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Three Periods of the Condor: The view from up high

by Bob Condor /
Every NHL fan knows that watching a game in person changes everything. You follow hockey differently after that. During the Stanley Cup Final, Editor-in-Chief Bob Condor will be watching games from various locations inside the arenas in Chicago and Philadelphia -- to give the both fan and insider perspectives.

CHICAGO --  About 12 minutes into the FIRST PERIOD of Game 1 here Saturday night, Dave Bolland capitalized on Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn's turnover to score a breakaway goal, freezing Philly goalie Michael Leighton -- but no question releasing the inner funk of Michael Cunningham up in Section 314.

Cunningham was several rows down from the top rung of United Center, up in a corner of the arena. As fans slapped him high-fives, Cunningham made his way up the aisle.

"Uh-oh, here he comes," said Eric Billimoria.

Cunningham burst past Billimoria and another pal, Mike Cordaro. While The Fratellis' "Chelsea Dagger," the usual goal celebration song, played on the public-address system, Cunningham hop-hopped in a dance that only someone under 30 years can do with any style. The rest of us couldn't pull it off. A dozen fellow fans in the standing-room-only section admired Cordaro's moves and smiled.

"We started coming [to United Center] when the home games went on TV," Billimoria said. "That changed everything."

Billimoria and his two friends all graduated from the downstate University of Illinois and settled in Chicago's trendy Lincoln Park. The three men have attended at least one game of each round of this spring's playoffs -- not seeing a loss yet -- and would be glad to buy season tickets for next season, save for one obstacle.

"The waiting list is 8,000 people," Billimoria said.

Two game minutes later, a Section 314 regular, the guy with a Tony Amonte jersey and full Indian headdress, snapped off another funny line among his ongoing yell/howl dialogue.

"I love you Antti! I love Antti Niemi! I love Antti Niemi!"

Short pause.

"I really do!"

While Niemi was allowing two later-period goals for a Flyers 3-2 lead going into intermission, one couple in the Sect. 314 SRO group "scouted" a pair of open seats in the 100 section, four rows from the ice. The boyfriend (no rings on the hand of either he or she) said goodbye to the others, with the qualifier if "we get booted from the 100s, can we get our spots back?" Everyone agreed, but moments later the others were happy to see that the couple succeeded.

Seven minutes into the SECOND PERIOD, Blair Betts scored his first goal of the postseason to put the Flyers back on top, 4-3. A United Center usher hustled out of the entrance ramp from a 200 section near center ice. The usher was beelining out from his station, visibly upset and shaking his head. He muttered "Oh, no, oh, no, oh, no," held his head in his hands, then returned to work.

That usher's section was heavy on Blackhawks jerseys with names of stars of yesteryear. The heart-tugger? Several spottings of "Magnuson" black vintage jerseys honoring the late red-haired Chicago defenseman Keith Magnuson, who was called "Maggie" by fans and beloved for two specific
things: Standing up in fights with opponents much bigger (never caring if the blood spilled was his) and always being the first man out of the gate for every Blackhawks' home game, sprinting a lap or two to high-throated cheers. People here loved Magnuson so much his jersey was co-retired with the great 1960s defenseman Pierre Pilote. Those 200s fans with the Magnuson jerseys? Pretty much all guys in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

During the NHL's Stanley Cup Final Media Day on Thursday, the Blackhawks' Tomas Kopecky was sitting at a table with two other teammates, not getting asked many questions during the 45-minute open session. That's what happens when you are a healthy scratch for five straight games.

"I can't worry about the coach's decision," Kopecky said. "I just have to work hard in practices and hope he [Chicago coach Joel Quenneville] tells me I can play."

Kopecky talked for a while about the disappointment of his native Slovakian Olympic team losing the bronze to Finland (he and teammate Marian Hossa share the hurt). He perked up a bit when talking about how much he learned playing for the Red Wings during last year's postseason.

"Experience is helping me now," he said. "I know I can compete at this level and time of the season. I know I have to stay ready, that I will get my chance. I have to believe that."

Eight-plus minutes into the THIRD PERIOD, Kopecky maximized his chance as a fill-in for the injured Andrew Ladd. He scored the game-winner -- his fourth of these playoffs -- to put Chicago ahead to stay.

"I will be ready," Kopecky said quietly on Thursday.

He was, and Chicago fans walked and danced into the early summer night.

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