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Hawks hockey heats up Chicago

by Dan Rosen
CHICAGO — The commissioner put his elbows on the podium and rested his chin on his hands. He had to think, because the question certainly required some pondering.

Has he ever seen a team or a franchise come back to life as majestically as the Chicago Blackhawks have over the course of the last 11 months?

"None like this," Gary Bettman ultimately responded to the attending media at his pre-game press conference prior to Wednesday's game between the Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers at the United Center.

"There have been instances where a team has had a particularly good run, maybe won the Cup, and you see an incredible reaction," Bettman continued. "For example, season tickets in Tampa Bay after they won the Cup set records. Anaheim had a strong turnaround. Carolina is another good example. But I have never seen anything like this."

You already know Blackhawk hockey is back in Chicago with the potential to be bigger and better than ever before. If nothing else, the sheer overwhelming numbers tell the story.

Season tickets sales are up more than 300 percent from last season to this season. Attendance is up nearly 50 percent from the 2006-07 season. Merchandise revenue and sponsorship sales are way up. All 82 games are on television.

And, of course, the NHL is bringing its supremely popular Winter Classic to the Windy City for a game on Jan. 1 at Wrigley Field that has the potential, provided the weather cooperates, to turn Chicago into a digital postcard for years to come.

It's still more than two months away, but this city and these fans are ready for the Winter Classic. Blackhawks President John McDonough, who can be called the architect behind the franchise's astonishing turnaround, said that game is proof that this franchise has a pulse again.

"In some ways, it's a validation that (the NHL) at least knows something is happening here and they have trust in us that we're really going to help market this game, that we're going to put a competitive team on the ice, that it's an Original Six team and the city will embrace it," McDonough told Wednesday afternoon. "It's going to be a network event and maybe a six-week commercial for Chicago and the Hawks coming back."

The commissioner got a feel for the enthusiasm for the New Years Day game as soon as he touched down in the Windy City — and he only arrived late Wednesday afternoon after spending the first part of the day in St. Paul., Minn. for the Lester Patrick Award  luncheon.

"I've already heard in the brief couple of hours that I have been here that people are excited and want to know what the final arrangements are going to be," Bettman said.

He said the arrangements from the game have not yet been finalized, mainly because the Cubs "have been preoccupied recently. Perhaps not as preoccupied as some fans would like, but they still had a good season.

"In the next couple of weeks or so things will be finalized," Bettman added. "There is no urgency. I say that because this game is going to be sold out and most of the tickets will be going to season ticket-holders of the Blackhawks. They are our first priority and the Blackhawks first priority. We're not going to have the massive public sale like we did in Buffalo last year when we were playing in a 72,000-seat facility. Having said that, some tickets will be made available to the public — but if you want to be assured one, you should get season tickets."

Bettman called last year's Winter Classic in Buffalo "an absolute highlight last year," and added that "we're expecting it to be terrific again."

He does have one concern.

"Provided the weather cooperates," Bettman said. "That's the one thing we can't control, but I'm counting on the Chicago winter to protect us, because if it's 60 degrees and it rains I'm going to be very unhappy. I'm told it never gets like that on New Year's Day. What we don't need either is a two-foot blizzard. If we're somewhere in between the two extremes that I just laid out I think we'll have a spectacular day and it will be a lot of fun for the people in attendance."

Brian Campbell can attest to that. The Blackhawks defenseman played in last year's Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium as a member of the Sabres. Campbell, who signed with the Hawks during the summer, scored Buffalo's lone goal in the memorable 2-1 shootout loss, capped by Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby's picturesque shootout winner.

"It's going to be even a tougher ticket than it was in Buffalo," Campbell told "Chicago is really excited about it. They have had some time to get merchandise out and people have the time to buy it whereas in Buffalo I don't know if it even came out until just before or the day of the game. It's an exciting feeling for everybody. I've been to baseball games there, but to be able to play at Wrigley Field is pretty historic."

While serving in a similar capacity as president of the Cubs, McDonough, who worked for the baseball team for 24 years, said he never considered the Blackhawks playing an outdoor game anywhere, let alone one of the most historic venues in all of sports, before seeing the game in Buffalo.

McDonough's relationships with the people in the Cubs organization, namely the team's chairman, Crane Kenney, helped broker the deal between the NHL, the Blackhawks and the Cubs.

"When I saw the game in Buffalo I called (Blackhawks chairman) Rocky (Wirtz) the next day and I said, 'We have to have this game,'" McDonough said. "This is when attendance was coming back and people recognized that we were doing business over here. Plus, more importantly, the team was better."

While the layout of the rink has still not been officially determined, Bettman said it's likely that the ice surface will run across the back of the infield between first base and third base.

"Visualize it that way," Bettman said. "The devil will be in the details as we get a little more into it. When we put tickets on sale obviously people will know where the rink is, but that would be my best guess."

McDonough isn't stopping at the Winter Classic. A month after he proposed Wrigley Field as a viable option for the Winter Classic, he sent the commissioner and others a presentation detailing why the United Center would be a good venue for a future Entry Draft.

Bettman suggested there is no reason why it shouldn't happen.

"John McDonough has expressed an interest in doing everything humanly possible to bring events here and I think that's great," Bettman said. "John's enthusiasm and energy is part of why you're seeing what you are seeing here on a regular basis. It is something he's mentioned to me. We're not yet in position to say for sure, but obviously this would be a terrific place for us to come with the draft."

As McDonough mentioned Wednesday afternoon, perhaps an All-Star Game, too.

"It seems like John McDonough, Rocky Wirtz and Dale Tallon have made all the right decisions," Hawks budding superstar Patrick Kane told "I know when John came on he pushed real hard for the Winter Classic and he got it. He’s probably pushing real hard for the All-Star Game and the Draft. That guy never quits."

As long as the Blackhawks are as successful on the ice as they are off it, the fans will never quit either.

"Ideally the playoffs are in our future this year," McDonough said, "but (the fans) recognize that there is a new way of doing business at 1901 West Madison."

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