COLUMBUS, Ohio — Shea Weber still remembers the first time he played in Chicago, the electric atmosphere in front of a big and boisterous crowd.
Then, two months later, he played his first game at the United Center.
“It’s kind of crazy,” said Weber, now an All-Star defenseman for the Nashville Predators. “My first year, I got a chance to play for [the Milwaukee Admirals] against the Wolves, and go to that game, which had 10 or 11,000 fans packed in that stadium. Then I got called up and played against the Blackhawks, and I don’t even think there was 10,000. At least, it didn’t look like it in the United Center, because it’s so big.”
Weber’s memory is as sharp as his shot. On Jan. 21, 2006, his Admirals played in front of 11,124 fans at Allstate Arena. Six weeks later, his Predators played before an announced (read: probably exaggerated) crowd of 9,333 at the United Center.
“It’s crazy, because you go there now and it’s electric,” Weber said. “Everyone loves playing there. Just sitting there during the anthem with the crowd going nuts — it’s special.”
As a 10-year veteran of the Central Division, Weber has had a front-row seat to the remarkable culture change that has turned Chicago into a hockey town over the past six or seven seasons. But nearly every veteran in the league has a story like that. Even the Hawks themselves marvel at the turnaround. Both Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith — now rock stars in Chicago, and two of the most decorated players in the NHL — told stories on Friday about being scratched and watching preseason games from the stands with a few thousand other people and not getting recognized.
“If you did that now, you’d probably get mobbed,” Kane said. “It’s definitely grown. It’s amazing how the turnaround’s happened so quickly, how fans are so interested in the Blackhawks and excited where we’re at.”
Well, in Chicago, at least. The rest of North America is growing weary. Fans around the league are furious that Hawks fans stuffed the ballot box for Sunday’s All-Star game, giving five of the six starter spots to Kane, Keith, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford, and thereby forcing out other players. Toews is a team captain at the game. The league made it official Saturday that the Hawks are going to get yet another outdoor game next season on Feb. 21 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minnesota, their third in less than two years, and record fourth overall. They get nationally televised games on a regular basis, while other teams toil in obscurity.
The Hawks are the league’s standard-bearers, the favored sons, Gary Bettman’s golden children.
Such a thing was unthinkable not too long ago.
“It could have never happened 10 years ago,” Minnesota’s Ryan Suter said. “It just shows how great a team they have, and how great a sports city they have.”
Added former Hawks defenseman and current Winnipeg star Dustin Byfuglien: “Watching that thing all develop, and being there at the beginning was kind of a neat thing. It doesn’t surprise me.”
Suter, a low-key guy who doesn’t much care for the spotlight, marveled at how the Hawks handle their expanded role in the NHL. Friday’s All-Star media day and fantasy draft was an unusual chore for Suter, but just another day in the life of Toews and Kane. Kane was picked again to represent the United States at Saturday’s press conference announcing the return of the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto in September of 2016. Whether it’s an All-Star game, a Winter Classic, a Stanley Cup Final, two all-access documentaries in less than a year, charity and sponsor events, or an endless onslaught of local and national media, the Hawks deal with far more than just hockey on a daily basis.
Bettman said that willingness to be in the spotlight is one reason the Hawks get so many high-profile gigs. Well, that, and the TV ratings they generate and the tickets they sell.
“They do a great job,” Suter said. “It’s not taxing, but it’s just, oh, here we go again. For those guys, they’re so good at managing all the stuff they do, whether it’s marketing stuff or media stuff. And to be able to flip the switch and go play the way they play, it’s pretty impressive. All the guys in Chicago, not just those two [Kane and Toews]. That’s a lot of stuff they’re dealing with, and it probably does take a toll on you after a while.”
Toews, who has grown more comfortable every year in front of the camera and as one of the faces of the league, said it’s more of an honor than a burden.
“You can let those things weigh on you in a certain way, or you can try and have the best attitude toward it and view it as opportunities not only to help grow your sport and maintain that relationship with the fans, but to just enjoy,” Toews said. “It’s a huge compliment to our team, and to anything you might have accomplished as a player playing for this hockey team. If you look at it that way, it’s not just a responsibility but it’s a privilege, as well.”
Any Hawks player who was there in the dark ages, playing meaningless games in a half-empty building, would agree.
“The past few years, how the team’s had success and how hockey’s been built up back in the cit — you can kind of see these things happen,” Kane said. “It’s really amazing that five of six [starters] can get voted in. But at the same time, it’s not really a big surprise to us.”
At least, not anymore.