Blackhawks' championship rally hits all the right emotional notes

Chicago's love affair with Blackhawks turns Soldier Field into red zone.

Putting a lump in Chicago's throat, 9-year-old C.J. Reif triumphantly raised his arms Thursday at Soldier Field after Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg awarded the boy the championship belt for the Stanley Cup-clinching game.

C.J. is the son of Clint Reif, the Hawks assistant equipment manager whose tragic death in December at 34 left behind a wife and four kids as well as a broken team. The Hawks used Reif's memory as inspiration during their run to a third Cup in six years, so naturally they included his family during Monday's postgame celebration and Thursday's emotional rally.

"We hold them really dear to our heart," Versteeg said. "This is his son C.J. And he gets the belt from all of us."

Years from now, when somebody asks the 60,000 people who were there or the millions more who watched on television what they remember most about the event, it likely will be the image of C.J. smiling as he lifted the silver chalice with help from Patrick Kane and Andrew Shaw. Yes, there is crying in hockey.

Temperatures soared to the upper 70s after the rain held off, but many got goose bumps watching the Hawks honor C.J. on a day the team paid homage to its past and present. It had been a while since fans had filled this stadium to applaud a championship won because of defense. The heavy turnout of folks in Hawks sweaters and T-shirts converted the Bears' home field into the red zone, illustrating how deep the love affair goes between the city and its hockey team.

Is the lack of skepticism unprecedented? In the history of Chicago sports, has the affection for one team spread from players to coaches through the front office to ownership the way it does with the Hawks? The 1990s Bulls always had polarizing figures Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf at the top. The '85 Bears had Chairman Michael McCaskey, the easiest target in town.

Meanwhile, the Hawks have no such magnet for criticism. If team President John McDonough hadn't acknowledged Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was booed like a Red Wing, only cheers would have been heard.

When play-by-play man Pat Foley introduced Rocky Wirtz, the Hawks chairman heard the same adoring chants he always hears: "Rocky! Rocky!" Before coach Joel Quenneville stepped to the microphone, those weren't boos but a chorus of "Q's." General manager Stan Bowman didn't speak, a reminder his ego is even smaller than the space the Hawks have under the salary cap. McDonough heard roars after he hit the right notes, as usual, by congratulating the fan base for helping the Hawks persevere.

"If my math is correct, this is One Goal, three times,'' McDonough said. "This is your Stanley Cup."

This was the greatest one yet — just ask Patrick Sharp.

"Everybody wants to know what's the best Cup," said Sharp, whom Chicago thanks for shaving. "There's nothing like winning the Cup on home ice in front of you guys."

The fans enjoyed a heartfelt program that included everything from profanity to poignancy.

Foley, whose impersonation of Harry Caray and joke about Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, kept things light, gracefully mentioned Stan Mikita, who's suffering from a brain disorder, when introducing Hawks legends. "Stan, we miss you (and) we're thinking about you," Foley said.

The first active players to appear on stage featured the most familiar names in Hawks-fan households: Kane, Jonathan Toews and Stanley Cup. Kane introduced Toews, carrying the 35-pound trophy.

"That's three in six years. Pretty good," Kane said.

A reflective Duncan Keith, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, recalled passing through Chicago after his final minor-league season in Norfolk, Va., and buying scalped tickets for obstructed-view seats to see the Cubs at Wrigley Field. A decade later, Keith marveled at how far he has come — without sounding satisfied.

"Let's do it again, eh?" Keith said. "Four sounds better than three."

Corey Crawford sounded like a comic looking for a laugh when he cussed to begin his remarks, as he famously did two years ago. Kimmo Timonen, suddenly everybody's favorite 40-year-old, received a huge ovation. The one for Antoine Vermette, Mr. Clutch in any language, was louder. Brad Richards lobbied to come back (good idea). And Kane excited bartenders all over town with words that probably made his bosses cringe.

"I know you said I've been growing up," Kane told the crowd. "But watch out for me the next week."

From the hoarse tone of Toews' voice, it appeared the Hawks already have taken more than a few local establishments into overtime this week.

"To do it on home ice in front of you guys, in front of our fans, to share this with you guys, the best fans in the world — it doesn't get any better than this," Toews said.

Before sending everyone off to another Indian-head summer, Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom performed an odd duet, though nobody would have complained had their act been a healthy scratch. Confetti then exploded from machines at midfield, "Chelsea Dagger" blared and fans roared for Hawks players who walked away thinking what you were thinking.

Same time, next year.

dhaugh@tribpub.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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