At 3:45 p.m. on a Monday afternoon — a workday, mind you — the line of Blackhawks fans streamed from the main entrance of the United Center, past the Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita statues, past the massive construction site to the east of the arena, south down Wood Street, back around the arena, and approaching the nearby Cirque du Soleil circus tents.
The majority of the fans were in jerseys, of course. Two-hundred dollar authentics and $50 off-centered knockoffs. Red ones, white ones, black ones, green ones, Winter Classic 2009 ones, Winter Classic 2015 ones. And, yes, there were countless Patrick Kane jerseys. Men and women wore them. Boys and girls. Even a few babies.
When the doors opened, it was a mad dash through the concourse for open seating, a rare chance for the common fan to sit in the expensive seats and experience the action close up. At 4:45 p.m., there were more fans at the United Center than at an average Florida Panthers home game. At 5:30, it was an Arizona Coyotes-sized crowd. By 6 p.m., a full hour before puck drop, there were more people at the United Center than at the overwhelming majority of hockey games played south of the Canadian border.
For an intrasquad scrimmage. With most of the stars — Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, among them — sitting out ahead of Tuesday night’s actual preseason opener against Detroit.
If John McDonough’s cringeworthy, self-congratulatory speech that immediately followed Kane’s awkward first public comments since he became the subject of a police investigation in Western New York didn’t make it clear that it’s business as usual at 1901 West Madison, then Monday night’s training camp festival certainly did. Whether you like it or not, the Blackhawks are going to have their season-long celebration that was so rudely interrupted by one of the more miserable months in franchise history.
And why not? The fans ate it up. They roared during pregame playoff highlight montages. They cheered as a video played of pint-sized Hawks fans — the next generation, already hooked — scored to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” They sang along as Queen’s “We Are The Champions” played, accompanied on the scoreboard by the Hawks themselves in the giddy moments after Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. Then came one last montage, this one of the parade and Soldier Field rally.
Then, smash cut to now.
There was no summer Cup-chasing movie or montage like after the 2013 title. The Hawks want to put the summer of 2015 behind them, and they believe they have. Kane made his statement, expressed confidence he’d be absolved, the Hawks deflected all (well-appreciated) inquiries out of respect to the investigation, and now it’s only hockey-related questions, please.
It just might work. If Monday was any indication, there’s an endless supply of Hawks fans ready to move on. Ready to keep spending money. Ready to cheer their heroes.
It won’t be easy. There are still very serious questions that need to be answered. There are still important fan concerns that need to be addressed. The Hawks took a beating from the national and Canadian press after Thursday’s disastrous news conference. Some of the team’s most prominent fan-run blogs and websites have openly questioned their fandom in thoughtful essays and furious screeds alike. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Hawks’ impeccable image has taken a hit. In the wake of one of their greatest triumphs, no less.
But on Monday night, they lined up around the block and then some. The puck was dropped. Native son Vincent Hinostroza scored a goal on native son Scott Darling. Pierre-Cedric Labrie threw some punches. The ice girls went to work during timeouts.
After the summer of the Hawks’ discontent, the celebration was back on. Ready or not.
“This is where it all starts,” Toews told the fans before the game, dressed in a Hawks hoodie. “Thanks for coming out. Let’s have a great year.”