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Hawks have turned Chicago into a hockey city again

by Dan Rosen
CHICAGO -- Bobby Hull won a Stanley Cup and several pieces of individual hardware throughout his 15-year NHL career. He popularized the slap shot and used it to score 50 goals five times.

Hull had a monumental impact on the game. But according to the Golden Jet himself, the greatest impact on his life is being felt right now, at the snappy age of 71.

"It's being brought back here to be a part of this big Blackhawks family with these guys," Hull told, pointing at Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito, also Hawks legends who were similarly brought back into the family three years ago when the Rocky Wirtz, John McDonough and Jay Blunk era began in the Windy City.

From the moment Wirtz took over the team for his late father and hired McDonough, the former Chicago Cubs' marketing mastermind, to run it, the Blackhawks have rapidly regained relevance in what truly is a first-class hockey city.

The new bosses wasted no time inviting legends like Hull, Esposito and Mikita back to the dinner table after 30 years of darkness. They put home games on local television to attract the current generation as well as the two that were lost in the blackout years. They created a summer convention that has become a bigger deal than even they could have imagined.

They convinced NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to put the Winter Classic in a historic baseball stadium such as Wrigley Field and helped the League put on a memorable show.
They gave former GM Dale Tallon an open wallet and Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews the keys to the bus. And on the eve of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, they get to witness Chicagoans going bonkers over their beloved Blackhawks.

Talk about a total transformation.

"We used to have these little business cards with our name and 'Chicago Blackhawks' written on them and we would walk around town and give them away. If you gave them away, people could get two free tickets to a game," said Hawks forward Patrick Sharp, who came to Chicago from Philadelphia in 2005 when the team was barely on the local sports radar. "How times have changed. I'm having a hard time getting my mom and dad tickets to games nowadays, so that tells you how far we've come."

The fans have turned United Center into the "Madhouse on Madison" with the unbelievable noise they create. They roar during Jim Cornelison's now-famous operatic version of the "Star-Spangled Banner," and they rock to The Fratellis' "Chelsea Dagger" whenever the Hawks score.

"If you talk to the people upstairs in the front office they always say it's the product on the ice, but I'll partially disagree with that," Sharp said. "Our winning team has a lot to do with the fans supporting us, but they have a lot to do with it as far as marketing the players, the brand, the Chicago Blackhawks, attracting free agents and making Chicago a top-tier destination in the League. That's what makes us good and that's what makes it so exciting to play here. Every year we're signing big-time free agents -- and five, six, seven years ago, those people weren't even thinking about coming to Chicago."

Sharp said he remembers when only a few of the diehards would show up and cheer for the anthem -- and they probably got in for free because of those little cards guys like Sharp were handing out on the streets. Guys like Mikita would migrate into town and find one of the thousands of empty seats to sit in so they could watch the game in solitude.

"I wouldn't stay for the whole game either," Mikita said. "There weren't too many other people here."

Nowadays, Blackhawks Fever is just as hot outside the arena as inside the United Center.

Windows in bars and downtown buildings are flooded with Hawks flags and placards.

After the Blackhawks clinched their berth in the Final this past Sunday, the words "Hawks" and a huge picture of the famous Indian head logo appeared in lights on the CNA Building. Similarly, the Smurfit-Stone Building on North Michigan Avenue had "Go Hawks" written across its diamond-shaped top. The two bronze lions that flank the Michigan Avenue entrance of The Art Institute of Chicago are wearing giant Hawks' helmets, and the Blackhawk Store at 333 Michigan Avenue is as hot as any on the famous Magnificent Mile.

"Not just because I'm playing here and working for these guys, but I challenge anyone to find a better place to play," Sharp said. "The city is awesome, and the support for the team is as good as it is anywhere else. We get treated like kings. Don't tell them I said this, but we do get spoiled. I think every player would want to play here."

Tickets for Game 1 were selling online Thursday night for $250 just for standing room -- and were as high as $7,500 for one aisle seat on the glass.

"We've got a lot of hockey people in this city," Esposito told

And they're recognizing their favorite Blackhawk players everywhere.

For instance, fourth-line wing Adam Burish attended the Cubs game Wednesday night with his sister -- and the local TV broadcast caught him on camera signing autographs. In what other city (outside of maybe Montreal) is a fourth-liner famous?

On the same night, legendary Blackhawks broadcaster Pat Foley threw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field and later led the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch.

"It's crazy," said defenseman Brent Seabrook, who was here in 2005 with Sharp and Duncan Keith when the building was only a quarter full and Chicagoans needed to be reminded they had a hockey team. "If you go from not being noticed at all to now going out for dinner and people coming up to you and saying good luck, great season or whatever, it's a lot different."

It certainly is for several generations of Blackhawks.

"This is something special," Hull said. "We want to see these guys do well and we are so involved because the management thought enough of us to bring us back to be a part of it. It's had the greatest impact on this 71-year-old's life."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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