It's just over 8 hours until the first puck drop of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final Round games, which kick off at the United Center (UC) here in Chicago.
For the city as a whole, this is a defining moment in its storied sports history. The Hawks haven't brought Lord Stanley's silver trophy home since 1961 - when some of the Blackhawks greatest legends were kings of the ice.
The Hawks have been through their ups and downs since then. Perhaps no time was its lowest than the late 1990s and the first half of the last decade, when not only was the team not particularly good, but its owner, Bill Wirtz, was the last holdout in world of tech-savvy team owners. Blackhawks fans couldn't even watch home games on TV; Wirtz felt televising home games was a disservice to the season ticket holders - of which there were only a few thousand. Bill Wirtz didn't grasp the idea that in order for people to want to pay to put their butts in the UC seats, they might first want to build a bond with the team via television. Wirtz, known for his frugality and stubbornness, had the nickname "Dollar Bill".
Going to home games at the UC - even just a few short years ago - was a whole different experience. On most nights, a few thousand seats - or more - would be empty. Only a few nights per year would sell out - games against Chicago's long-time rivals, the Detroit Red Wings, for example. Or nights such as a cold day in January 2006 when one of the most talked-about rookies in years, wearing a Penguins jersey, took the ice.
I wish I'd had the sense to buy a season ticket back then, but I was under the mistaken belief that season tickets (even nosebleed) were out of my pocket range. By the time I finally looked into it - and was shocked to discover the Hawks were actually one of the ticket bargains of the league - suddenly season tickets had gone from "How many would you like?" to "We have a waiting list of 7,000 and last year there was a 98% renewal rate."
From worst to first? Chicago has done it, and hope to clinch that "first" title by winning hockey's most revered trophy this week.
I moved to Chicago eleven years ago and immediately took up the Blackhawks fandom; it was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned. My childhood favorites, the Hartford Whalers, were no more, and since my favorite player (up til that time), Kevin Dineen, had left the Hurricanes-neé-Whalers, I no longer felt any ties to that team. Due to having a lot of friends in the Chicago/Midwest who were Blackhawks-fans-from-birth, I was swayed in Chicago's directions before I even made the decision to move there.
There's a lot of talk about "bandwagon" fans lately, and part of me can completely understand why fans who were around during the lean years, supporting the team be it win or lose, can feel a little resentful towards people who maybe are along for the party more than anything.
But the sensible part of my brain - the part tied firmly to my inner core of die-hard hockey fan - is okay with the bandwagon fans. Everybody has to start learning somewhere. If you watched a few hockey games during the Olympics, and it turned you on to how exciting hockey is, great. If you're late to the party and just started watching three weeks ago, great.
Just remember: win or lose, true fans don't get up and leave in an effort to beat the traffic rush.
The pieces for the current team started falling into place around 2002. A couple of the players who've been around the team the longest - Duncan Keith (26) and Brent Seabrook (25) - played their rookie year in 2005-06, the year after the NHL lockout. Patrick Sharp, a trade aquisition from the Flyers, also played his first season with the Blackhawks that year. Current team Captain, Jonathan Toews, and star forward Patrick Kane both debuted in 2007-08, although they were drafted one year apart. Dale Tallon is credited with putting together all the pieces that resulted in the team we know as the 2009-2010 Chicago Blackhawks: a team deep and solid with skill, speed, talent, and a capacity to adapt, and more importantly, to win.
The team came together piece by piece, but it is clear that this team shares a deep bond. They enjoy spending time together, not only while playing, but off the ice as well. They're incredibly supportive of one another, and have fun playing the game.
This team has already made its mark on Blackhawks history, breaking many team records late in this remarkable season. They won the most games on the road in franchise history. They won the Central Division title, and then went on to win the Western Championship and their berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And they haven't done it riding on a few key players. The greatness of this team comes from its depth, and the fact that you never know who the next goal scored or next assist or next block will come from. The team is stuffed full of talented, two-way players, who not only shine in their given roles, but can make the plays necessary, no matter which end of the ice they're standing on.
Chicago hockey fans have hungered for a team like this for nearly 50 years. It has been an absolute joy to see the UC jumping again. It is not perhaps since Michael Jordan led the Bulls through their triumphant dynasty reign that the city has known such a deep, powerful team that is on the cusp of inspiring the city for many years to come.
Old and new fans alike are about to witness hockey history over the next two weeks. I'm not going to analyze the Blackhawks more in-depth, toe-to-toe; hockey analysts have been doing that all week, and the conclusion is that this match is a draw. Two equally talented teams, equally deep, with skill to make things happen. Neither has brought home hockey's most coveted trophy in over 35 years.
After last year's run, the Blackhawks were expected to make it this far. At the start of the season, expectations for the Flyers were high, but after stumbling their way through much of the season, they clutched a playoff berth and battled their way to the here and now.
Both teams deserve to be here. Both deserve to win. Only one team can ultimately be the winner, though.
“The support we’ve had from our family, from our fans, everything has been incredible,” team Captain Jonathan Toews said recently. “We want to win it for them, but most of all we want to win it for each and every guy in that locker room.”
Well said, Captain. Now go out there and make us all proud.