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After empty season, Blackhawks’ event presentation crew adapts to fans’ return to United Center

From adding players’ song suggestions to the playlist to bringing back the popular “Orchard” intro video, the Hawks’ fan events and experiences team has revamped the in-game presentation.

The Hawks’ sellout crowd of 20,276 at Tuesday’s home opener was a welcome sight for those who run the United Center’s event presentation.
Ben Pope/Sun-Times

With a sellout crowd in attendance for the Blackhawks’ home opener Tuesday, the United Center finally felt like the United Center again.

Nobody appreciated that atmosphere more than the Hawks’ fan events and experiences team — the people behind the videos, graphics, music, pregame ceremonies, intermission programming and everything else that complements the hockey on Hawks game days.

After all, they just survived a full year without any fans at all.

“One of the biggest rushes I get is hearing the crowd get into whatever we’re doing — whether we’re doing something silly . . . or playing an intense song right before a key faceoff,” said Mike Horn, the Hawks’ manager of event presentation.

“It invigorates me to elevate what we do here in-game. And to not have that last season, it was like, ‘Well, I hope what we’re doing is at least making the players happy.’ ’’

The department’s three main functions are to “inform, entertain and create a home-ice advantage,” department director Brian Howe said. But last season, there was no one to inform or entertain besides themselves and a handful of others dotted around (scouts, front-office executives, reporters, etc.).

So other than a few self-aware gimmicks to make themselves laugh, they primarily focused on the home-ice advantage aspect. Horn, with his radio background, handled the music and Ryan Curtin the “crowd” noise.

“The synthetic crowd noise was important for us,” Horn said. “You have to know the game. If you’re playing an ‘Ooh’ at the wrong moment, it just seems awkward. [Curtin] did a phenomenal job.”

Mascot Tommy Hawk became extra-valuable as the only “live entertainment vehicle” the department had at its disposal. His half-baked attempts to catch Patrick Kane’s end-of-warmups puck flips were social-media hits.

And the Hawks turned to their players for more feedback. When Ryan Carpenter suggested some good rock songs, Horn added them to the playlist. When Duncan Keith on Feb. 1 called the arena “pretty dead,” Horn turned up the volume — the fake fans were downright deafening Feb. 2.

“It was interesting to have that dialogue,” Horn said. “I don’t want to sell anyone out, but [sometimes I’d] go, ‘Really, he likes that song?’ It was also cool to get texts from the bench saying, ‘Hey, can you turn it up during warmups?’ [I’d reply,] ‘There’s no one else here. You want it louder? Sure.’ ’’

Outside of the games themselves, the department used the sans-fans season as an opportunity to reset and rejuvenate its approach.

The event marketing and game presentation departments were subsequently combined into one. No longer will there be two DJs. No longer will fans encounter an “inconsistency in messaging” when walking from an atrium event into the lower bowl. No longer will someone in the sponsorship department select the “Shoot the Puck” contestants, then transfer them to the game presentation folks for the puck-shooting itself.

“In the past, it was a game of telephone,” Howe said. “Now you have one team that is in charge of planning and executing all live fan experiences.”

“We changed a lot of things we used to do just because we’d always done them this way,” Horn said. “Last year was a justification — ‘It’s COVID [times], things are different, let’s look at everything.’ ’’

That same logic applied to the in-game presentation. A familiar Hawks-game sound — the Foo Fighters’ “The Pretender” as the second-period intro — was retired last season, and the “Ice Girls” crew won’t return this season.

But two new pregame hype videos debuted Tuesday, one portraying the Hawks as part of the Chicago community fabric and the other a welcome back from Jonathan Toews. The previously beloved “Orchard” video — depicting the stitching of the jersey — returned because of fan demand, as well.

New in-game scoreboard video segments give deeper glimpses into players’ off-ice personalities rather than montaging on-ice highlights. In one segment, players eat “awkward food combinations” like Twinkies with Cheese Whiz. Another segment spotlights the minor-league affiliate Rockford IceHogs, whom the Hawks will promote more now since purchasing them in April.

With so much turnover in the Hawks’ roster since March 2020, there’s a lot of ground to make up to refamiliarize ticket holders with players and prospects.

“There are a lot of fun and easy-to-work-with guys on this team, and their character and personality are going to shine through,” Horn said.

“That was important, especially with having fans back. Some of these guys are newer, and casual fans might not know their backstories. So to develop them as people, you grow a connection with someone — ‘Oh, he’s a funny guy’ or ‘He likes the same songs I do.’ If you feel more connected, it makes you want to cheer for them more.”

And in a sense, the same goes for Howe, Horn and their whole department, too. After a season of emptiness, they’re also finally reconnecting with the fans.

“It’s a really good feeling,” Howe said, “to have people back in this building again.”