CHICAGO – It was a night they'd been waiting for since that muggy June evening in Philadelphia, when Patrick Kane's overtime goal delivered a Stanley Cup full of excitement to Chicago and finally quenched a 49-year thirst for a hockey title in the Windy City.
They raised three championship banners at the United Center on Saturday night, but it was more than just a ceremony for those who filled the building with camera flashes and cheers. They also celebrated the proud history of the Chicago Blackhawks and the official resurrection of an Original Six team that had virtually disappeared from the hockey map.
For 30 minutes at least, it didn't matter that almost half of the team was turned over because of the League's salary cap or that the Hawks would play rival Detroit without defenseman Brian Campbell and Patrick Sharp – both out with injuries.
All that mattered was that huge new Stanley Cup championship banner slowly being raised to the rafters alongside the ones from 1934, 1938 and 1961. It had to be a surreal feeling for most Hawks fans in attendance, many of whom suffered through some very dark days in the late 1990s and the early years of the past decade.
Perhaps Hawks fan Don McCauley summed it up best when he was asked whether he thought he'd ever live to see a night like this for the Blackhawks.
"Heck no!" said McCauley, 43, of Crete, Ill. "It's really amazing. You may never see it again, either. You never know."
Or it might happen again next season. Chicago is still loaded with young talent – and that core group of stars who returned this season got their final reward on Saturday for winning Lord Stanley's chalice. Toews, Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and all the returning champions who hoisted the Cup this summer were treated like kings in their return to the ice.
They entered the United Center after exiting limousines and strolled down a red carpet -- then were welcomed into team history by some of the very legends whose names are already up in the rafters.
There was a stirring video recollection of the run to the Cup. There were computerized laser lights that made the ice come alive during the 30-minute pre-game ceremony. There was the sight of Hawks captain Jonathan Toews skating the Cup to center ice over a virtual computerized red carpet. There was Hawks owner Rocky Wirtz thanking fans and vowing to keep the team in contention for years to come.
There were members of the 1961 Cup-winning team unfurling the 2010 banner and handing it over to the current Hawks – who skated it to the other end of the ice for it to be raised. They posed for pictures, shook each other's hands -- and there might've even been a tear shed.
Then the banner was off to the rafters to join the others while the familiar roar during the national anthem bounced off every corner of the building. There was even a familiar foe to despise in the Red Wings, the team Hawks fans love to hate.
In short, this night had it all as the celebration of 2010 was finally capped.
Blackhawks Cup parade (Courtesy: Brian Hedger)
It was a scene that Chicago residents Al Cohn, 55, and his 15-year old son Walter Nolan-Cohn will never forget. Al Cohn remembers the Cup being paraded around the rink at the old Chicago Stadium by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992, but his son will always remember Toews skating with it on Saturday night.
"I've been counting this down for about three months, since they won the Cup," said Nolan-Cohn, who went to three playoff games last season. "What's cool is that in 20 years I'm still going to be seeing that banner in the rafters and know that I was here for that."
So were Katie Van Diggelen, Mike Stein and Chuck Karavidas -- who stood together on the red carpet after the Hawks had walked down it and posed for a keepsake photo.
Van Diggelen, 50, of Arlington Heights, Ill., has been coming to Hawks games since the early 1980s with friend Karavidas, 78. She said her father once owned the lot that United Center was built on, while Karavidas has known the Wirtz family through business dealings for nearly 50 years.
"We came to every home game here, even in their worst years," Karavidas said. "I became a Hawks fan the season after they won the Cup in 1961 and have been one ever since. It's just a wonderful evening."