Blackhawks and Chicago, like peas and carrots

CHICAGO (AP) — Gladys Wheeler couldn't help it: Seeing the Blackhawks' Duncan Keith back on the ice after a puck smashed into his mouth and scattered seven teeth onto the ice brought her back to her childhood, back to the days when players kept skating after their faces were stitched up, their broken jaws wired shut.

"We saw that all the time," said Wheeler, a lifelong Blackhawks fan who wouldn't reveal her age except to say her first favorite Blackhawk was John Mariucci back in the 1940s. "They were a little nutty."

Nutty is a good word for what is happening in Chicago these days as the Blackhawks get ready to host the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals on Saturday night.

The Blackhawks are clearly back. Back at the doorstep of a Stanley Cup championship they haven't hoisted since 1961 — the longest drought for an Original Six team. Back after a run of futility in which the once-proud franchise became the most obscure sports team in the city. And back in the hearts of the blue-collar, lunch-bucket crowd that loves a gritty hero.

People are wearing Blackhawks hats and jerseys to work. A dinosaur outside the Field Museum is sporting a jersey, and the lions outside the Art Institute of Chicago have Blackhawk helmets. The team's banner is everywhere and a church proclaimed on its sign board: "Jesus Saves And So Does (Blackhawks goaltender Antti) Niemi."

Not only that, people can be heard talking about the Blackhawks and not just the codgers. On Facebook, for example, a group called Duncan Keith's Missing Teeth had some 3,500 fans this week.

Chuck Sikaras, a 56-year-old fan who's had season tickets for 34 years, said he has never been asked about the team more than he is now by people who before now figured the only blue line in town was the one that's part of the elevated train system.

"It's like you have superstar status, in a way," he said.

It is not just because they are winning, fans say, but the way they're winning. There may be no city in the country that values toughness in its athletes as much as Chicago. If Michael Jordan is admired around the country for his acrobatics, fans here are just as likely to recall his game against the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA finals while battling the stomach flu.

"There's a blue collar ethic and paying the price to make the right play, people of Chicago relate to that," said Pat Foley, the Blackhawks' announcer.

Mike Ditka, whose own toughness as a football player and coach made him one of the most iconic sports figures in the city, couldn't agree more.

"These guys are throwbacks to another era, they play through pain," said Ditka, who joked that as a young player in Chicago he learned the hard way that nobody could drink beer like hockey players.

"Athletes aren't real people any more (and) these guys are real people," he said. "They look like guys who bring a lunch bucket to work."

Stan Mikita, a Blackhawks Hall of Famer and one of the stars of the 1961 team, put it this way: "Chicago is known as a working town, these are hardworking people (and) they love athletes who work their asses off to accomplish something."

Mikita gives credit to the team's relatively new chairman, Rocky Wirtz.

"From Day One it was, 'I'm with the people.' He sits in the stands," Mikita said.

Fans also point to Wirtz's taking control of the team after the 2007 death of his father, William Wirtz, as the turning point for the franchise. And not always in the most gentle of terms.

"We were under great depression because of Mr. Wirtz (and) when Mr. Wirtz died it was almost like Independence Day," said Jim Rzonka, 49, a longtime fan.

In fact, when Rocky Wirtz took over he set out to undo much of what his father had done. He put the team's home games on television, something his father had steadfastly refused to do. Then he set out to patch up the relationship between the team and some of the team's stars from the past, most notably Bobby Hull. And after his father's tightfisted ways with players' contracts helped earn him the nickname "Dollar Bill," under Rocky Wirtz the team has signed — and pays handsomely — some of the game's brightest young stars.

Wirtz insists he doesn't take personally the derogatory talk about his father.

"I loved him dearly and he was a spectacular businessman," he said.

At the same time, he saw things had to change.

"People felt estranged from the team," he said, pointing out that the number of season tickets had dwindled to just 3,400 (the United Center seats more than 20,000 for hockey games). "This game is a game of relationships and we had to start repairing the relationships with the fans, media, players and former players."

By all accounts, he's done that. Fans have returned in droves, with the number of season ticket holders, for example, skyrocketing in just one year from 3,400 to 14,000. When they see Wirtz at the games, they cheer. It's the same on the street, where he's treated like a conquering hero by fans, some with tears in their eyes.

"They say, 'Thank you for bringing (the team) back,'" he said. "It's been kind of like finding an old friend you lost for a while."

The Blackhawks' revival has some people around here sounding a lot like the Chicago Cubs fans who insist, annually, that this is the year they will end that World Series championship drought that dates to 1908.

"I really prayed that I would live to see another Stanley Cup," said Wheeler, president of the Blackhawk Standbys, a fan club so old it's too late to ask its founders if, as Wheeler suspects, the name has something to do with standing by the team.

Gary Leverence, a 61-year-old fan, is eager, too.

"Call me if they win the cup," he said. "If I don't answer, look in the obituaries and see if I had a heart attack."