A column of facts, some opinions and an occasional rant
A few notes from my recent trip to Chicago and St. Louis...
Chicago is indeed gearing up for the playoffs. The Hawks are leading the NHL in attendance, for the first time in over two decades, and the fans are loving the Hawks again. The United Center is indeed the cool place to be on hockey nights. The days of the 8,000 attendances are over for good.
In fact, it is even hard to get cheap tickets on the secondary markets as well. Tickets for Hawks games are going for 2-4 times face value (which means well above $200/each for good seats on the 100-level).
However, the Hawks themselves are in a bit of a backslide, losing their last two games at home in a row (to Columbus and the Islanders) which is getting the populace somewhat worried, as Vancouver is slowly closing in on Chicago for the valuable No. 4 seed in the Western Conference and the final first-round home ice advantage. The Hawks still have one very distinct advantage, as they have the most home games remaining (9) of any team in the West, including a head-to-head game vs. the Canucks at the UC on March 29th.
However, the worry is tempered by the fact that two key Blackhawk components -- goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and forward Patrick Sharp, who were both out with injuries, will be back with the Blackhawks this week.
Meanwhile, in St. Louis...
The Blues also seem to have finally figured it out and are pushing other teams hard for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, as linemates David Backes (a Minnesota native) and Brad Boyes seem to have righted the Blues' ship of state. They have settled on Chris Mason as goaltender, a decision that although prudent for the franchise, spelled the end of the line in the Mound City for the popular Manny Legace.
The Blues, however, are in the reverse situation of the Blackhawks, with only 4 home games remaining (and the last two are against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are also in the playoff fight) and 9 road games, including a 3-game western Canadian swing this coming week, and a 5-game, 9-day odyssey beginning March 29th.
The Blues' good fortunes on the ice have also helped at the box office as well; Sunday's 5-3 win over the Minnesota Wild was the 25th sell-out of the season in the cavernous Scottrade Center, which holds 19,150. The Blues management has also brightened up a formerly-gloomy arena with new coats of paint, new fixtures and a new attitude amongst their employees. The dull, dark, dank days of the old Kiel Center are, indeed, behind this proud franchise. The fans are coming back, in very large numbers, and that is good for St. Louis.
Bernie Miklasz, sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, likens Blues games at Scottrade Center to "19,150 (gathering) for another revival meeting, the revival of the St. Louis Blues."
'Free Food Game' a hit on and off the ice
The fact of the matter is that when the Blues fans are enjoying free food, the Blues do well. Sunday night's 5-3 win over the Wild made the Wild the third 'Free Food' victim (Los Angeles and Nashville the other two) in the three years the Blues have provided free eats for all comers.
This year's menu: Water or Soda (no sodas available after the start of the game), a box of popcorn, and either two hot dogs or an order of two chicken fingers (no sauce available, either).
Personally, I thought it was kind of a disappointment, as we went after the first period to get our food, and they didn't have soda, sauce for the chicken or ketchup packets for the wienies. Wouldn't it have been better just to let the fans go to the regular stands and let them get what they want, but with the same limits? Yes, it took a LOT of co-ordination to get this much food out, but it could have been done better, and with less confusion amongst all concerned.
The only thing they had plenty of? Tums as you exited the arena (Tums was the sponsor of the 'Free Food Game'.) On the scoreboard jumbotron all night was Homer Simpson eating exhibitions from various episodes of, 'The Simpsons'. Even my wife was dragged into it, as they made her the 'look-alike' for the late former chef Julia Child (she cooks and looks a lot better than the late Ms. Child, thanks).
Another member of our party (of nine) caught a T-shirt (medium) from the Blues' 'Towel Guy', who leads the crowd in counting the bell peals after the Blues score, and has done so for a number of years. He used to throw the towels into the seats, but when the team caught wind of this, not only did they not stop him, they now give him T-shirts (custom-screen printed) to throw into the seats. He saw two Wild fans in the lower level, and heaved to. He was close, but another member of our party, a friend of one of our own from nearby St. Charles, Mo., who was at her 3rd NHL game ever, picked it up.
All in all, the two-game-in-three days trip was very enlightening. It's good to know two of the NHL's premiere franchises are coming back from the scrapheap of pro hockey to assume their rightful place amongst the NHL's elite.
Now, if we can only get that ship of state righted in the 'State of Hockey'...