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The Verdict: 18,000 hockey fans in Chicago? Not anymore

Friday, 06.11.2010 / 6:21 PM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
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The Verdict: 18,000 hockey fans in Chicago? Not anymore

I am not an expert at estimating crowds, but I would peg Friday’s number attending the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory parade as slightly above 18,000. As your loyal and obedient team historian, I must remind all that 18,000 used to be a popular figure around here. For people who didn’t like hockey or didn’t get it, that was a familiar refrain: even though the old Stadium often had no empty seats on game nights, there still are no more than 18,000 hockey fans in Chicago.

Well, on Friday, it appeared that there were 18,000 bodies crammed into a multi-layered parking garage at the intersection of Washington and Franklin. Then, as a flotilla of trolleys and double decker busses weaved through the Loop and veered north on Michigan Ave., the screaming room only throng grew exponentially.

The question is not whether anybody in the city went to work on this historic occasion, because police officers were ubiquitous, on wheels, on foot or on horses. But you know it’s something special when even Chicago’s finest pause to take pictures of the caravan and applaud the NHL champions.

“Never seen anything like this, the way this place has taken to this team,” said Bobby Hull. “Even when they were standing six deep at the Stadium in our glory days, there wasn’t the buzz there is now. And certainly not in 1961, when we won the Cup the last time. It just wasn’t as big. Plus, after we clinched in Detroit, we couldn’t come back to Chicago. I’m pretty sure we were on a commercial flight, because in that era, manangement wouldn’t spend a dime to watch an earthquake. There was a snowstorm, so we partied there, and by the time we returned to Chicago the edge was off.”

THE VERDICT

Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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Friday, a hot and humid day, there was a snowstorm of confetti as thousands gathered on sidewalks, hung from overpasses, and peered from window wells in buildings along a red sea of humanity. If team management worried about losing generations of support during the extended period of indifference toward this franchise, evidence of renewed affection for the Blackhawks and the sport they play was evident as far as one could see, or hear.

The last love-in accorded to a local team and its title occurred in 2005, when the White Sox were hailed for their World Series conquest. The Sox completed their sweep of the Houston Astros on October 26. The Blackhawks had lost in Nashville the night before and were in Detroit, where they would lose the night after en route to another winter of virtual invisibility and another bye in the playoffs.

If you had suggested then that the Blackhawks would be next, you would have been told to go away for a while to get some rest and come back only when you start to make sense again, preferably with a note from your doctor.

But there were the Blackhawks, in uniform again on June 11, the date when Game 7 of the finals was to be contested at the United Center versus the Philadelphia Flyers, if necessary. It was not, because the Blackhawks went overtime to prevail 4-3 on Wednesday night, so they shed their skates and beards—at least most of them, anyway—to be honored, and to honor those who have become inexorably hooked on them and the game they play. Foul weather was forecast, but on this day, it did not rain on their reign.

On the stage at Michigan and Wacker, barely visible to those who collected for a long-distance sample of the ambiance across the river, emcee Eddie Olczyk introduced dignitaries such as Governor Quinn and Mayor Daley; the four Hall of Fame ambassadors, Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Denis Savard, along with Pierre Pilote, defensive stalwart on that ’61 roster; all the men in suits and sweats who labor behind the scenes; coach Joel Quenneville and assistants John Torchetti and Mike Haviland, who directed piercing glares at officials in Game 6 but were beaming now; broadcasters Pat Foley, John Wiedeman, Troy Murray and Steve Konroyd; and Kevin Magnuson, son of fallen comrade Keith, who would have been all over a ceremony such as this.

Rocky Wirtz Superstar, the owner who never missed a beat or wasted a minute, received a thunderous reaction, as did John McDonough and Jay Blunk, front office wizards. Then came the boys of winter. Kris Versteeg offered a rap song, sort of; Patrick Kane pledged to keep his shirt on this summer and thanked cab drivers everywhere; and Captain Jonathan Toews carried the Cup that players have shared with legions at various establishments since it landed here in the wee hours Thursday morning.

Just another reason why these guys are so revered: they didn’t shrink from the pressure of expectations, and they didn’t hide when their One Goal was achieved. How many professional athletes so openly share their joy without prompting or hubris?

Just like it would have been before Game 7, Jim Cornelison belted out the Star Spangled Banner with Frank Pellico at the organ. But there was no Game 7. Exactly two months after the regular season ended, initiating a marathon saga that required 16 victories in four different and grueling series, the Blackhawks stood there wearing shorts and smiles.

There was a flyover and fireworks and Chris Pronger was nowhere to be seen, because the Stanley Cup had found its way back to Chicago after an extended absence.

Colin Fraser noted how he’d talked recently to pals from other NHL teams who are already working out in preparation for next season. But the Blackhawks can sleep now, if they are so inclined, for they’ve restored hockey to its rightful place in Chicago, not only because they won but because of how they won. They took their fans along on this grand journey, and there were more than 18,000 of them.

This just in from City Hall: Friday’s crowd estimate, 2 million. That’s not a parade, that’s a coronation.