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Verdict: Training Camp Festival yet another annual love-in

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

It was a beautiful afternoon to welcome back the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, even if you elected to take a place in line early in the morning.

Seriously, who or what can attract such crowds for practice? The University of Alabama football squad? Maybe. The Blue Angels? Perhaps. Thousands of fans gathered around the United Center on Monday for the 2015 Training Camp Festival, an annual love-in celebrating the onset of another season featuring the best team in hockey.

Across the closed-off street north of the Madhouse on Madison, a carnival atmosphere overtook what is normally parking lot C. Games, music, concessions, all within mere steps from where the Blackhawks iced their third National Hockey League title in six years on June 15.

Shortly thereafter, the franchise and the city organized a parade that left the United Center and wound up in a packed Soldier Field. On Monday, around dawn, a legion of admirers returned to the house of thrills. Normally we would suggest that if you weren’t wearing Blackhawks gear, you needed a note from your doctor. But this being ostensibly a day of work or school, it’s possible those messages were saved for bosses or principals.

There were multiple attractions for loyal supporters. First and foremost, the Blackhawks debuted in Chicago as a group after a few days at Notre Dame. Wherever these players go, in uniform or in civilian clothes, they are people magnets.

Another perk Monday was the dispensing of Jonathan Toews bobbleheads to the first 10,000 attendees. Those souvenirs are precious, and judging by the number of fans who surrounded the building hours before the doors opened at 4:30 for a scrimmage at 7, nobody wanted to be among the second 10,000.

Also, seating was by general admission. That meant first come, first row, on or near the glass. For a nominal fee, the Training Camp Festival sign-up was launched on Friday of the Convention in mid-July. Long before that summer gala concluded on a Sunday, the United Center was guaranteed yet another sellout for Monday night.

On cue, with throbbing music as a background, some of the 62 players in camp took the ice for warmups at 6:30. The “game” would pit Team Red coached by Mike Kitchen against Team White coached by Kevin Dineen, both of whom serve as assistants to Head Coach Joel Quenneville. He observed from an undisclosed location, no doubt envisioning line combinations already.

Coach Q is on record as saying he liked what he saw at Notre Dame of Toews between Marian Hossa and Marko Dano, the highly regarded offseason acquisition from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Neither Toews nor Hossa participated in the scrimmage, however, as there is already an exhibition tilt here on Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings.

As if the sight of actual Blackhawks wasn’t enough to stir the masses, ample videos were presented to remind everybody what the post-Stanley Cup revelry was like last June, just in case anybody forgot. Toews, wearing casual attire, addressed the crowd from the red carpet. He received an ovation, as did Jim Cornelison, in midseason form for his "Star Spangled Banner" rendition. Yes, the flag is still there.

Both sides were liberally sprinkled with prospects, but the goalies needed no introduction. Corey Crawford started for Red, played a period and still hasn’t given up anything since Game 5 of the Final against Tampa Bay. His backup, Scott Darling, opened for White. He yielded only once, to Chris DeSousa, before departing midway in the second.

Vincent Hinostroza, a local lad who starred at Notre Dame for two years before signing this spring, made it 2-0. When Red and White meet, of course, you can throw out the record books. Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Dane Walters tallied in the third period to forge a 2-2 tie, affording fans a glimpse of the 3-on-3 overtime mechanism instituted over the summer. Just for fun, they played the 5 full minutes—a goalie’s nightmare—and White prevailed 4-3.

Interviews were plentiful. Eric Lear of Blackhawks TV snagged Brent Seabrook, the new alternate captain, Conn Smythe Trophy winner Duncan Keith and Hall of Fame Ambassador Denis Savard. At the benches, Hall of Fame voice Pat Foley chatted with Trevor Daley, the defenseman acquired from the Dallas Stars, and ever-popular Andrew Shaw. Radio analyst Troy Murray spoke with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk, who a year ago came out of nowhere to make the Blackhawks on defense. That’s why they play these games. And scrimmages.

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