and-go style, that can only help our transition game.”
The Blackhawks will wear targets on their backs, as do all reigning champions in sports, so the prospect of Turco partaking in the offense appeals to Quenneville on several levels.
“That is a big plus, having a goalie able to handle the puck the way Marty does,” said Q. “We will encourage him to do it, because it can alleviate forechecking pressure and get our attack going with a pass to our defense.”
Not to mention the fact that guys won’t get bumped quite as often as they retreat and retrieve. Turco is athletic, mobile and ready to learn how teammates complement his talents.
“I have to know their voices, for one thing, when they’re around me and want the puck,” he said. “And I have to know how they want the puck when I try to get it to them.”
Organist Frank Pellico, who says he usually awakens at 9 in the morning, was at his United Center keyboard around 8. “The earliest I’ve ever played, except at last year’s event like this,” said Pellico. “I don’t know of many organists who play in the morning. Except at church, maybe, and even the service at our church isn’t until 10. It’s usually dark when I go home. Today it was dark when I left home.”
Action was brisk throughout areas around the UC, and it began shortly after dawn with a 5K run and a 10K inline race along surrounding roads that were shut down to automobile traffic. There were other festivities, too. Over here, you could give blood. At another booth, you could order a beer. A live band rocked. I saw a man, he danced with his wife at 8:20 a.m. in Parking Lot C. At least I think it was his wife.
Quenneville, ever the careful one, did not require a seven-second delay for remarks that could be heard up in the 300 Level.
“I’ve never worn a live microphone for a practice,” he said. “I was wondering what it would be like to do it in front of 20,000 fans. I was probably more mellow than I normally would be, but it was our first day.”
There is always the second day, of course, when the coach’s vocabulary will not be public property. However, he deals from strength, having accumulated a lot of respect. Management just extended his contract by three years, his players obey him without snarling at him, and his Q rating is sky high despite the fact that Quenneville chooses to be more background music than band leader, a la Mike Ditka and Phil Jackson.
Judging by the composition of the Training Camp Festival audience—children everywhere, perpetuating a motif of this revitalized franchise—generations of Blackhawks fans thought to have been lost during the lean years have been regained in multiples.
Next home appearance for the Stanley Cup champions, next Saturday night against the Detroit Red Wings. You remember them.