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Thursday, May 20, 2010
How things have changed in Chicago

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- The Blackhawks are six wins away from ending a 49-year Stanley Cup drought.

Think about that for a second; hundreds of thousands of people in this fabulous town certainly are, judging from the palpable electricity that can be felt in every shop, restaurant and Blues bar.

And think about where this franchise was not too long ago.

Five years ago, Patrick Sharp needed to secure 12 tickets for a game here at the United Center, wanting to take care of a youth hockey team from his native Thunder Bay, Ontario. So the Blackhawks forward approached Chicago's director of team services, Tony Ommen, with the large ticket request.

"He was walking around with his binder, which had a wad of tickets, probably like 50 tickets in there," Sharp recalled Thursday. "He said, 'Here you go.' It was that easy. No charge. That's how many empty seats there were."

Hawks players now pay full value for their tickets, just like anyone else, and there's no asking for 12 tickets. Those babies are too hot. How quickly things can change. It was just three years ago, in the 2008-09 season, when the Hawks were 19th in NHL attendance, averaging 16,814 per game.

"I remember vividly coming here 3-4 years ago with the Devils. It was a rare trip out West and we spent a few days in Chicago, which usually doesn't happen," Hawks center John Madden said Thursday. "We got to see the city and the restaurants and the lifestyle and we were like, 'Wow, what a city. It's so much fun.'

"Then we came to the rink for the game and there only 10,000 people in the stands. We were like, 'How's that possible? This is such a great sports town.' And I had seen how good it was before that with [Chris] Chelios and [Jeremy] Roenick and Eddie Belfour. It was really weird. So it's nice to see that's it back."

The metamorphosis in this Original Six city is still fresh. The team is coming off back-to-back regular seasons in which it led the NHL in attendance, with an average of 21,000-plus seats per game, after spending an entire decade ranked mostly in the bottom five in ticket sales.

For Sharp, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, the original members of this current powerhouse squad, the memories are still fresh from their first season in 2005-06, when the Hawks were 29th in league attendance at 13,318 per game.

"I remember my first game. There were 9,000 people and they announced 12,000," Sharp said. "Times have changed, big time. A lot of new faces in the room, but there's a few guys that have witnessed it. We remember what it was like, and that's why we're pushing even harder to keep it like this."

The transition from doormat to powerhouse did not happen overnight. But thanks to patient rebuilding by former GM Dale Tallon and his right-hand man, Rick Dudley (they are now GMs in Florida and Atlanta, respectively), the team's fortunes changed. Current GM Stan Bowman rarely gets any credit, but to be fair, he was also part of the front office under Tallon for several years, including in an assistant GM role since 2007. And that front office changed many a face before getting to today's Cup-contending roster.

"It's been huge," Seabrook said. "It's changed tremendously. It's been unbelievable. They've really put together a good group of guys, a lot of character and guys that want to work. They've found people with similar personalities, and we've all clicked real well. We've become great friends off the ice."

Acquiring young talent was one thing. Learning how to win was another.

"It takes a while," Sharp said. "I think we got beat up on for a few years, playing in a division with the Red Wings, who have always had good teams and still do. It was tough playing them, sometimes they had more fans than we did here. But we had good coaches along the way that allowed us to fail, and sometimes that's the key, making mistakes and learning from them. You see the development of Seabrook and Keith. I've been here a while, and you see how [Jonathan] Toews and [Patrick] Kane have gotten better since they came in. Getting experience was the biggest thing."

Three or four years ago, the Hawks could stand at the blue line for the anthem and, on a really bad night, hear conversations in the crowd. Now? It's a wonder the roof doesn't blow off.

"It's unbelievable, it's really crazy, it's pretty cool having the fans go [nuts] like that," Seabrook said. "It's awesome to be part of. Every time you try to get used to it, it gets louder."

Madden cannot believe what it's like at the United Center during the anthem.

"The national anthem [here] is, in my opinion, the best national anthem in sports," the Toronto native said. "If you don't get your blood pumping and your pulse racing after that ..."

On and off the ice, the Hawks are pumped up right now, approached by fans at super markets and restaurants who pass on their exuberance. It's cool to be a Hawk.

"I think we should all feel fortunate as players, as coaches, as a Blackhawks organization," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "It's fun to be part of the community and the enjoyment that everybody's having with the Hawks, the enthusiasm that's around there, be it our kids at school or going to a restaurant in town. Everybody's noticing, everybody's talking about it."

And yet ... there's a danger in that. There is still a lot of work to do against a potent San Jose Sharks team.

"It's something that on a day like today, you want to guard against where everybody is telling you how great you are, knowing that tomorrow is the challenge, and the focus that we want to make sure we're all grounded and focused in the right way," the coach said. "Enjoy it, but at the same time, let's stay focused."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.