CHICAGO | Patrick Kane revels in October, almost as much as he did for the month of June two years ago, when his tough-angle overtime goal in Philadelphia snared an uncommon pro sports championship for his adapted city.
“This is my favorite time of year, sports-wise,” said the Blackhawks winger. “You got football going on, baseball playoffs, hockey’s coming in, basketball’s coming in. It’s got everything going for you this time of year.”
Strike one of those sports off the list for 2012. Kane wore a black sweater labeled “NHLPA,” denoting pro hockey’s players association, as he finished one of the three-times-a week practices conducted by a core of Hawks players and several other Chicago-dwelling NHL players.
The NHL lockout that shows few signs of ending soon has forced the Hawks and all other teams into ad-hoc practices to stay in shape. All the while, they wonder if the impasse could lead to another entire season being wiped out as it was in 2004-05.
This time the damage could be greater, particularly for a revived Hawks franchise that has a lot more to lose than seven years ago.
The 2004-05 Hawks were mismanaged by an old-school regime and moribund in the city’s sports consciousness. Since then, the affable Rocky Wirtz succeeded father Bill Wirtz as owner, the team won its first Stanley Cup in 49 years and all home games are televised. The Hawks had gained popularity, but still were trying to build a fan base to catch up with the local leaders Bears, Cubs and Bulls.
“It’s an important franchise in the city now, it’s a great franchise to play for,” Kane said. “We respect everything the Blackhawks have given us as players and everything we’ve given them in return – a championship and good playoff runs.
“It’s important to play, it’s important to keep the sport alive. It’s kind of hard to understand, not only at the Blackhawks’ level but also at the NHL’s, why this is happening when the game is as popular as it’s ever been.”
Others realize how far the Hawks have come.
“This game’s bigger than the people that are in it right now,” said Winnipeg's Al Montoya, one of two goalies working out at Johnny’s IceHouse. Montoya, whose residence is local, is a Glenview native who grew up a Hawks fan.
“The way it’s growing is unbelievable now,” he said. "(The lockout’s) a shame for the fans and community the way the game is growing, especially in Chicago.”
With the first two weeks of regular-season games canceled and likely more to come soon, Hawks fans apparently aren’t blaming the players. Dozens showed up for the practice. Kane and wingers Patrick Sharp and Daniel Carcillo rewarded them by signing every autograph requested.
“I think that’s important to make sure the kids get their signature,” Kane said. “As a little kid (in Buffalo, N.Y.), I was a big hockey fan and was just looking for anything from the players, whether it was a smile, a high-five or an autograph. It’s good to see the fans around, coming to open practices and we’ve seen it for four, five years.”
The practices continue while competition-hungry players bide their time.
“I’m 30 years old and I’ve had some injuries over the years,” Sharp said. “In some respect, it’s nice to be out here and train, take care of my body and prepare for whenever our season does start. Other than that, we’re all getting anxious and want to play hockey.”