Hockey is hot again in Chicago

With a roster of exciting young players propelling the Blackhawks into their first conference title series since 1995, the deafening sound of springtime hockey has returned to Chi-town ahead of Game 1 against the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday afternoon.

The roar is back in Chicago.

When you think of a Windy City hockey crowd, perhaps the first image that comes to mind is 17,000-plus fans jammed into old Chicago Stadium for a playoff game, drowning out the U.S. national anthem with their thunderous cheers.

After the Blackhawks moved to the new United Center in 1994, however, the soundtrack faded at this time of year. Chicago made the NHL playoffs the first three seasons in its new home, but after that fell into a nine-season malaise in which it qualified for the Stanley Cup tournament just once.

But now, with a roster of exciting young players propelling the 'Hawks into their first conference title series since 1995, the deafening sound of springtime hockey has returned to Chi-town as the Blackhawks prepare for Game 1 against the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday afternoon.

"I've been incredibly impressed with how quickly the fan base has come back and embraced this young team," Blackhawks president John McDonough told Hockey Night in Canada Radio earlier in the playoffs.

"I'm also very overwhelmed with the young demographic. I think we're seeing a young front office, you're seeing a very young team on the ice, and you're seeing a young fan base."

Electrifying second-year forwards Jonathan Toews, 21, and Patrick Kane, 20, have helped fill seats by leading the team to a 17-point improvement in 2007-08 and another 16-point climb this season. Throw in the club's first playoff appearance since 2002, and the Blackhawks are back competing for space on the Chicago sports pages with the beloved Cubs and Bears and popular Bulls and White Sox.

Call it making up for lost time.

"For every two steps another organization takes, we need to take 10 because we're got so much ground to make up," McDonough said.

"There was a period of time, maybe 15 years or so, when we were just not relevant."

That's partly on them. During the Dark Ages of Bill Wirtz, the late owner kept home games off local television because of an outdated belief that broadcasts would hurt attendance for his hapless team. After Wirtz died on the eve of the 2007-08 season, son Rocky Wirtz took control and put the Blackhawks back on the tube.

The team didn't stop there, reaching out to Chicago fans by arranging for Toews and Kane to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field. They've also reconnected with their Original Six history by bringing in legendary players like Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Stan Mikita to sign autographs in the United Center concourse before games.

"Our fans that had been fans in the '60s, '70s and '80s were indifferent," McDonough said. "They would have had to go up a notch or two to be angry. They didn't care anymore, because their heroes, the Hulls and Espositos and Mikitas, had not been part of the franchise for so long. So bringing them back was important."

A gilded past, a bright future: the Blackhawks are back — but McDonough knows there's always more work to do.

"We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go."