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For new Blackhawks, United Center’s anthem atmosphere provides unique pregame boost

The tradition of cheering through the anthem remains as fervent as ever. The Hawks’ new players, even European ones, can’t help but feed off the energy.

Blackhawks fans’ tradition of cheering through the national anthem (seen here in a 2016 file photo) is striking to new members of the team.
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Defenseman Olli Maatta was 0-4 with the Penguins against the Blackhawks at the United Center.

He never scored and had a minus-7 rating. He’d heard Jim Cornelison sing the national anthem amid a cacophony of cheers those four times but never drew motivation from it.

Now things are different.

“The anthem sets the tone; the fans here are absolutely unbelievable,” Maatta said. “I remember when [the Penguins] came here and played, it was always a high-energy building, and it’s definitely that. I’m glad to be on this side.”

Three games into this seven-game homestand, the Hawks’ crowds at the United Center haven’t been quite as raucous during play and after goals as in previous seasons. The team’s slow start and the declining resale value of tickets are likely to blame.

But the tradition of cheering through the pregame anthem remains as fervent as ever.

With the dynasty in the rearview mirror, it’s one part of the game experience still guaranteed to satisfy.

Forward Drake Caggiula, who found more success as a road opponent in Chicago (going 2-0 with the Oilers before his trade last season) than Maatta, said the anthem before the home opener last Thursday was the loudest he’d heard yet.

And, yes, he pays close attention every time. It’s not that the anthem noise penetrates his pregame regimen and mental preparation — it’s that his routine and preparation revolve around the anthem.

“Before the game even starts, the crowd seems like they’re into it, and it just allows you to come out guns blazing and feeling good about yourselves,” Caggiula said. “Obviously, the more the crowd’s into it during the game — not just the national anthem — we feed off that, too.”

Maatta agrees.

“Everybody has their routine, and [the anthem] part of the routine, you’re kind of forced into, and you can use that to try to get into that game mode,” he said. “That’s kind of a cue for you to say, ‘OK, here we go.’ ”

Fans have clapped and cheered through the anthem at every Blackhawks home game since 1985 — and players notice.
2014 Sun-Times file photo

The NHL’s custom of playing the anthems of both teams’ countries — before the game Monday against Edmonton, Cornelison belted “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” — always has been somewhat less impactful than in other major leagues because of hockey’s international milieu.

Maatta never gets to hear the Finnish anthem; fellow Hawks newcomer Robin Lehner, who admitted he doesn’t pay much attention to the pregame festivities, never gets to hear the Swedish anthem. Same for fellow Swede Erik Gustafsson, Czechs David Kampf and Dominik Kubalik and seven players in the visiting Oilers’ lineup.

But the experience, at least at the United Center, tends to transcend nationality. For European players, energy is derived from the crowd’s passion rather than the meaning of the lyrics.

Just ask Kubalik, playing his first season in the United States.

“All the guys were telling me that when the national anthem is there, it’s always crazy,” Kubalik said. “I’ve never seen this before. When I played in the world championships in Bratislava, [Slovakia], people were singing, but they weren’t that loud. It’s very special here.”

Kubalik’s experience in Slovakia mirrors what takes place in many other NHL arenas, where crowds remain largely silent during the anthem.

Those atmospheres are easy for players, just moments away from puck-drop, to tune out. But Chicago, despite the Hawks’ struggles, remains different.

“It’s hard not to [pay attention], honestly,” Maatta said. “It gets you really excited for the game, really pumps you up, so it’s a good thing.”