Hawks just keep stuffing the bandwagon

Interest in incredible start easily measured in TV ratings, merchandise sales and buzz

One day this week, in the middle of feeding Chicago's insatiable appetite for hockey tickets, busy Blackhawks executive vice president Jay Blunk took a phone call from his mom.

Sharon Blunk spent 35 years as a second-grade schoolteacher but never was a student of hockey. She didn't watch an entire game until 2009. Yet Sharon called her son to let him know she liked how the Hawks were "cycling'' the puck on the power play.

"I thought to myself, we might be making some progress out there,'' Blunk said.

Credit the Hawks' marketing efforts for spreading the word. But blame the team's remarkable streak — which continued Wednesday night in dramatic fashion — for turning casual sports fans such as Mrs. Blunk, around Chicago and beyond, into fascinated Blackhawks followers committed to the Indian like never before.

Now the appeal will become even more universal after forward Daniel Carcillo backhanded a rebound with 49.3 seconds left for the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over the Avalanche to keep the streak alive.

"It's nice to get rewarded because it's been a long, hard road,'' the oft-injured Carcillo said.

When the player called "Car Bomb'' scored, the United Center exploded in joy and relief. Down 2-1 entering the third period, the 21-0-3 Hawks rallied to register their 11th win in a row and earn a point in their 24th straight game — and 30th dating to last season.

The Hawks keep making math and history favorite subjects of kids locally.

Around town lately, it hasn't mattered if you knew the difference between the blue line that carries CTA commuters to O'Hare and the one that divides the rink. The greatest start in NHL history transcended sports. Two questions preoccupied millions of Chicagoans this week: How deep is the snow, and how long is the streak?

If you don't believe an unprecedented number of people are noticing the Hawks, you are ignoring the numbers. Television ratings on networks that carry Hawks games have gone up 80 percent from last year, Blunk said. Retail sales at the Blackhawks Store and within the UC have increased 88 percent over a year ago. Jersey sales for Jonathan Toews' No. 19 exceeded any other in the NHL during February, the league announced.

The Wall Street Journal requested a credential. Time Magazine mentioned the Hawks. Sports Illustrated and ESPN arrived this week. Hockey's history-makers made it worth the trip.

It was minutes before the game when the press-box announcer declared forward Marian Hossa out with a mysterious upper-body injury. Surprised reporters exchanged unfamiliar looks. What was this foreign concept known as adversity?

The Hawks had overcome their share, sure, but the masters of one-goal wins have been as lucky as they have been good. Losing Hossa unexpectedly qualified as unlucky and forced the Hawks to deal with an actual problem. Finally.

Hockey can't be as easy as the Hawks have made it look, can it? Consider they just finished half the season without a regulation loss. But nothing worthwhile comes without struggle.

Expectations had become so unrealistic that coach Joel Quenneville was asked before the game if he planned on resting players because of a big division lead. Nobody, for the record, asked Quenneville whether he preferred Madison or Washington for the parade route.

What is a coach to do when all he has to complain about is the weather?

"It's a nice situation to be in right now,'' Quenneville said. "But I'm sure over the course of the season, we'll be getting things we have to deal with.''

How prescient Quenneville was before the most taxing night of a terrific season.

Already without Hossa, the Hawks lost winger Patrick Sharp in the third period with an apparent shoulder injury. Before that, Andrew Shaw received a dirty forearm blow from Paul Stastny that knocked him off the ice. Playing their fifth game in seven nights, the Hawks showed unusual but understandable sluggishness.

After Shaw's power-play goal in the first, the Avalanche scored two unanswered and headed into the third making the uneasy crowd of 21,531 wonder if this was the night. Toews, however, wasn't among those wondering.

Just 2 minutes, 19 seconds into the third, the captain deked Avs center Ryan O'Reilly in a move bound for NHL Network highlights and banked in a clutch short-handed goal off the post. That set up Carcillo's heroics.

"I commend our guys for persevering,'' Quenneville said. "Some nights, you just find a way.''

On this one, the best story in sports only got better.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

 

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