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The Verdict: Hockey season makes a triumphant return

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

It’s not as though there is a paucity of diversions around Chicago this weekend. The Cubs are at Wrigley Field, college football is being played at Soldier Field, golf’s FedExCup playoffs continue at Cog Hill, and Chicagoland Speedway is prepping for the wonders of NASCAR. Still, on a crisp and shiny Saturday morning, even before dawn, fans started lining up outside the United Center for hockey’s return after a long, hot summer.

“Training Camp Festival 2011” featured a 10K inline skate for about 250 roller bladers, followed by a 5K run for about 3,000 contestants. Tony Esposito and Stan Mikita, Hall of Famers and Blackhawk ambassadors, acted as honorary starters for each race. Across the way, in a parking lot, games and other activities flourished, not the least of which was a live band, Spoken Four. Mikita, by the way, is looking better each day after a bout with stage one oral cancer. “Energy is improving,” said Mikita, who, along with Bobby Hull, will be bronzed forever next month. Statues of them are coming to the UC soon.


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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Why would thousands upon thousands of fans not partaking of the aforementioned calisthenics line up hours before the doors opened? Easy. Patrick Sharp bobblehead dolls, appendix included, were given to the first 10,000 visitors. Without a doubt, those bobbleheads should be ranked among the 50 most beautiful bobbleheads in Chicago. Sharp, who is on the mend, is one of the most popular athletes in the city. It would be difficult to imagine a longer line if Sharp himself were being given away as a door prize.

Breakfast with the Blackhawks Saturday included beer and brats, if you were so inclined, at an unusually early hour. By 9 a.m. or so, spectators were being informed that the lower concourse was full, so please seek seating in the upper levels. At 10 bells, public address announcer Gene Honda welcomed everybody, including the coaching staff, led by Joel Quenneville, who was wired for sound. He thanked the masses for showing up to watch a practice, and hinted strongly that this winter will be one worth remembering.

That’s right. A practice!! Pat Foley, the longtime voice of the Blackhawks, stressed the occasion from his perch on the home bench. Foley has seen it all during his tenure, but another sold-out building for the start of training camp feels amazing, even to him. Patrick Kane, on skates with his left wrist still protected, was among those performing the first drills Saturday. The boys were doing quite nicely until Eddie Olczyk, Foley’s TV sidekick, introduced a special guest on the bench.

Patrick Sharp! Dressed in civilian clothes, carrying one of his bobbleheads, Sharpy assured all that he will be back on the ice soon. Whenever Sharp shows up, everything else around him seems to screech to a halt. Alas, when his interview was concluded, regularly scheduled practice programming resumed. But before his team departed, Kane went on the jumbotron with a promise of sorts.  “This is gonna be a good year,” said No. 88, who is being withheld from scrimmages because of his injury.

Jim Cornelison probably could fall out of bed and still sing better than anybody else. Saturday, he almost had to, supplying his stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at 10:45, accompanied by organist Frank Pellico. It sounded and felt like a regular game night, and Saturday will be a regular game night in October at the UC.

The first scrimmage of the Training Camp Festival was preceded by a dazzling video presentation, then a somber moment of silence to honor the memory of two former Blackhawks—Igor Korolev and Alexander Karpovtzev—who were killed in a recent plane crash that wiped out virtually an entire Locomotiv pro team from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. Also lost in the tragedy was former ex-NHL player Pavol Demitra, a close friend of Marian Hossa, the Blackhawk star who will be a couple days late to Chicago after attending the funeral. Reality always rules, even when the mood is as upbeat as it was Saturday around the Madhouse on Madison Street.

And enthusiasm is palpable, wherever you venture around the building, including beneath and below. Paul Goodman, the strength coach who looks to have a very annoying body fat percentage of somewhere between 2 and 4, is beaming about how finely tuned the players are upon reporting to camp. The veterans who have the roster made and the kids who are trying to secure a spot have one thing in common, Goodman opines. “They’re in great shape,” he said.

Some of us remember when the proposition of the Blackhawks selling tickets to a practice and filling the building would constitute folly and fiction. But it happened Saturday. 

Some of us remember when hockey players reported to training camp in September with a summer’s worth of enjoyment around their belts, but that won’t fly anymore. Some of us also remember when the proposition of the Blackhawks selling tickets to a practice and filling the building would constitute folly and fiction. But it happened Saturday, again, just as it did last September when breakfast with the Blackhawks meant toasting their Stanley Cup.

The Blackhawks did not win the Stanley Cup last season, but Saturday’s throng indicates more than Patrick Sharp bobbleheads fever exists. The franchise under the leadership of Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough has achieved traction and trust—two vitally important commodities that sports organizations yearn for because they must be earned and cannot be bought.

No, the 2010 Stanley Cup didn’t hurt, but it’s beyond that. Whenever the executive branch of the Blackhawks makes a trade or a move of another sort, the public by and large deems it worthy because of the new regime’s track record. Owners are not supposed to be liked, nor are team presidents or general managers. But the Blackhawks inspire confidence. How many other front offices in sports can have it said about them without having to say it about themselves?

Wait. Patrick Kane just scored in the shootout. He’s just about ready. And you?

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