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The Verdict: It's getting crowded in the UC rafters

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

Suddenly it’s getting a bit crowded up there—a nice problem to have. On Wednesday night, for the third time in six years, the Blackhawks raised a Stanley Cup banner at the United Center. As white as the ice below, the 2015 flag secured a spot between recent keepsakes from 2010 and 2013.

Once upon a time, the championship banner collection seemed tilted toward the west side of the building, freighted by a half-dozen honoring the Bulls, who earned theirs with a pair of three-peats produced and directed by Michael Jordan.

But now, with this group of gifted Blackhawks, balance has been achieved. The United Center's hockey co-tenants also own six, with spacing not nearly as even as the keepsakes themselves. From 1926, when the franchise was founded, to 1961—three. From 2010 to 2015—three, thanks largely to six of the current Blackhawks who engineered this run.

Symmetry like that is fun, and so are xylobands. Those are LED wristbands synchronized to music and videos, both of which abounded for a ceremony that could have commanded a standalone admittance fee without a game at all. (Not that the season’s first Blackhawks goal, scored by Russian waterbug Artemi Panarin off an assist from Patrick Kane, was too much for 22,104 to handle.)

It isn’t everywhere that men in suits elicit ear-splitting ovations, but this is Chicago. Chairman Rocky Wirtz, President and CEO John McDonough, Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman and Head Coach Joel Quenneville are the brains behind the brawn. So they received their due when introduced by Eddie Olczyk. Then his Hall of Fame partner, play-by-play voice Pat Foley, called forth this edition of Chicago’s boys of winter.

Niklas Hjalmarsson skated out of the Zamboni chute with the Stanley Cup and placed it on a table at center ice. One of those three-timers to ring fittings, Hjalmarsson glided 100 feet without blocking a single shot, a rarity for him. But that will change.

The Cup stayed there until Jonathan Toews, the peerless captain, came out last and hoisted it above his shoulders, a calisthenic that must now feel as familiar as brushing his teeth. Duncan Keith, obviously restless, soon uprooted the Cup and carried it a few yards toward the east end for a photo op, his first and likely shortest shift of the season.

Everybody, players and staff, then stood at attention while the banner came out of hiding and was unfurled for its journey straight north to the rafters. Everybody included Kimmo Timonen, an elegant defenseman who completed a splendid career with a cameo appearance for the Blackhawks last spring. He was stoked to be invited to Chicago for Sunday night's ceremony, when the champions received their rings, and for Wednesday night.

It was a nice touch by the Blackhawks, who are accomplished in that department. The record says they are the best team in the city, but the Blackhawks don’t have the hubris to imagine they are the only team in the city. The Cubs were playing a rather significant game on Wednesday night, and their victory in Pittsburgh was readily available on the tube throughout the United Center.

Before the banner ceremony, the Blackhawks staged their annual opening night red carpet ceremony along Madison Street. It was literally covered by helicopters. For a team playing indoors, the Blackhawks have to lead the league in helicopters.

Pat Boyle and Steve Konroyd of Comcast manned a stage while Jamal Mayers, recently appointed community liaison, worked just below with a microphone so players could say a few words to the many fans, some of whom secured seats in bleachers. Denis Savard, the Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame ambassador, got the crowd warmed up.

Then Brent Seabrook, the last man onto the ice for every period, was first to emerge from Gate 3 1/2 via the spiffy new locker room. Seabrook is donning a well-deserved “A” as an alternate captain. For the red carpet affair, however, the Blackhawks were in civilian clothes. Nothing’s changed there. These guys not only know how to win, they know how to dress.

Tony Esposito and Bobby Hull, also Hall of Fame ambassadors, received a royal welcome after the active players. So did Phil Pritchard, the Hockey Hall of Fame’s lead protector of the Cup. It has been all over the world this summer, but still has spent so much time in Chicago that it might as well be a resident paying tax.

Yes, it’s getting crowded up there at the United Center. But the 2015 banner looks comfortable—and ready to move over for more.

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