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Blackhawks fans thrilled to have hockey back

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Updated: January 23, 2013 4:22PM



Lockout? What lockout?

Frigid weather? What frigid weather?

All I could see was an overflowing of love for the Blackhawks on Tuesday. I saw fans scurrying from their cars to the United Center, steam coming from their mouths so thickly they might have been Budweiser Clydesdales kicking a football around.

They were happy that hockey had returned, happy that their team was in town and happy that the Hawks, in their foresight, had moved the home opener festivities inside. Not that 11 degrees and below-zero wind chills would have stopped these people.

We were told the casual fan might not forgive so easily. A 119-day lockout will do that to some people, as will the feeling that there seems to be labor strife every three or four years in the NHL. There were only two explanations for what happened on this freezing Tuesday night: A) The only people who showed up at the UC were 21,455 die-hard fans, or B) the casual Hawks fan would forgive just about anything at the drop of a puck. I’ll go with the latter.

Hockey is back. That’s all anybody seemed to care about Tuesday, with lockouts, memoranda of understanding and Gary Bettman being a distant memory for at least a night.

Two and a half hours before the opener, the voices of a crowd estimated at 3,700 drowned out Hawks radio announcer John Wiedeman as he introduced each of the players walking a red carpet. Then came Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull and Tony O, and, well, the Hawks sure know what fans want. They want hockey, past and present both being perfect.

It’s true that a home opener might not be the best gauge of where fans are trust-wise. A home opener can be a reflex, an instinct, but in the Hawks’ case, I don’t think so. In the pregame video montage, Jonathan Toews said, “This team stands for you.” A marketing slogan? Of course, but the fans, by their very presence, seemed to believe it. Maybe they didn’t support the bumbling commissioner and the owners in the lockout, but they saved room for the players.

Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane got huge ovations during pregame introductions, but the loudest one was reserved for Toews, who seemed to understand better than anyone during the lockout that the fans were getting burned while the owners played their fiddles.

He was the last one to take the ice, and, as usual, he was all business, the look on his face saying, “Let’s get this over with. Let’s play.’’

A 3-2 victory over the Blues was a perfect olive branch. The Hawks are 3-0 for the first time in 40 years. Nothing says “I’m sorry’’ like that. Nothing responds “No worries’’ like a packed stadium.

“We’ve got amazing fans here in Chicago, we know that,’’ Toews said. “We don’t take that support for granted for one second. We love it, we appreciate it and [our] effort showed it tonight. We want to keep giving them what they want, what they deserve, and that’s wins.’’

All is certainly not forgiven, but you know what helps deaden any pain? Kane, Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland skating in uncontested, with Blues goalie Brian Elliott doing a decent imitation of an undermanned, overrun fort. When does a three-on-none happen in the NHL? Just about never. Kane scored on a nice backhander to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead in the first period. Then came the ship’s horn to signal the goal, and, well, you know the drill: Madness at the Madhouse.

I’m sure there will be some holdout fans, but a nice start to the season by the Hawks will bring back many of the stragglers. This team still has star power and a chance to do some damage in the Western Conference, provided the people general manager Stan Bowman has put around Toews, Kane and Hossa play better than they did last season.

The Hawks certainly need more from defenseman Duncan Keith, who dropped off after winning the Norris Trophy in 2009-10. He got his first assist of the season Tuesday after Brent Seabrook deflected in his slap shot in the second period.

The 1972-73 team actually started 4-0 and ended up losing in the Stanley Cup finals to the Canadiens. Hmmmm. History thinking about repeating itself? We’re getting way ahead of ourselves, but it’s certainly better than the alternative from a month ago:

Contemplating no hockey at all.



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