ROSEMONT, Ill. — Jordan Staal got chills.
The Carolina Hurricanes center wasn’t at United Center where the national-anthem tradition includes raucous cheering throughout, but the large gathering of Chicago Blackhawks fans at Allstate Arena for the “Champs for Charity” exhibition game made it feel a little bit like it.
Amid the NHL lockout that has led to the cancellation of 326 regular-season games with more likely to come, Friday night’s charity game outside Chicago was a little taste of what players are used to doing this time of year.
“It really hits you how much you miss it. It really makes every player here really want to get out playing,” said Staal, who was traded from the Pittsburgh in June. “It felt like it was pretty darn loud. We haven’t heard too many fans. That was really special.”
It was a special night for the 28 players and 11,649 fans, not only because the event put together in two weeks raised $323,500 for local Ronald McDonald House Charities. For fans it was a chance to see live hockey, and for players it was a chance to play during the lockout.
Aside from informal workouts, these players haven’t had reason to lace up their skates since last season. But when San Jose Sharks forward Adam Burish and agent Bill Zito had the idea of doing a charity exhibition game, it wasn’t a hard sell to fill up the teams.
The Blackhawks were well-represented with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, while other guys living in Chicago, including Washington Capitals right wing Troy Brouwer, had no trouble making the commitment. Still other stars such as Anaheim Ducks forward Bobby Ryan and Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter flew into town for the festivities.
“Everyone’s kind of in different places in their lives right now,” Brouwer said, “and for everyone to kind of drop everything and come in for the weekend and do something like this, it shows that the guys really care about these charities and these foundations and the thing that we’re trying to raise money for.”
Starved for hockey, fans provided an entertaining atmosphere and the game evolved like an all-star game in which all the players wanted to be there. It was part Harlem Globetrotters on ice with a penalty shot by Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom and a staged fight between Blackhawks agitator Dan Carcillo and former Chicago Cubs pitcher/guest coach Ryan Dempster.
Of course, it didn’t count in any standings, but that didn’t stop anyone from enjoying a welcome break from the gloom and doom of stalled collective-bargaining talks.
“It was cool. First game of the year,” Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “It’s always nice to play a hockey game.”
It may have been more than just nice. For some players, it was cathartic. “Spirits have been a little low, obviously,” Ryan said. “I think the guys kind of needed it.”
Staal enjoyed the simple pleasure of being in a locker room with teammates again, doing more than just skating to stay in shape. But the conversation afterward kept coming back to the joy of the crowd.
“It was awesome. It’s something that as a player you miss,” said Hurricanes defenseman Joe Corvo, who played 25 games with the Caps in 2010. “You miss being able to perform in front of people and get applauded and stuff like that. It’s just something that I think we, as a group, just all miss. It’s nice to get out there and have somebody cheer for you.”
Fans seemed happy to cheer anything and everything. For them, it was a passing glance at NHL hockey. Toews said fans “probably as frustrated or more frustrated than we are” by the lockout and just want to see it come to an end sooner rather than later.
But Friday night was a respite for all involved.
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By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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