Blackhawks mania puts Chicago on ice

chicago_a_blackhawks-fans_600This weekend’s Wisch List newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

By Dave Wischnowsky

During wintertime, Chicago is undoubtedly a Bears town. During summertime, it’s always been a baseball town. And during Jordan’s time, it was a Bulls town. But during this current time in June 2013?

Well, it’s become a Blackhawks town more than anything else.

And that really is something.

This week, Dan Bernstein of 670 The Score wrote in a column at CBSChicago.com about “the 8,000 or so” Blackhawks fans “who cocooned themselves in the United Center for most of the early 21st century to live through the unfortunate coaching regimes of Alpo Suhonen, Brian Sutter, Trent Yawney and Denis Savard.”

Those were the dark days of hockey in Chicago – quite literally, with Blackhawks games blacked out on television by edict from then owner Bill Wirtz. At that time, only the hardest of the die-hards truly cared about the team – or the sport. Around town, you saw people wearing Blackhawks sweaters about as often as you saw them wearing Packers jerseys.

In other words, not much.

And both apparel choices could draw funny looks.

These days, however, the West Loop is teeming on game days with people sporting red and black, and party-hardy neighborhoods such as Wrigleyville and Lincoln Park swarm with fans clad in Blackhawks gear.

Now, you get funny looks if you aren’t wearing it.

The tide of course began to turn for the Blackhawks in 2010 when the team dashed its way to the franchise’s first NHL championship since 1961 and sparked citywide mania as the Stanley Cup toured about town.

Most Chicagoans had never experienced the thrill of the Cup, and in turn the masses started drinking Blackhawks Kool-Aid. Many weren’t really fans of the team, but they certainly enjoyed the championship celebration.

This time around, though, things feel different. As Chicago prepares for Game 2 of the Finals tonight at the United Center, the city seems more invested in the Blackhawks as an institution rather than as a mere novelty. In turn, the franchise is sinking the roots of its identity even deeper while Chicago’s other pro teams struggle with theirs.

Just look at the city’s sports landscape. Both the Cubs and the White Sox barely resemble MLB teams, let alone contenders. The Bulls showed grit this postseason, but still had many fans gritting their teeth about Derrick Rose’s absence. The Bears, meanwhile, recently said goodbye to the face of their franchise (Brian Urlacher) while saying hello to a new coach that no one really knows anything about (Marc Trestman).

As a result, the time has been ripe for the Blackhawks to strike, and strike they have. So much so that the franchise that once couldn’t draw a crowd is now drawing deep admiration – and envy – from its sports peers.

“It’s nice to have a championship in the city,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said last Sunday. “It’s nice to be able to go and root for the team that’s in your city. A lot of us are into it and we’re hockey fans.”

So “into it” has Chicago become on the whole that last week when ESPN’s Darren Rovell tweeted after the Hawks’ Western Conference clincher vs. L.A. that “4 out of 5 people in the Chicagoland area did not watch the Blackhawks on TV last night,” it sparked an online riot.

Arguing with Rovell on Twitter, Chicago media critic Ed Sherman stated that, “When the Hawks scored winning goal in OT, an estimated 843,000 homes in Chicago were watching. Also, the game did a 37 share in Chicago. That means of the people who were watching TV last night, 37 percent – almost 2 out of 5 – were tuned into the game.”

Even more, it seems, are now in tune with the team as the Blackhawks have truly put Chicago on ice.