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Anybody out there? Blackhawks believe a good season will bring fans back

The Canadian Press
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The Hockey News
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Anybody out there? Blackhawks believe a good season will bring fans back

The Canadian Press
By:

The Blackhawks have consistently been among the NHL's lowest-ranked teams in attendance in recent years, but they believe that could start changing this season thanks to a revamped roster.

"We get plenty of walk-ups for our games," said GM Dale Tallon. "They're there. They're wanting us to succeed. They're waiting for an excuse to come to the United Center."

As the team prepares to open training camp on Thursday, there seems to be several excuses at the ready.

Highly touted youngsters Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane join the Blackhawks this year along with veteran forwards Robert Lang, Yanic Perreault and Sergei Samsonov.

Add those names to a forward group that already has Martin Havlat and Tuomo Ruutu, and you can at least expect the Blackhawks to score more often. Only Edmonton had fewer goals than Chicago last season.

"I think we're going to be much stronger offensively than we were last year," Havlat told The Canadian Press in an interview this week. "I really believe we're going to score more goals. We have to."

Having Havlat stay healthy would certainly help. He missed considerable time with a high ankle sprain a year ago, but still put up 57 points (25-32) in 56 games.

After spending his first five seasons with the Ottawa Senators, Havlat missed the playoffs for the first time last year.

The 26-year-old found playing in the Windy City to be a "completely different" experience than Ottawa because there was so much less focus on the team.

Still, when the Blackhawks played well last year he saw signs that the Original Six franchise could again become a big deal in Chicago.

"It's a religion in Canada, but I think it used to be here too," said Havlat. "The people want to see exciting players on the ice and they want to have a winning team here."

The Blackhawks' Stanley Cup drought of 46 years is the NHL's longest. They've missed the playoffs eight of the past nine seasons.

Chicago was 29th in league attendance last year with an average of 12,727 fans per game. That's nearly 3,000 less people than were taking in games at the United Center five years ago and almost 8,000 less than a decade ago.

"We know how far we've fallen," Tallon said on a recent NHL conference call. "We do have a lot of work ahead of us. We're confident that we can get it done. It's just going to take a lot more work, a lot more time, a lot more patience.

"We're committed to doing it. We're going to have to do what we've been saying - one fan at a time, one game at a time, one player at a time. You know, the hard way. We have to prove our worth."

A wild card for coach Denis Savard and his Blackhawks will be how much of an impact his young players can have.

Toews is a 19-year-old from Winnipeg who was taken third overall in the 2006 draft. He's had plenty of international success and could develop into Chicago's No. 1 centre by the end of the year.

Kane is an 18-year-old from Buffalo, N.Y., who was taken first overall at this year's draft. He led the Canadian Hockey League in scoring last season while playing for the OHL's London Knights and should "surprise" people, according to Tallon.

They each hope to follow in the footsteps of players like Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal and Anze Kopitar, who've all had recent success while playing in the NHL as teenagers.

Toews and Kane will certainly be given the chance.

"We're going to give every young guy an opportunity to be successful," said Tallon. "We look at it as a marathon. We're going to give them every opportunity to make our team. I think the key to success of the organization is to have depth at all positions and competition for spots. The more competition you have, the better it will be for your team."

There will be some veterans to help ease their transition into the league. New acquisitions Perreault, Lang and Samsonov have combined to play 2,201 career games.

Havlat also hopes to help. He remembers his early days in Ottawa, when guys like Vaclav Prospal, Radek Bonk, Marian Hossa and Karel Rachunek provided support.

"I want to help them as much as I can," said Havlat. "I remember my first years in the league - I needed the help and I was getting the help from the older guys."

The optimists will point to the 47-point turnaround Pittsburgh had last year and suggest that Chicago could battle for a Western Conference playoff spot by achieving half of that.

Tallon hopes his team is among those fighting for a place in the post-season next spring, but understands that it might still take some time.

"I'm anxious, but I'm also being realistic," said Tallon. "I'm very confident about the future and I don't want to destroy the future just to get early success that might fool some people.

"I want to make sure we're a contending team for many years to come. That's the goal here."

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Anybody out there? Blackhawks believe a good season will bring fans back