They looked up in awe as their handiwork hung from the United Center rafters.
Kaner and the Captain. Crow and Shawzer. Dunc and Seabs. Hoss and Sharpie. The Blackhawks our city knows well enough by their hockey nicknames took their eyes off the 2013 Stanley Cup Champions banner only long enough to acknowledge each other with goofy grins.
Eight lucky youth hockey players helped carry the banner onto the ice before Tuesday night's season opener, but their boyish enthusiasm for the moment had nothing on the young men with the Indian heads on their sweaters. Hawks players started skating shortly after they started walking, a group bonded from wherever they came by a common love of the sport and quest for the Cup.
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United Center, 1901 West Madison Street, Chicago, IL 60612, USA
I could try to describe how it felt for the Hawks to realize the lifetime dream of standing in uniform next to the hardest trophy in sports to win. But it would fall miserably short of what the expression on players' faces conveyed.
"It was quite emotional seeing it go up and knowing you're a part of it and it will be up there forever,'' Brandon Bollig said.
The defending NHL champs dropped the puck on a new season with an entertaining 6-4 win over the Capitals, but what left a more indelible impression happened in a 32-minute pregame party that was uplifting in every way. If Chicagoans remain in the dumps over the Cubs and Sox, on the fence about Jay Cutler and in suspense waiting for Derrick Rose, the return of the Hawks to home ice came at the perfect time — even if it seems like only last week they were cleaning confetti out of their hair.
"There is a sense of wonderment in the United Center tonight,'' Hawks President John McDonough said.
There are many nights as a sportswriter you walk into a press box and quickly are reminded you are at work. This was not one of those nights. This was a night headed straight into a Chicago sports time capsule, a three-hour escape that sports are meant to provide.
Plenty of time exists to analyze the penalty kill and address the back of the roster. This was a night when looking back one final time mattered more than looking at anything else, a night fans came to hear "Chelsea Dagger" even more than to see Alex Ovechkin.
"I thought it was spectacular,'' coach Joel Quenneville said of the ceremony.
The Year of the Blackhawks continued with a stunning red-and-white light show, another stirring rendition of the anthem by Jim Cornelison and a starring role for Rocky Wirtz, who deserved his rousing reception as much as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman earned his boos.
"Seven years ago, this man inherited this hockey franchise desperate for a rebirth...,'' emcee Eddie Olczyk began.
Chants of "Rocky! Rocky!'' drowned out Olczyk's actual introduction. Old-timers in the crowd of 22,158 probably were still amazed at fans cheering so wildly over a Wirtz. And when Wirtz thanked everybody "watching on TV," there was as much irony as ecstasy in the building.
"It took blood, sweat and guts to take home two Stanley Cups in four years,'' Wirtz said.
It also took a commitment from Wirtz to fund a first-class operation that has become the envy of the NHL, an organization held in such high esteem, it has become trendy to talk dynasty. I have heard no compelling reason to change the subject — especially with realignment pushing the Red Wings into the Eastern Conference.
Many factors make winning a third title in five years hard to fathom: complacency, injury, parity. But given that the most talented core in the league returns buoyed by a champion's confidence, it is just as easy to imagine Olczyk introducing the Hawks in June at Grant Park by honoring a feat Eddie O might call "three-mendously three-mendous.''
The Hawks' leaders know how to win, and everybody else understands their roles. They even celebrate as if they rehearsed.
Duncan Keith skated onto the ice first, carrying the Cup to its stand. As Olczyk introduced players in numerical order, new backup goalie Nikolai Khabibulin had to marvel at the metamorphosis of the franchise he played for from 2005 to '09. That was fan favorite Andrew Shaw waving enthusiastically, in case fans didn't recognize him without stitches or bruises. They saved Toews until the end to hoist the silver chalice a final time before carefully placing it back on the table for the 29 other teams to chase.
And for a city to behold once more.
"There are more than 21,000 Stanley Cup champions — we are in this together,'' McDonough said. "It is our life's work to make you proud.''
This was a rare night to remember a job well done.