CHICAGO – Jonathan Toews smiled at his locker as he weighed the question.
Did Toews really expect a building filled with 100 percent adoring fans when the Blackhawks returned to their home ice Tuesday? Did he wonder whether fans might be angry after a lengthy NHL lockout between ultra-wealthy owners and wealthy players?
“Not to say I take it for granted,” Toews said of the fan support. “But I had a feeling.”
If the Hawks keep winning, that feeling will only become stronger.
The Hawks beat the St. Louis Blues, 3-2, to win their long-delayed home opener that initially was scheduled for Oct. 13. The Hawks improved to 3-0-0 for the first time in 40 years and increased their scoring total to 14 goals in three contests.
Hey, players said afterward. It’s the least we could do.
Take it from Patrick Kane, the game’s No. 1 star, who thanked fans during a postgame interview that was broadcast through the speakers atop the United Center.
“To play here at home and to see that again – I know a lot of people were probably a little [ticked] off – but for them to come back and support us like that, that’s a good feeling for us,” Kane said. “It’s always fun playing in front of a big crowd like that. I think for all of us, we wanted to – not give them a show – but give them something to cheer about.”
A 113-day lockout angered plenty of people and threatened to spoil a sport that already lost one season in the past decade because of a labor dispute. But if any hard feelings lingered, they were about as identifiable as Manti Te’o’s girlfriend.
A hockey-starved crowd of 21,455 fans filled the building for the Hawks’ 191st consecutive sellout, which started during the 2007-08 season. Expect more of the same for the franchise that has led the NHL in attendance in each of the previous four seasons.
In retrospect, it seemed foolish to have expected any reaction other than pure excitement.
Yet before the game, I thought I heard boos as the Hawks stepped past the bench and on to the ice. A low-pitched sound emerged from the crowd and steadily gained volume.
Oh. Never mind. Joel Quenneville had been introduced, and fans were showing their love.
Say it with me: Q-uuuuue.
The next few hours felt as if everything had returned to normal in Chicago sports.
Outside, it was dark and cold and getting colder. Inside, almost everyone wore red and black and it was slightly less cold, except for those who were seated close to the ice.
Hawks fans roared during the national anthem and again as bearded tough-guy Brandon Bollig traded punches with Chris Stewart of the Blues during an evenly matched fight. Fans sang and danced to “Chelsea Dagger” after goals by Kane and Brent Seabrook and Viktor Stalberg, and they reacted with an “ohhhhh” after every narrow miss.
Hawks forward Andrew Shaw heard it all.
“It’s unbelievable,” Shaw said. “It’s nice to see fans stay behind the game of hockey no matter what happens.”
The Hawks have played the game of hockey for 87 seasons, but none quite like this. A condensed schedule will feature 48 games in 99 days as part of a sprint to the playoffs.
Consider the Hawks’ itinerary for the next 3 weeks.
Fly to Dallas today for Thursday’s game. Then fly to Columbus. Then return home. Then (seat backs and tray tables up, please) fly to Minnesota and Vancouver and Calgary and San Jose and Phoenix and Nashville and (turn all electronic devices off, please) back home again.
And you thought commuting from McHenry County was difficult.
“What’s wrong with seeing the world in a short period of time?” Shaw said with a grin. “Playing hockey every night, who’s going to complain about that?
“It’s unbelievable. I think any kid growing up would love this opportunity.”
Just like Hawks fans love having their team back on the ice.