CHICAGO -- Hard to tell who was more shocked by yesterday's scene at the United Center, the Chicago Blackhawks or the media.
The players came off the team bus from their practice rink with jaws agape, running a gauntlet of about 40 pads, microphones and cameras, not seen in these parts since their Cup contending years in the 1990s and certainly not since they last qualified in a 2002 cameo. Playoff hockey on the South Side is also a novelty to the local reporters, who rarely gather in groups this large in springtime unless it's baseball, Bulls or Bears.
When the dressing room opened, the unprecedented media crowd had superstitious players shooing them off the carpeted Chief Black Hawk logo, never a problem in the years the Hawks struggled. But no one is stomping on them these days, including the Calgary Flames, who lost all four regular-season games to Chicago with their series opener looming tomorrow.
"We know it'll be loud and we can't wait for that national anthem to kick things off," said Hawks forward Patrick Sharp of the 22,000 voices that once again make the Star Spangled Banner a hair-raising moment.
"It has been great to see the turnout this year (the NHL's leading attendance not including the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field) and I think our home record (24-9-8) speaks for itself. It's nice for us to have that first game on our ice for them. They're our seventh man."
The Hawks departed the Chicago Stadium 15 years ago, but the roar didn't follow them across the street and the team barely made a ripple in the standings, falling further down the Windy City sports landscape. But the Hawks have re-energized on and off the ice.
"People haven't seen this for awhile," said forward Patrick Kane, the 2008 Calder Trophy winner. "I did a TV spot for the NHL Network in the summer about the last time the Hawks were in the playoffs, how I was 13 years old at the time."
Veteran hockey writer Tim Sassone of the Arlington Daily Herald always has a pre-game chat with a couple of season-ticket holders who sit near press row with their vintage jerseys. He has listened patiently to their lament in the half-empty building about the loss of pride.
"Now they're pumped," Sassone said with a laugh. "The place is sold out every night."
The series pits Calgary's experience and physical edge against Chicago's youth, though Hawks' goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has won the Cup and has had the Flames' number in most meetings.
"It's a good thing we swept them, but to be honest they were four-regular season games," Sharp said. "We caught them once at the end of a long trip, once when a couple of their guys had the flu. Those games didn't tell us very much. We haven't seen them with their new additions from the deadline, such as Olli Jokinen."