On April 18, I was at Johnny's IceHouse West, interviewing fans about their experience watching Blackhawks practice, when I saw two women in the bleachers in bright red jerseys. One was wearing Jonathan Toews, the other Corey Crawford.
"Excuse me," I said. "My name is Jack Silverstein, and I am a reporter with RedEye writing a story about Blackhawks fans at practice. May I interview you?"
Now, ordinarily when you're in Chicago and you say you're with RedEye, people's faces change. Some get excited—"I love RedEye!"—while others sag with apathy or even disappointment. Any way you cut it, you're getting a reaction. Not from these two.
"RedEye?" one asked.
"It's a newspaper with the Tribune," I said. "The big red boxes."
They shrugged, but granted me the interview.
"Anne," one said. "With an 'e' at the end."
"And your last name?"
She laughed. "That's going to be hard because we're from Germany, so I'm just going to spell it." And she did: NEUSCHWANDER.
I asked the other for her name: Katharina Holst.
"You're both from Germany?"
"Yeah," they said, laughing.
"But do you live here?"
"No," they said. "Frankfurt."
Meet the co-founders of the EuroHawks, a fan club for European Hawks fans. It is a small but loyal group that started when a friend of theirs from Finland introduced them to the NHL.
"We just started watching games," said Neuschwander, 31, "and the Blackhawks stuck out."
She laughed. "We fell in love with the team and Chicago as a city, and just decided that we are the biggest Hawks fans ever."
That was in 2011, and since then Neuschwander and Holst, along with friends Corinna Kuhn, 30, and Christina Berg, 36, have spread the word of the Blackhawks and the NHL throughout Europe with their site (eurohawks.com), their Facebook page (Eurohawks) and their Twitter account (@eurohawks).
"The idea to found a European fan club to spread the word about the Hawks and unite fans here was one that excited all of us," Neuschwander said. "We've never done anything like this before, so it's an amateur attempt, unfortunately. We just hope that we'll get more people to notice us."
After founding the EuroHawks, they made their first trip to Chicago during summer 2012 for "the convention"—referring to the annual Blackhawks Convention.
"It was the first time we had ever come to Chicago," said Holst, 29. "When we were kicked out of the playoffs [in 2012], we were so sad and so down that we decided we cannot go all summer without anything hockey related. So we found convention tickets online, booked the flight and said we're going there no matter what."
There they met a friend who gave them the scoop on visiting practice. Holst freed up time to come to Chicago last fall for her first Hawks game, but when the lockout hit, she changed her plans and went to Rockford in November instead to see the Icehogs play the Chicago Wolves. It was her first live hockey game.
Finally, they carved out time to attend their first Blackhawks game. They got tickets for three home games: April 15 against Dallas (a 5-2 Hawks win), April 19 against Nashville (a 5-4 Hawks win in OT) and April 20 against Phoenix (a 3-2 shootout loss).
"This was the very first game that we ever saw at the United Center," Holst said. The best part was "just living the atmosphere that you usually see on TV. And seeing a game at the normal time, because usually we have to watch in the middle of the night. You go to bed early, you wake up at 2 in the morning, you watch the game live, you go back to sleep for an hour, and then you get up and go to work."
"And it was a Hawks win," Neuschwander said, "so you can't beat that!"
After a week in Chicago, Holst and Neuschwander had lived the full Blackhawks experience: three games, two practices, two overtimes, one shootout, two Hawks wins. They also bagged loads of autographs and pictures with players, giving them plenty of keepsakes to bring home to Germany, even if most of their friends won't understand.
"Depending on where you are in Europe, hockey isn't a very popular sport," said Neuschwander, adding that Germany is one of those places. "If you tell people you're an NHL fan, they usually say, 'What's NHL?' And when you explain it to them, they're like, 'Why not soccer?'"
"That would be easier," Holst said, smiling. "But not as fun."
The day after we met, I was walking on Michigan Avenue. I looked up and saw two familiar faces. "Holy crap!" I said to Anne and Katharina as we waved at each other. I emailed them that night and told them what a surprise it was to see them. Quite a coincidence, right?
Holst explained later: "It was very close to the Blackhawks store."
Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. Say hey @readjack.
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