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The Verdict: With Training Camp Festival, the Blackhawks are back

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

It was a school night. It was a Bears night. It was a beautiful night, surely one of the last Chicago will be able to enjoy before winter stages a hostile takeover of our lives.

But around the United Center, all around the United Center in every direction, a massive crowd stood waiting for Monday night’s Training Camp Festival.

The Blackhawks are back, and so were their fans. Although the doors did not open until 5 p.m. for a 7 p.m. scrimmage, lines began forming about 8:30 in the morning for a sold-out event, would you believe. But why, besides the fact that these people are starved for hockey, did they show up so early if they already had guaranteed seating?

Two reasons, as explained by Brian Howe, the Blackhawks’ Manager of Event Marketing. Although entry into the building was assured for a modest fee of $5 person, location was random. Those at the front would have the best shot at the 100 Level. When that was full, then it was upward to the 200 Level, and so on.

Then there was the bonus for the first 12,000 attendees. A Duncan Keith Bobblehead. He is one of the most popular players on the Blackhawks. And that souvenir is one of the most popular among the exploding fan base.

“Brought my homework with me,” explained a young man, seated beside the building, back up against the wall. Madison Street was blocked off from Wood to Damen, all the better to accommodate a party in parking Lot C. Food, beverages, games were available. A band performed. Such anticipation… to watch a team practice!

Also, on the chance there that there lives in this city someone without owning an article of Blackhawks attire, the team store was right in the middle of the getting re-acquainted party, doing a brisk business. Where did the summer go? Who cares? The Blackhawks are back.

On paper, the forecast is bright. USA Today has pegged the Blackhawks as No. 1 in the preseason power rankings. That is not a news bulletin, considering they were one play away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final last June before losing to the eventual champions, the Los Angeles Kings. Since that fateful night the Blackhawks added a veteran center, Brad Richards, who seems to have developed early chemistry with Patrick Kane.

Win or lose, the Blackhawks retain a bond with the fans. Just recently, ESPN Magazine ranked the franchise 10th of 122 in professional sports for “delivering what you want… from ownership honesty to coaching strength to player effort.” The publication notes that Kane and Jonathan Toews, signed to matching $84 million contract extensions in July, represent an organization “willing to pay to attract quality players and coaches.”

A decade ago, the thought of an absolutely jammed building on a Monday night to witness Kevin Dineen’s White team vie with Mike Kitchen’s Red team would have been filed away as delusional. But there they were, and not much was missing, except a team to root against. When Jeremy Morin scored the first goal of the evening, there arose a huge roar, even though the goalie he beat was Corey Crawford.

Before the puck drop, every player on either side was introduced on the ice. Then Keith—the man, not the momento—walked out in civilian clothes for a brief speech. He thanked the amazingly large crowd for their support. The masses then thanked him for earning a second Norris Trophy as outstanding defenseman in the National Hockey League.

Jim Cornelison brought the hatless congregation to its feet, as usual, for the Star-Spangled Banner. Pat Foley, the Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame broadcaster, conducted interviews on the bench, as did Troy Murray, radio analyst. And a new video, “Smooth Jazz with the Blackhawks,” was an immediate hit with the audience.

A.J. Dolan , a creative mind who runs in game entertainment, played songs for each of the Blackhawks. They in turn were asked to identify titles and artists. Niklas Hjalmarsson had no problem with “Dancing Queen,” a golden oldie by the group Abba. He shouldn’t. They’re all Swedish. Patrick Sharp, on the other hand, whiffed repeatedly. Very funny stuff.

Marcus Kruger tallied twice, along with Toews and Mark McNeill for White, which recorded a 5-1 victory. Cam Barker scored for the Reds. Whenever these two teams meet, of course, you can throw out the record book. A few notables, such as Teuvo Teravainen, sat out along with Keith. Head Coach Joel Quenneville, meanwhile, observed from an undisclosed location. He will be back on the bench Tuesday night, when rooting interests shall be more defined. The Detroit Red Wings visit the United Center.

Yes, after a few months, the Blackhawks are back. And after an even longer absence, so is Abba.

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