CHICAGO - The Blackhawks are the toast of Chicago once more.
An exciting collection of young stars have captured the imagination of a hockey-mad city that believes the NHL's longest Stanley Cup drought is about to end at 49 years. While the franchise has been showing signs of a turnaround for a couple years, the interest has reached a new level with the NHL's championship series set to open at United Center on Saturday night.
"It's a huge deal," Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said Thursday. "Seems like it's bigger than the Olympics (in Vancouver) to me right now, to be honest with you. ... It's going to be exciting—how could it not be? The city's on fire.
"You walk around Chicago and everyone's rooting for the Blackhawks, everyone's expecting good things. So hopefully we can give it to them."
It's hard to believe that just three years ago the franchise was a complete flop on the ice and at the gate.
The arrival of Kane and captain Jonathan Toews via the draft helped fuel the turnaround, and was one of the things general manager Stan Bowman reminisced about during the Stanley Cup media day. He had Kane as a houseguest when the 18-year-old was a rookie and has had a birds-eye view at the hockey fever that has spread through the Windy City in the years since.
"(The fans) have wanted a competitive team for a long time here, and I think you've seen the transformation of our franchise in the city," said Bowman. "It's really remarkable to look around at how they've embraced this team. It's an exciting team to watch, an exciting team to cheer for."
They certainly are a lovable cast of characters.
Take Kane, for example. Unable to grow a proper playoff beard, he has been sporting a long flowing mullet that he describes as a "Billy Ray Cyrus with a touch of Vanilla Ice on the sides." And he's not eager to get rid of it any time soon.
"If we win the Cup, I might have to keep it for a while," said Kane. "I was talking to my barber about it the other day and he was saying we could probably get it (Jaromir) Jagr-esque if I kept it for the whole summer. We'll see.
"If we win the Cup I might come back with it."
One of the biggest obstacles facing the team is not getting ahead of itself. They are considered heavy favourites over the Philadelphia Flyers and many expect them to bring Chicago its first Stanley Cup since 1961.
It's a tantalizing thought.
"To win the Cup in the city of Chicago, people will definitely remember us and we'll be a special team in this city for a long time," said Toews. "Given the fact it's been since '61, I think that even adds to (the excitement). It would be pretty cool for us to be able to do that."
Coach Joel Quenneville has encouraged his players to soak up the excitement and predicts the city is about to go "wild and crazy." He doesn't have to think back very far to the days when the United Center was half empty.
"I can recall not too long ago coaching St. Louis where you come in here (with) 4,000 or 5,000 people in the building," said Quenneville. "It was a grim evening where almost you felt like they were supporting the visiting team. Things changed quickly.
"It's an amazing transformation."
The transformation will be complete when the puck drops on Saturday night. Toews says he's been growing anxious in the days since eliminating San Jose from the Western Conference final.
"It's definitely sunk in," he said. "That's a good thing. I'm over the hype, over all the excitement and I'm just trying to relax, take a deep breath.
"Every time you think about the end result—it's still so far away."