Commentary

Hawkeytown USA

Chicago's love affair with the Blackhawks is only growing stronger

Updated: September 18, 2010, 9:11 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- As he made his way to the United Center for the first practice of the 2010-11 hockey season, Chicago Blackhawks winger Jack Skille ran into a bit of a problem.

Several streets surrounding the stadium were closed due to the team's training camp fan fest, putting Skille in danger of being late for his first day on the job.

"I yelled at one guy, 'Hey, can I get by you?'" the 2005 first-round pick said. "'I need to make it to practice.'"

But the bumper-to-bumper traffic didn't budge. So Skille called Tony Ommen in the Hawks' front office and explained the predicament.

Ommen gave Skille a tip: Drive on the wrong side of the road.

So that's what he did. Into traffic.

"It was kind of scary for a second there," he said. "I thought I might get pulled over."

Maybe. But more than likely, the way this city is still basking in the afterglow of winning the Stanley Cup, all Skille had to do was explain he was a Blackhawk and he probably would have been given a police escort directly to his locker.

[+] EnlargeBlackhawks
AP Photo/Charles CherneyNew Blackhawks goalie Marty Turco takes part in the first practice of the year.

Such is life right now for any member of the Hawks. New player or old, rookie or veteran, it doesn't matter. Pull that sweater with the infamous Indian head over your shoulders and, for the time being, you're a Windy City God.

Back in June, the city estimated that 2 million showed up for the championship parade. In July, another 12,000 sold out the Blackhawks' convention. And then Saturday, on the first day of training camp, some 18,000 fans showed up to continue the love affair between this city and its hockey team.

"The way these people are accepting us is the coolest thing I've ever experienced in my career," Skille said after practice. "That was by far the coolest practice I've ever been a part of. I usually come out on the ice and do a few lazy circles. Not today. I was gunning it from the start."

Someday, the honeymoon is going to end. Someday, fans of Chicago's hockey team are going to again complain -- about the goaltending, the coaching, the execution. They'll find something to be unhappy about. It's inevitable. But exactly 100 days since Patrick Kane snuck the Stanley Cup-winning shot past Philadelphia's Michael Leighton, that hasn't happened yet.

At 8 a.m. in the parking lots outside the United Center, fans played street hockey, video games and competed in pull-up contests against U.S. Marines. There was air hockey, a bags tournament and the Chicago tradition of Bozo buckets played with a puck. There was a 5K run and a 10K inline skate race. The team said it sold all of its 18,000 tickets to the event, a fact that wasn't lost on veteran goalie Marty Turco, who is in his first year with the Hawks after nine seasons with the Dallas Stars. Like Skille, Turco struggled to navigate his way to his new arena Saturday morning.

"You know, I had heard all about Chicago traffic, but I didn't figure on a Saturday," he said. "Sure enough, I get about four blocks away and there's a road block. And I see these runners in Blackhawks jerseys going up and down the street. It was nuts."

Inside was just as crazy. Screaming fans filled nearly three-quarters of the stadium. Jim Cornelison belted out the national anthem. And the Fratellis' Chelsea Dagger played after each goal. Players and coaches alike raved about the energy in the building.

And again, it was practice.

"I've never seen anything like that in all my years of hockey," forward Patrick Sharp said.

All because of the Stanley Cup. Thirty minutes prior to practice Saturday, the people's trophy sat on a table at center ice, illuminated by a single spotlight. As camera flashes flickered throughout the arena, a gallery of Blackhawks celebration photos streamed on the scoreboard above. From the ice in Philadelphia to the plane ride home to the arrival at O'Hare to the championship parade, everyone smiled, everyone celebrated.

When the goosebumps subsided, a mic'd up Joel Quenneville said to the crowd, "Good morning. How are you doing?"

As if he needed to ask.

Between each on-ice session, the giant video board inside the stadium shared some of the stories of where the Cup has been the past 100 days. There was Brian Campbell surprising his grandparents with the Cup only to watch his grandmother break down in tears. There was Kane, first holding the Cup above his head at Niagara Falls, then showing it to childhood cancer patients and later getting stuck with the Cup atop a Buffalo Fire Department ladder. And then there was Jonathan Toews, toting the puck at a rally in downtown Winnipeg where one fan held a sign that read, "Tazer, will you marry my wife?"

And still, down on the ice, there were constant reminders how this season will be different. None more telling than the names on the back of some familiar jerseys. In fact, the first player on the ice for warm-ups Saturday was No. 33. Not playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien, but rather reserve goalie Hannu Toivonnen. But the fans didn't seem to mind, cheering for everyone wearing a red, white or black jersey.

On Monday, the Stanley Cup will go to an engraver where the names of the 2010 Blackhawks will be permanently etched into its side. On Oct. 9, a championship banner will be raised to the United Center's rafters.

So when will the party come to an end? The players and coaches insist their party is over, with Kane saying that "thinking about the Stanley Cup is not a good thing for our team."

But for the fans, who knows? Some suggested that the high will last for years, just like some say it still does from the White Sox 2005 World Championship. Others said that if the Hawks don't make it to the conference finals they will be upset. Others said as soon as the puck drops, the slate is clean and it's time to start over.

But for the time being, the Blackhawks seem like they can do no wrong. Well, sort of.

"I don't know about that," defenseman Duncan Keith said. "I'm pretty sure we could do something wrong if we wanted to."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE NHL HEADLINES