For the first time in 305 days, the Blackhawks returned to the United Center on Sunday.
No fans — only tarps — filled the stands. There were no ads on the boards. And the Hawks were their own opponent, holding an intra-squad scrimmage. Tommy Hawk, who faithfully fulfilled his mascot duties by dancing alone in the second deck, was perhaps the only source of normalcy.
But hockey was played nonetheless. And with no NHL preseason happening this year before the regular season begins Wednesday, it had to suffice.
“It feels like it’s been forever,” forward Matthew Highmore said. “It’s crazy with everything that’s gone on. It felt good to be here for morning skate and to play here. We’re missing the fans, [and] it’s not quite the same, but it’s still our home rink.”
For Hawks veterans, the scrimmage required a strange adjustment to a venue they know so well. The last time they were here — on March 11 — a crowd of 21,275 was in attendance for their 6-2 victory over the Sharks.
But for prospects and first-timers, the building’s aura resonated, even without people in the seats.
“It was so cool,” rookie defenseman Ian Mitchell said. “Just this morning for [our] skate, walking out and looking up and around and seeing all the banners was pretty special for my first time. We definitely miss the fans, for sure, but it was still really cool to be out there today.”
The Red Team, despite having most of the projected NHL players, fell 8-2 to the White Team.
Coach Jeremy Colliton saw the scrimmage as essential to prepare for the Hawks for their season opener Wednesday against the Lightning in Tampa, Florida. There are some things practice just can’t replicate.
“It’s a must,” Colliton said. “There’s a lot of kinks to work out. There’s even more COVID protocols and just getting used to game-day routine and all those things. It doesn’t matter how much you practice and try to get up to game speed — playing three 20-minute periods is another thing. So I’m glad we did it.”
Highmore, on the White Team, scored twice and factored into four goals, showing more signs he could be on the verge of an offensive breakout after a promising showing in the playoffs in August. Colliton also singled out Mitchell and center prospect Philipp Kurashev, who scored twice, as the most impressive players of the night.
Goalies Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia each saw 30 minutes of action, with Subban looking sharper in this limited sample. Matt Tomkins struggled in relief.
Defenseman Nick Seeler and forward Reese Johnson, depth guys fighting uphill battles for roster spots, had a less heartwarming return to Madison Street. They fought early in the third period, and it was hardly for show. Colliton said he didn’t mind the fight and emotions as long as the players avoided injury.
The Red Team’s power play, loaded up with the stars who will man the Hawks’ actual power play Wednesday, struggled in an 0-for-4 showing. Defenseman Adam Boqvist, leading the unit, said the Hawks can take away lessons about entering the offensive zone smoothly and moving the puck quickly once inside.
“You have to be quick out there,” Boqvist said. “You have to go with instinct — can’t think too much. Obviously, if you get a shot, maybe [you] come down a little bit. Overall, we didn’t do very well tonight, but hopefully we’re ready for Wednesday night.”