Stroll into Johnny's IceHouse West at 2550 W. Madison St. and you'll see a typical hockey facility. It is home to recreational leagues. It has a bulletin board updating visitors on upcoming camps, skill seminars and pickup games. It sells hockey gear and has a skate-sharpening service.

It is also free to the public, which is cool if you're a hockey fan who wants to watch one of the aforementioned leagues.

Or if you want to watch the Blackhawks. They practice there too.

"I gotta see them skate in person," Brett Cozzi said at a practice in April. The 19-year-old from Elmhurst has been a Hawks fan all his life, and used to attend games with his father and uncle. "My uncle wasn’t able to get season tickets this year,” Cozzi said, "so it's just great to see them play, see how they work. They're the best team in the world right now. What's not to like?"

Indeed. Practice is optional on this particular Wednesday, leaving the ice bereft of the team's stars. The entire team is back the following day. But it's a full house at Johnny's both days, with fans pressed against the glass at ice level on the facility's second floor, and many more seated a floor above in the bleachers. While the players run drills, fans get an up-close view of their size, speed, precision and game planning.

"I like to see where they're passing and where they're shooting," said Nate Bastian, 18, of Batavia. Bastian is a hockey player who played most recently in the American West Hockey League. "I just look for little things, like where they're passing the puck, and how they're receiving the puck and stuff like that."

"You see all the work, all the preparation for the games, how they practice," said Nicholas Latona, 28, of Midway. "It's what makes them as good as they are right now: preparation."

For Chicagoans and suburbanites, Johnny's West is accessible via the CTA and Interstates 290 and 90/94.

Then there are Katharina Holst and Anne Neuschwander, who flew in from Germany to catch a few games. They learned about practice while scanning the Blackhawks website.

"The atmosphere is relaxed," said Neuschwander, 31. "At a game, there's always a tense atmosphere. This feels very comfortable and a little bit family-like. Up here [in the bleachers], you feel like you're almost down there [on the ice]."

"If you want to learn something about hockey, this is the best place to be," said Holst, 29. "You can see them develop plays. Things that you only glimpse on TV, and then the camera moves somewhere else. Sometimes you don't even see how the play starts, or [you just see] the finish. It's interesting to learn about how they try to practice."

"When I come out here," said Cozzi, who plays hockey and also works at the Total Hockey store in Elmhurst, "I mainly look for every guy's personal advantage—what makes them good as a player. Stalberg with his speed, Kane with his hands. And then beside that, since I sell a lot of hockey gear, I like to see what guys are wearing."

"You get to see more of their personalities," said Jessica Mutert, 28, of the West Loop. "You get to see them goof around. It's low-key. It's not crowded. You're not a thousand feet up."

After practice ends, fans wait outside in hopes of collecting autographs from players, many of whom stop to speak with fans. On this day, despite steady rainfall, center Michael Frolik stopped his car to sign, talk and take pictures.

"He touched my phone!" one young fan shouted to her friends. She had asked Frolik if he would take a picture with her, and he complied.

Among the fans outside was Latona, who likes to stay after practice to meet players.

"You get to see who they really are," he said. "Actually talk to them and see that they're normal people like us."

Though there is no set practice schedule, fans can monitor it at blackhawks.nhl.com by checking the "Practice Schedule" link at the end of the "Schedule" tab. Most practices begin at 11 a.m. and are open throughout the playoffs, though they are subject to last-minute changes and even cancellation.

But as Cozzi says, if you can make it, it's a must for Hawks fans.

"You just gotta see how it works outside the game, you know?" he said. "Practice is a huge thing when it comes to the NHL, or any hockey team. You get a chance to see how they operate drills. How they're going about making these picture-perfect passes and these picture-perfect goals. It's just an amazing experience. And it's free, too! So why not?"

Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. Say hey @ReadJack.

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