By JASON DUARTE For The Sun
With the recent success of the Chicago Blackhawks heading to the conference finals, it seems as though the entire sport of hockey, at least around Naperville, is growing in popularity.
"None of their games used to be on TV," said Andrea Hahn, Chicago Mission president and vice president of Advanced Arenas in Woodridge. "The (former) owner, from what I was told, felt like if people could watch it on TV, they wouldn't buy tickets for games. But he's proven wrong, because this year, they're sold out.
The Blackhawks play the Detroit Redwings in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at 2 p.m. today. The game can be seen on NBC.
Chicago Mission's Tier 1 Elite Hockey League has seven boys hockey teams and five girls hockey teams and is the highest level of youth hockey you can play in the United States, Hahn said.
"The goal is to play Division 1 college hockey or NHL professional hockey," she added.
The Blackhawks' success reflects positively on local businesses such as Hahn's.
"I think that any time a professional sport is popular in an area, and we find that in both hockey and figure skating, we have a lot more sign-ups," Hahn said. "When kids growing up get to be fans of the sport, they want to play that sport, and that reflects here at the ice arenas."
Naperville Play It Again Sports franchise owner Steve Sahli agrees that the recent growth in hockey popularity is directly related to the Blackhawks' success.
"They've got a lot of young players, a new approach to the game because of owners, more games available on TV for people, and nothing helps like an exciting young team like this getting deeper into the playoffs," Sahli said. "It gets everybody going."
As a sports equipment retailer, Sahli said hockey is one of the most difficult sports to get involved in because it's so expensive, with head-to-toe equipment, ice time, registration fees and league fees.
"It's nice to see the interest again, and it's one of those sports where you have to learn how to skate to play," Sahli said. "It's not like going to basketball, signing your kid up and then he goes to the first practice and he's on the team."
Naperville North High School athletic director Doug Smith thinks the biggest thing Hawks owner Bill "Rocky" Wirtz did was to allow more public access to the team, bringing back the interest, since Rocky's father Bill didn't allow the home games to be televised.
"One of the big public relations things they did was bring the old players back like (Stan) Mikita -- it was real positive to bring back the history of the Hawks; it was positive for the fans by bringing back the good old days, the nostalgia and the interest in the Hawks and it made them more friendly."
Smith said that in the past, the Hawks were viewed as a "money-making machine," because that's all the late owner seemed to care about. But now it's like the Hawks "used to be," he said.
It seems any local winning team generally tends to spawn hometown enthusiasm. You've got your lifelong fans and your bandwagon fans, but when a local team is doing well, new fans are created as well. Especially if the opportunity was never there, like being able to watch the Blackhawks on TV.
Smith made a comparison to the Chicago Bulls by mentioning their recent standing in the playoffs.
"Because they were playing so well, a lot of people were watching that, getting the old feeling about the Bulls again," Smith said.
One thing's for sure -- the Hawks' attendance is up, they're headed to the conference finals, and their seats are filling up.
"I wish 'em well," Smith said. "It's been fun watching them. I want to watch them as long as I can."