by Mike Chen on 04/14/09 at 03:23 PM ET
Did you know there was a point before the Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews era when Chicago still cared about hockey at the United Center? Yes, for the first part of its existence, the United Center version of the Blackhawks were still the run-you-over-and-score team led by Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios. A lot of people tend to forget it, mostly because it was more than ten years ago and so many bad memories came between then.
The phrase “Remember the Roar” was used to celebrate the old Chicago Stadium when that old barn finally met its time. The Roar, a bone-shaking collective cheer that started at the national anthem and remained raucous throughout the game, was transplanted to some degree over at the United Center before the franchise committed PR suicide by letting go all of its popular players and bringing in poor replacements. (Anyone remember Michal Grosek?) Any roars that came during that period were probably due to a Zamboni malfunction more than anything else.
There was, however, one bright moment in the decade or so between the JR/Cheli teams and the current Kane/Toews squad. However, it goes to show you that it’s just playoff games the city really cares about, it’s the players and the organization. Otherwise, why would have the successful 2002 season been so dismal for the Hawks?
The United Center is a huge, cavernous building. As we’ve seen recently (and we’re sure to see over the next few days), when it’s filled to its 21,000+ capacity and the fans are pumped, the sound can be overwhelming. When the building is empty, it can echo like a mausoleum. During the 2002 playoffs, despite making the post-season for the first time in years, the team led by Steve Sullivan, Eric Daze, and Alexei Zhamnov failed to capture the imagination of Chicago sports fans and the United Center remained quiet through a winning campaign.
The Hawks were surprisingly good that year, carrying forward momentum all the way to up a fifth-seed playoff spot. Team captain Tony Amonte was still an appreciated—if not necessarily beloved—Chicago sports figure and there was great hope for a trio of top draft picks named Tyler Arnason, Kyle Calder, and Mark Bell.
In fact, the team’s 96-point finish wasn’t that far off pace from this year’s 104-point finish, especially when you consider that there was no shootout in 2002. And yet, no one seemed to really care about this Hawks team. In the only two home games at the United Center (the Hawks lost 4-1 to St. Louis in the first round), attendance was roughly 20,000 and 18,000 respectively. You can bet that the noise coming out of the United Center wasn’t anything close to a roar, let alone a Roar.
This season, however, the Hawks led the league in attendance. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews can produce mob scenes at HawkQuarters, the official Blackhawks store. Most importantly, the Hawks have re-introduced themselves to the general public.
It’s not just about doing it on the ice. Winning is important, of course, but there’s a difference between a team playing in a city and a team being embraced by a city. If a team merely plays in a city, the casual fan appreciates the wins and shrugs off the losses. If a team is embraced by a city, its players become adopted sons, its wins are victories shared by a gigantic extended family, and its losses are collectively mourned.
That’s the brilliance of what Rocky Wirtz and his crew have done in Chicago. The core of Chicago’s born-again hockey fandom isn’t so much about winning as it is about the Hawks re-connecting with the community and building from the ground up. If you want a real-world analogy, it’s like the cheating lover who finally stops just apologizing for doing something wrong and starts going the extra mile to rebuild bridges and become a better person. For the Hawks, that’s bringing back old faces, getting the team on TV, and doing whatever it takes to generate goodwill off the ice.
Oh, the winning helps. But a team with Zhamnov and Sullivan won some games that season too and the city made nary a peep. You can be sure that if Kane and Toews win some games, the Roar will return for good, not just to cheer a victory but to celebrate its adopted sons.
Now, who’s ready for that national anthem at Thursday’s series opener at the United Center?
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