That old Chicago feeling

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:50 AM ET

CHICAGO -- You don't need to have been playing in Chicago very long, or have played here very long ago, to remember when game night at the United Center had all the atmosphere and electricity of Evander Holyfield reading Shakespeare.

Not a lot of people in the seats, and the ones who were there spent most of the evening wondering why.

"There were five or six years there where it was almost sad to come into the building," said former Blackhawk Ethan Moreau, who left Chicago in 1998 and rolled his eyes whenever he came back as a visitor. "You're standing there during the anthem and look around and there was only five or six thousand people."

And none of them were all that happy to be there.

With the franchise's world famous energy lying in ruins beneath the rubble of old Chicago Stadium, the storied Blackhawks were no longer worth crossing the street for.

So not many did.

"The core of hockey fans here is awesome, it's a really passionate group," said Moreau. "They didn't disappear, they just went away for awhile because they were pissed off at some of the things that were happening."

The Hawks were losers, showing no signs of getting better, and owner Bill Wirtz, short-sighted and stuck in the '50s, made little or no effort to reach out to the frustrated fans.

It was painful to see an Original Six franchise in such miserable shape.

"It was my first year in the NHL, so you're just excited to be here and that's all you really know," said Duncan Keith, who at five years is one of the longest serving Hawks. "But some of the veterans, I remember looking at their faces and they were pretty depressed. You look at things now and realize why."

Because when the Blackhawks are rolling, there are few better places to watch a game. And the reborn Backhawks, a young, exciting team on the way up, are definitely rolling. Hard to play and fun to watch, they've sold out their 20,000-seat building 55 times in a row. They averaged 22,247 last season with all the standing room tickets sold.

When they do the anthem here, visitors get goose bumps again.

It's fun being a Hawk, and a Hawks fan.

"It's pretty crazy, but it's been a lot of fun," said Brent Seabrook, another veteran who's seen both sides of the story. "Seeing how things have changed in the last couple of years, being able to play in front of a packed house compared to playing with half a building is definitely different.

"You do something good, score a big goal, get a big hit, make a big save, and it gets pretty rocking in here. It's a fun atmosphere. Once they get roaring it's pretty special. It's like no other experience in the NHL."

With the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and a strong cast of skill and experience, the Hawks are for real again. They made it to the conference final last season (for the first time in 14 years) and were showcased in Europe to start this season. They have a progressive thinker in Rocky Wirtz, who inherited the team from his late father and are loving life in one of the NHL's most exciting cities.

"To be a part of it now and see the transformation is pretty cool," said Keith. "Especially after seeing it four years ago during the downtime, with all the empty seats in here.

"We have a team that's very offensive and likes to carry the puck. It's a fun style to play and a fun style to watch."

ROBERT.TYCHKOWSKI@SUNMEDIA.CA


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