Rebuild it, and they will come. Masked, socially distanced, and in reduced numbers. But they will come, and did Sunday night, to be reunited at the United Center with their Blackhawks, even newer and younger than the team Chicago took a liking to before COVID-19 hijacked normal last year.
"WELCOME BACK FANS"
Those signs were evident throughout the United Center, which was as full as it could legally be. A video on the giant scoreboard delivered a similar message. The Blackhawks, wearing "One Community Night" sweaters for their warmup, were cheered robustly. So was Jim Cornelison, back to sing the Star-Spangled Banner in person, accompanied by Frank Pellico at the organ. Those tapes of them performing were fine during a crisis, but this was better. Chelsea Dagger got a workout too, enriched by a chorus for a change.
Video: Welcome home, Blackhawks fans
Indeed, the UC definitely had a bit of the familiar buzz to it, you could detect essential food groups such as hot dogs and burgers wafting through the concourses, and the beer was cold. Patrick Kane, the superstar who always likes to flip a puck over the glass after the pregame skate, sent one toward his father, Pat. He fielded it cleanly, then gifted it to a lad propped up on his dad's shoulders. Quality assists run in the Kane family.
No. 88 then registered one that counted, his 51st, by deftly arranging MacKenzie Entwistle's first National Hockey League goal 6:23 into what would be 4-2 triumph over the Dallas Stars. Entwistle is the ninth member of these Blackhawks to register his first goal since this shortened season began in January. Ninth!! We told you they were newer and younger.
"It's a dream come true, you dream about that as a kid," said Entwistle, who called his mother in the morning to wish her well on her day, then presented her a special gift in the evening. "If you're watching, I got you one."
Video: DAL@CHI: Entwistle taps in first NHL goal on a rush
By evening's end, Alex DeBrincat got two more. He's at 31 goals. Monday is the Blackhawks' 56th and last game. That's quite a pace. To be continued and expanded upon next season? Well, mentioned The Cat, that's what his job entails. And the job is rather rewarding when you look up toward the roof of the United Center and see not only banners, but bodies.
"A lot of fun," said DeBrincat. "We were all excited to play tonight."
According to Chris Werner, someone you should know because he's the Vice President for Ticketing and Consumer Relations, season subscribers were accorded first crack at the seats for the final two games of the regular season that concludes Monday night. The remaining tickets, if any, were available to the public.
"All levels of the United Center are open, with pods of two and four separated according to health protocols," said Werner. "Similar precautions in the suites. No more paper tickets and no cash transactions at concession stands, which are spread out with limited menus."
On March 11, 2020, the Blackhawks beat the San Jose Sharks, 6-2, at the United Center. Later that night, all-you-know-what broke loose as the pandemic took over the world. The Blackhawks resumed a fractured season in an Edmonton bubble during July and August.
Better late than not at all, fans Sunday night were allowed to catch a delayed glimpse of a 2021 team that surely merited a group hug. On the aforementioned March date in 2020, two Blackhawks made their National Hockey League debut -- Brandon Hagel and Nicolas Beaudin. Also that evening, an all-rookie line of Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik and Hagel skated before an audience of 21,275.
Each of those kids absorbed a sample of what it felt like to perform before a packed house, the 531st consecutive home sellout. So, they had an idea of what they were missing during the shutdown. The fastest of sports deserves to be seen, and heard, live.
Video: Lankinen on the return of fans
Then, when this abbreviated 2020-21 schedule commenced, Blackhawk fans deprived of watching in person discovered what they were missing. This eager team would finish outside the playoffs, but not for lack of a work ethic. The Blackhawks have rarely been out of any game, and when Alec Regula suited up last Thursday night in Carolina, he became the ninth rookie on this season's roster to arrive in the big show -- an extraordinary infusion of fresh faces intent on going places.
Hagel, naturally, scored Sunday night. He had to with people finally in the rink. Fans roared when he was announced in the starting lineup because they've obviously noticed what Hagel means to this roster reconfiguration even when he doesn't touch the puck. You want to eat what he eats for breakfast.
Kevin Lankinen, the victorious goalie against Dallas, has been well above average at a position that was supposed to haunt the Blackhawks. But in the words of President of Hockey Operations/General Manager Stan Bowman, "Brandon's the poster boy for what I hoped we would be. Kids like him have brought an enthusiasm and excitement we haven't had in a while."
Video: DeBrincat on fans returning, beating DAL
Upon the forced suspension of the 2019-20 season, the average United Center attendance for 34 dates was 21,441, tops in the NHL for a twelfth straight year. Since 2008-09, when the Blackhawks started dropping clues that they were about to embark on the greatest decade in franchise history, that number has never dipped below 21,000.
Fans respond to a winning product, or at least the potential for one. The Stadium was revered, but occasionally from afar. In the mid-1950s, the Blackhawks were down, and crowds there were around 6000. In the late 1970s, the Blackhawks drew about 10,000 per game. But team fortunes revived in both eras, and increased support followed accordingly.
These industrious Blackhawks offer promise, and so it sounded Sunday night, when the Mother's Day of overdue gatherings occurred. The team and its loyal fans fed off each other, just as it used to be, and will be when a jammed United Center rocks again.