Deserving of the roar
Hawks' up-tempo style fun to watch
CHICAGO -- I swore to myself I wouldn't write about it. I wrote 20 times on the small chalkboard in my kitchen: "Don't write about the atmosphere. Don't write about the atmosphere."
It's been done to death, the whole "Blackhawks' resurrection" angle. You get it already: These aren't Dollar Bill's Blackhawks.
But then, during the introductions of the team's home opener Saturday night, against a feisty Colorado Avalanche team, I looked around the 300 level, the newly tagged "Madhouse on Madison," and I saw the sea of red. And it was a pretty awesome sight.
Of course, we all know why the uncaged Hawks fans sing.
As the fans stood in unison, belting out cheers for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and screaming during the national anthem, I did a quick scan of the upper deck. More than half of the fans in the so-called cheap seats were wearing red Blackhawks jerseys, the kinds that cost $149.99 on the team's Web site. This is a happy fan base. These backers made me a little more optimistic about the state of fanhood than I was earlier in the day, when I saw Patton Oswalt in the thought-provoking sports dramedy, "Big Fan."
The Hawks played to their fans from the red carpet entrance to the pregame introductions. The team's four ambassadors skated out in full uniform, with Tony Esposito in old-school goalie equipment, including the Jason Voorhees mask. Denis Savard, the beloved player who was axed as coach back on Oct. 17, was the first ambassador to skate on the ice, to wild applause.
I know they're paying him, and I know Savard bleeds Blackhawk red, but it still strikes me as odd. If Ozzie Guillen gets fired next year, he'd sooner sleep in a Wrigley Field batting cage than jog on the field a year later, like everything's cool.
There is a real, unsentimental reason to watch this year's Blackhawks team, and it has nothing to do with history, or the Hawks becoming the Winter Cubs, the team to be seen watching.
It's pure aesthetics. The Blackhawks are a fun team to watch, even in an effort coach Joel Quenneville called "ordinary." The Hawks pulled out a 4-3 shootout win, which came down to a goal by Andrew Ladd and several key saves by Cristobal Huet. Ladd, who also got credit for a second-period goal after the game, was the eighteenth shooter, a team record for a shootout.
"I'm near the bottom," Ladd said of the shooting order. "Usually, it doesn't go that long. It was an exciting game for the fans, but I think we, as a group, would like a better effort, but we'll take the two points."
After three games, the shoot-first Hawks came into the game leading the NHL in shots, averaging 40.7 per game and outshooting their opponents 122-70. On Saturday, they had a 26-19 shot advantage. The Hawks come off the bus shooting. A defenseman has factored in all but one goal thus far (Ladd's goal in the second), with either a score or assist, and two goals were scored by the back-liners in this game.
Defenseman Cam Barker fired a shot from the blue line in the first period on a power play and fellow "d-man" Duncan Keith scored a short-handed goal, on a wide-open shot, in the second to tie it at 3-3 with less than four minutes to go in the second period.
"It was a nice play by [Kris] Versteeg," Keith said of his goal. "I called for the puck there and I wasn't really expecting him to make that pass, but he made a great play. I just had to put it in the net."
As usual, no defenseman got a chance in the shootout, though Quenneville said they were starting to get some consideration, given the length of it.
"I told them I was ready to go," Keith said. "But I guess they don't trust the d-men for some reason. Nah, our forwards were making nice moves and our goaltender was making nice saves."
Aside from a scoreless third period and a way-too-long shootout, the Hawks don't waste much time answering goals. Twice tey matched Colorado goals with less than a minute to play -- 29 seconds and 40 seconds, to be exact. That's a good way to control the building.
Stone silence meets Chelsea Dagger.
"Tonight, I think we gave them what they wanted," Versteeg said.
It's been tough to focus on the Blackhawks this fall, with the morbid collapse of both baseball teams and the unbridled optimism of the Bears. It was just April when the city was alive with Blackhawks fever, and the team's star-crossed summer didn't do much to augur enthusiasm. There was no question the team would better its mark on the city's sports fans, and certainly increase its hold on its loyal hockey fans, but there is no question the team can't afford a letdown, right?
Actually, I'm not so sure that's true. It sounds true, sure. But I'd like to see these fans bare their teeth. Last season, the Hawks canned Savard before fans could start to loathe him. They had almost no business in the Western Conference finals, so that loss to Detroit wasn't that bad. Sure, they got some bad ink when they axed general manager Dale Tallon, but it died quickly. And they froze ticket prices, which is always good, though beer is a little pricier.
I guess I'm optimistic about this team. At the same time, I'm curious to see how these fans will support a bad hockey team.
I'm willing to bet the Hawks brass don't agree with me.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.