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Sports Saturday

Last fans standing: Recounting the Sharks-Blackhawks game on March 11, the last game in town before sports shut down

While the NBA suspended its season and President Trump banned travel to Europe, the Hawks and Sharks played in front of a sold-out United Center crowd. The 21,275 in attendance experienced one of the most surreal nights of their lives.

An announced crowd of 21,275 attended the Blackhawks-Sharks game at the United Center on March 11.
Ben Pope/Sun-Times

Brandon Saad cut to the front of the net, took a pass and scored through Aaron Dell’s legs to give the Blackhawks a 3-1 lead over the Sharks.

It was 8:34 p.m. on March 11.

He celebrated in characteristic fashion, with a yell and double fist-pump, as “Chelsea Dagger” blared.

He had no way of knowing — Hawks teammates would say later they didn’t receive any outside information at either intermission — that the world in which he scored his 21st goal of the season was quickly looking a lot different than the world in which he scored his first 20.

Unlike other disasters of this generation, the coronavirus pandemic did not arrive in an instant. John Lennon’s 1980 death stunned a live television audience on ABC’s “Monday Night Football”; Osama Bin Laden’s 2011 death earned an announcement during an MLB game on ESPN. The emergence of COVID-19 was not nearly as sudden or surprising in any given moment.

But if the pandemic did have a specific arrival point, it was the night of March 11.

In a span of roughly two hours, the NBA went from postponing a game due to a player — Jazz center Rudy Gobert — testing positive for the virus to indefinitely suspending the season.

President Donald Trump announced an unprecedented European travel ban. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson became the first American celebrities to test positive. The ill-fated 2020 NCAA Tournament announced it would play without fans.

And during those same two hours, the Hawks and Sharks played a regular-season NHL game like nothing was happening at all.

As far as the participants in the game knew, nothing was happening.

But the 21,275 fans who packed the United Center that night knew. What began as another typical game day became a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The fans learned the scope of a crisis that ultimately would ban crowds and sports while in a crowd watching sports.

“In the morning, it was not a big deal,” said Andrew Cameron, a student at Joliet Junior College, who was in attendance. “The next day, it was the biggest deal on the planet.”

This month, the Sun-Times interviewed 18 of the fans lucky — or unlucky — enough to be at the game that night.

They sat in the 100 and 300 levels and in suites and boxes. Some are season-ticket holders. Others were attending their first Hawks game of the season, or ever. Many were Chicagoans, but others traveled from Edmonton or northern Wisconsin to attend the game.

Together, they experienced perhaps the strangest Hawks game in history.

Daytime

Susan Leibforth received the text from her sons, both Hawks season-ticket holders, a few days in advance: Would she and her husband, Bill, want their tickets for the Sharks game?

For Bill, in his mid-70s, the answer was no. He already had heard of the health risks of the virus and decided going to a large public gathering wasn’t worth it.

So Leibforth invited her two granddaughters and one of their friends instead.

“I decided I was just going to be very careful,” she said. “I talked to the girls before we went and said, ‘Try not to touch the rails,’ and all the things that were new to us then. And I gave them each a little hand sanitizer.”

Patrick Dennis and his girlfriend, Sarah, then Illinois State seniors, also were sharing hand sanitizer and developing a healthy game plan while driving up Interstate 55.

Months before, Dennis had decided between the Hawks’ March 11 game against the Sharks and the March 13 game against the Senators for a late birthday present, given that both games aligned with his spring break.

He eventually picked the Sharks matchup, a Wednesday night, because of his wariness of Friday traffic in Chicago. It was to be his third NHL game.

“The thought crossed my mind as I was driving up,” Dennis said. “I made my girlfriend hand-sanitize everything, don’t touch your face when we’re in the United Center, don’t get too close to other people if we can — which is kind of a fool’s errand when you’re at a professional sports event.”

As Leibforth and Dennis drove in, Bob Bednarz — a season-ticket holder in Section 331 — sat at dinner with two friends, one a nurse.

“I was asking them, as people in the medical field, ‘What is your opinion [about COVID-19]?’ ” Bednarz said. “And they were like, ‘It’s bad, but as long as you keep good hygiene, you wash your hands and you don’t do anything crazy, it shouldn’t affect your day-to-day life.’ ”

After that dinner conversation, Bednarz went to the United Center reassured, expecting little to come from the coronavirus.

Tracy McGrath, exuberant about receiving last-minute tickets from her boss, felt the same as she waited in security with her boyfriend.

“He did [feel hesitation] and kept bringing it up, and I kept saying, ‘You’re crazy, we’re fine. Just stop. Nothing’s going to happen. It’s fine,’ ” McGrath said. “At the time, I didn’t really grasp it.”

While waiting, she received an email: Her office was closing. She wasn’t to come in Thursday, denying her a chance to thank her boss in person. It was stunning news, but it was just the beginning of a very busy night for her phone.

Meanwhile, inside the arena, Section 333 season-ticket holder Erin Berry ran into her Hawks sales representative and wasn’t quite sure how to behave.

“We joked, ‘Do we shake hands? Do we not shake hands? Is that still allowed?’ ” Berry said, laughing. “I can remember us making a joke about that, and I was like, ‘I literally just washed my hands, it’s fine.’ We shook hands, and I was like, ‘That was still kind of weird.’ ”

Puck drop

The United Center was officially sold out again, marking the building’s 531st consecutive sellout.

But it was a late-arriving crowd, partially because of the early start — 7 instead of 7:30 p.m. because it was NBC Sports Network’s Wednesday night national game — and partially because of the coronavirus.

Cary Jacobs, another longtime season-ticket holder, noticed the difference in his section.

“In fact, there were a lot of people that did not go to that game,” Jacobs said. “The two aisle seats were empty, and at least four of the seats on the other side of me were empty. And then there’s another group in the row in front of me where there’s five or six season-ticket holders ... and only one of them was there.”

That had a big impact on the supply-demand curve in the resale market, which already had been ugly for 2019-20 Hawks tickets because of the team’s struggles.

“Just for kicks, I decided to go online to look at what the ticket prices were at that time, and you could get a ticket basically where we were sitting for $4,” Dennis said. “We had paid $60 for them, and my girlfriend was not terribly happy to hear that.”

Yet the arena eventually filled up, with only slightly more empty seats than usual scattered around during the first period, which ended with a 1-0 Sharks lead.

At left, Susan Leibforth’s grandchildren and friend during warmups; at right, Mark and Isabel Poulterer wearing Corey Crawford jerseys during the game.
Provided

Then at 8:04, as the second period began, the first domino — in what would become a transformative night for the nation — fell.

“I happened to be checking out my phone on Reddit, and just from looking around there, the first thing I saw happened to be the [Europe] travel ban,” Dennis said. “I turned to my girlfriend, and I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is really getting serious.’ ”

In the plush BMO Harris Club, where Silvia Hernandez was attending her first hockey game with a business group, there was significantly more alarm.

“At that time, we had coworkers — one in Malta, one in the U.K.,” Hernandez said. “We were like, ‘Oh, no. They have to get on the first flight back.’ We were just panicking during the game to figure out what they were going to do.”

At 8:06, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson released a statement about their positive diagnosis. That revelation brought far less direct impact to Hawks fans than the travel ban but arguably even more sentimentality.

“Once Tom Hanks had it, I was like, ‘Oh, anybody can get it,’ ” Hernandez said.

Doomsday

Eight hundred miles southwest, the Thunder-Jazz NBA game had been called off relatively early. It became official at 7:40. The sports world already was paying close attention to the developing situation there.

Several Hawks fans, including Section 306 season-ticket holder Matt Lavieri, mentioned they were among those watching for news out of Oklahoma City.

When the bombshells dropped, they dropped fast and hard.

At 8:27, Gobert tested positive. At 8:30, Patrick Kane gave the Hawks a 2-1 lead. At 8:31, the NBA halted its season. At 8:34, Saad scored.

“I clicked on [an Adrian Wojnarowski tweet], and I thought it was just going to be a trade or something,” Cameron said. “And the tweet says, ‘NBA season suspended.’ And I was just like, ‘Oh, my god.’

“A few seconds after that, Saad scores, and we just sit down and mull over it and think, ‘Is that real? The NBA season is suspended because of coronavirus?’ ”

Across the upper bowl, McGrath’s cellphone erupted with 10 times as much buzzing as when her work closed.

“My phone started blowing up during the game, from Twitter to Facebook to my friends texting me going, ‘Are you OK? What’s happening? Are you leaving the game?’ ” McGrath said.

“You go into it not thinking about anything but the game. But then when my phone starts blowing up and everybody around you is looking at you like you’re crazy, then it starts to hit you that there’s all this happening, and it’s bigger than sports, and it’s bigger than what’s happening right there in that moment.”

The news reverberated through the arena even faster than any contagious disease possibly could.

“It was kind of a ripple,” Dennis said. “You overheard somebody talking about it and thought, ‘There’s no way that’s actually true.’ And you check your phone, and it’s, ‘Oh, crap, it’s actually true.’ ”

“The arena was like up, down, up, down,” said Gary Winthrope, who got free tickets in Section 109 from a hesitant friend. “Everybody was looking at their phone, then looking at the game.”

“It was a little bit surreal where you’re kind of in two places at once,” Bednarz said. “You’re in this environment where everything seems great and you’re celebrating, but at the same time, you’re like, ‘Oh, crap, what’s going to happen?’ ”

At the time, no one in the arena knew if the game would be finished or if the slate of West Coast NHL games scheduled later that night would be played.

On the TV broadcast, NBCSN commentators Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk made no mention of the elephant in the room until the second period ended, when they teased a “major NBA announcement” to be discussed during intermission. Minutes later, Darren Dreger reported that the NHL was crafting a statement.

Finally, at 9:12, the league announced it would defer its decision — which turned out to mirror the NBA’s — to the next day. The Hawks game, already in the third period by then, would finish normally.

That didn’t mean the atmosphere went back to normal, though.

“There were a couple people in front of us that were ... very typical Hawks fans,” Cameron said. “There was a Sharks fan a couple rows behind us they were chirping at, and [they were] going crazy at every goal. But after the news broke out, the second intermission happens, and the guy just gets up and turns around to us and says, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not spending another minute in here.’ ”

Aftermath

Dominik Kubalik added a cherry onto the Hawks’ dominant 6-2 win with a rocketing slap shot in the final minutes, making him the only rookie to reach the 30-goal mark so far this season.

But many fans already had left by then, either because of the blowout or the pandemic. And those who remained didn’t want to touch each other, making the goal more awkward than celebratory.

“Blackhawks fans, we’re a family. Everybody talks and high-fives after a goal,” Winthrope said. “And after Kubalik’s goal, everyone stood up, but no one was high-fiving. It wasn’t like what it usually is.”

“It was maybe [half] of the people, but a quarter of the reaction,” Dennis said. “It was less of a get-up-and-scream and more of a ‘Yay, maybe this will end soon.’ Because I really do think people were scared.”

“It was a win, but it almost didn’t feel like it,” Lavieri said. “It almost felt like we lost.”

At the final horn, many of those who remained took pictures of the emptying arena or the “Blackhawks Win!” message on the scoreboard, seemingly aware they wouldn’t see either sight again for quite a while.

Fans stayed after the final horn to take pictures of the United Center for one last time in 2019-20.
Ben Pope/Sun-Times

Indeed, most of the fans interviewed said they felt certain at that point that the NHL soon would pause its own season, or at least switch to holding all games without fans.

“All the conversations I could hear — and the conversation I was having with the person in front of me — were all like, ‘OK, this is probably it for the year,’ ” Jacobs said. “When the game ended, everybody was like, ‘See you next season.’ Once that [NBA] story came out, everybody got the feeling that we wouldn’t be back.”

For those already in the concourses, it was a mad dash to the safety and seclusion of their cars. There was little milling around, socializing or even self-relieving.

“I saw almost nobody in the bathroom after the game because I get the feeling people didn’t want to go somewhere like a public restroom that was so possibly highly contaminated,” Cameron said.

“It’s a postgame tradition for me, no matter who I go with, to walk to the atrium and browse the store and look at the jerseys,” said Justin Ligeski, who attended the game with Cameron. “That was the first time the switch flipped in my head: ‘I can’t do that. I need to go home.’ ”

Bobby Ziegler had it even worse. He’d bought with friends a monthly plan that gave them standing-room tickets to all 11 scheduled Hawks home games in March. But he realized that night they wouldn’t be seeing the final seven.

Plus, he’d ridden the El to the game — a decision he greatly regretted in retrospect.

“I took the Green Line down, and going home, I was very cognizant not to touch anything,” Ziegler said. “I remember my son saying that, in New York, they were already starting to shut the subway down. I was worried if I was going to have to walk home. It was that crazy.”

In the locker room, the Hawks were just starting to find out all that they’d missed.

The NHL had implemented a closed-room policy two days before in response to the coronavirus’ spread, so a shell-shocked Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and coach Jeremy Colliton were instead escorted one by one to talk to the media.

“I didn’t know anything until just now, seeing it on the TV,” Keith said. “It makes you wonder what’s going to happen, and it really could be something where we’re doing the same thing [as the NBA].”

“I guess things are getting pretty real around here,” Kane added with a nervous chuckle.

Looking back

Monday marked two months since the March 11 Sharks-Hawks game and the night that flipped 2020 on its head.

There hasn’t been any hockey since, and the AHL — fittingly, though coincidentally — commemorated the anniversary by canceling the rest of its season.

The NHL reportedly continues to evaluate dozens of potential resumption scenarios, but none would begin anytime soon and none would involve fans in the building. The United Center, after all, is filled with thousands of pounds of food and couldn’t host a hockey game if it tried.

Many Chicagoans even might be struggling to remember what pre-coronavirus life was like — or how nice it was to have numerous live sporting events to consider attending or watching every night.

But the 21,275 who chose to take in the last game they possibly could have aren’t having any trouble remembering that experience now. They might not forget it for the rest of their lives.

“It’s one of those things where you look back and you’re like, ‘Wow, that could’ve been super risky,’ ” Bednarz said. “Who knows how many people — at the game even — had [coronavirus] or caught it. But what are you going to do about that? It’s crazy to think about.”

“The historical impact that it’ll have for me are just the feelings I had, sitting in that seat, throughout the whole third period,” Ligeski said. “ ‘What am I going to do after this game? What is life going to be like?’ ”

“It’s definitely going to be a ‘Where were you?’ moment,” Winthrope said. “Like a ‘Where were you when O.J. was [acquitted]?’ kind of thing. And now, ‘Where were you when coronavirus hit big?’ I was at a sold-out United Center watching the Blackhawks play. And that’s just so weird to me.”