The longest-serving member of the Chicago Blackhawks lived through the half-empty buildings, lack of home games on local TV, the back-of-the-section press coverage. The indifference persisted to some degree even through last season's trip to the Stanley Cup semi-finals and the successful Winter Classic at Wrigley Field in January 2009.
These days, though, hockey is experiencing a full-fledged renaissance, and for Brent Seabrook, a seemingly innocuous moment confirmed its revival. Listening to local sports talk radio while driving downtown a few weeks ago, he heard the hosts talking about the finalists for the Jack Adams trophy as the NHL's coach of the year, even though the Blackhawks' Joel Quenneville wasn't named a candidate for the award. Imagine, hockey talk in Wrigleyville, during the baseball season.
"I remember thinking, 'This is crazy, this is almost like it is in Vancouver,'" said Seabrook, of Richmond, B.C. "Duncan [Keith]and myself came up together four years ago, and Sharpie [Patrick Sharp]was here shortly after that. We're the only three guys left from the first year, and any one of us will tell you that it's just changed tremendously in that time. It's unbelievable."
Sharp, having arrived in a trade with Philadelphia in December 2005, remembers needing tickets for a visiting minor-hockey team from Thunder Bay that season. Team services director Tony Ommen instantly produced a dozen freebies from his brief case. They were that easy to come by.
"When I first came to Chicago, my first game was against the New York Rangers, an Original Six matchup, and I think there were 9,000 people in the building," Sharp said. "Two years ago, it felt like hockey was back in Chicago, but [now]every week that goes by, it grows bigger and bigger."
Not long ago the Blackhawks vied unsuccessfully for space with high school sports in the nether regions on the newspaper. No longer. The day after their win over the San Jose Sharks in Game 2 of the Western Conference final, the Chicago Tribune devoted both the front and back pages of its tabloid edition to coverage, and also included a two-page colour poster of goaltender Antti Niemi. The next day, Jonathan Toews was the cover boy, accompanied by a feature story. The Trib is calling Chicago Hawkeytown, a riff on the Hockeytown moniker of their rivals, the Detroit Red Wings.
"Our goal was to go from indifferent to curious to interested," said president John McDonough, who joined the team in November 2007 after previously serving as president of the Chicago Cubs. "I think they're interested now. I've got three kids in their 20s who are caught up in all this. These are the same three kids who couldn't believe I was going to leave the Cubs when I did.
"This is something that the younger generation is engaged in. No one had ever opened their eyes to this amazing sport of hockey - the speed, the skill and the physical part of it. Their parents brought them here originally and now they're coming on their own. I really think they've laid claim to it and said, 'This is ours.'"
The bar at Harry Caray's at the intersection of Kinzie and Dearborn is filling up with members of that younger generation, two hours before puck-drop.
"We have 13 TVs in here," bartender Frank Osowski said. "I used to have one tuned to the Blackhawks' game so I could watch it. Now everybody asks, 'Is the game going to be on?' I hear that for two hours before the game even starts. I say, 'Absolutely, we'll have it on 10 TVs.' There's such an energy with the Blackhawks right now that everybody wants to be part of it. It's crazy to watch. In the past, basketball playoffs would dominate in here. In the last two years, and especially this year, there are a lot of hockey conversations."
Originally from Philadelphia, Osowski has tended bar at Harry's for 15 years. He also does a once-a-week TV report on Comcast Sports called Heard Over The Bar, a fan's view of the Chicago sports scene. After moving to Chicago, he'd go to games to see his beloved Flyers and recalls, "It was usually me and 3,000 of my best friends."
That's changed. Sunday afternoon, the Blackhawks will draw their 100th consecutive capacity crowd to the United Centre, for Game 4 of the Western Conference final against San Jose.
When long-time owner Bill Wirtz died in 2007, his son Rocky took over operations and hired McDonough. Their marketing efforts, including home games on TV, coincided with the arrival of young talent led by Patrick Kane and Toews.
In the Arthur and Bill Wirtz eras, local games were not even televised. By contrast, on April 22, according to the Tribune, the Blackhawks drew 278,000 viewers locally for a playoff game against Nashville, attracting a bigger audience than the Bulls (255,000 for a playoff game against Cleveland), the NFL draft (138,000) and the Cubs v. Mets (137,000). Last week, the Blackhawks' victory over the Sharks in Game 1 outdrew two local baseball games, plus the NBA playoffs and draft lottery combined in the local TV ratings.
"In this town, guys who are 22 or 23, they're all Bulls fans, because when they were growing up, it was Michael Jordan," Osowski said. "Basically here, I call it the lost generation, because they didn't grow up as hockey fans. Now I've got my nieces and nephews, they're all young and they're all Hawks' fans. Patty Kane is god to them.
"I always tell people that the true effect of what's happening isn't going to be felt for 10 years, because you're going to get a generation of people who grow up as diehard hockey fans, watching the game on TV with their parents."
Toews, the inspirational leader from Winnipeg, and Kane, the team's most popular player, have lockers beside one other in the dressing room and there is some fun byplay between the two when they are pressed about their postseason rituals: Toews is growing a "Wolverine" beard; Kane adopting a Jaromir Jagr mullet. Kane led the team with 88 points in 82 games; Toews had 68 in 76. When their new contracts kick in for the start of 2010-11, there will be salary-cap issues for Blackhawks' GM Stan Bowman. In the new NHL, the championship window can close fast, so the Blackhawks are trying to make the most of the opportunity at hand.
"The town is really behind our team," Kane said. "You could see that over the last couple of years as far as how many sellouts we've had, the support you get around town, even how recognizable you are around town here. We haven't accomplished anything yet obviously, but we put ourselves in good shape. We'll see what happens, but right now we're feeling pretty good."
McDonough receives much credit for implementing various fan-friendly strategies - such as bringing back former Blackhawks greats as team ambassadors - but he is a cautious man. Years of working for the Cubs will do that to you.
"We don't get caught up in saying we're playing to 108 per cent of capacity, or that we've had 100 sellouts in a row and record television ratings," McDonough said. "It's good to read, but we don't feel a sense of entitlement. We have a humble and hungry mindset and that will not change.
"I've been around long enough to know this is a humbling industry. I came from the Cubs. We had Kerry Wood and Mark Pryor and people had us pencilled in [to win] You just never know what can happen."