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No reason for Blackhawks to apologize to fans

Fans watch as Chicago Blackhawks open training camp with an on-ice sessiJohnny's IceHouse West Sunday January 13 2013. | Richard

Fans watch as the Chicago Blackhawks open training camp with an on-ice session at Johnny's IceHouse West on Sunday, January 13, 2013. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 14, 2013 1:22PM

Every time I go to a Blackhawks game, I look for two fans who sit near the United Center press box. I take them to be father-and-adult-son season-ticket holders. I don’t know when I first saw them, only that they have become Every Hawks Fan in my mind.

Whenever the opposing team skates onto the ice for warmups, both men start booing, and the younger one always — always — holds up an arm with his middle finger extended. Never mind that they’re sitting near the top of the UC and that it would take a telescope for a player to see that single-finger salute. None of this bothers them. As far as I can tell, their only irritation in life is an NHL-approved officiating conspiracy against their beloved team.

I was thinking of them when the Hawks had their first practice Sunday, the day after the league and its players agreed on a new collective-bargaining agreement to end the latest labor strife between the sides. I was thinking of their loyalty as I saw the team practice in front of swarms of fans.

And I was thinking of them when I read ‘‘A Letter to Our Fans’’ that chairman Rocky Wirtz and president John McDonough posted on the Hawks’ website. I imagined the fans’ anticipation as they opened the letter and looked for the one word that might help them heal: sorry.

Sorry, no.

‘‘On behalf of the Chicago Blackhawks, we would like to thank you for your patience and loyalty over the past few months,’’ the statement said. ‘‘It is imperative that we now look forward in order to prepare and to focus on the exciting season ahead.’’

There were several more paragraphs, which best would be summed up by: ‘‘We can’t emphasize enough that we want to look ahead and not at the 113-day lockout, the one we helped set in motion, the one we don’t want to talk about.’’

I tried to imagine the disappointment of Every Hawks Fan, but here’s the thing: Even if he were disappointed, it wouldn’t keep him away. Nothing will keep him away. I don’t think the Hawks are taking their fans for granted; I think they simply know their audience.

At a news conference Sunday, McDonough said the waiting list for Hawks season tickets increased by 250 names during the lockout. He also mentioned the team’s 190 consecutive sellouts at the UC.

‘‘We expect that momentum to continue,’’ he said.

When a reporter asked McDonough if he sensed much fan anger, he didn’t sound like a man envisioning a breeze whistling through empty seats this season.

‘‘How much anger was there? We certainly weren’t overwhelmed by it,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s difficult on our fans because of the expectations being so high [for the Hawks this season]. We’re probably going to find out in the next few weeks, which [are] going to really kind of fuel what we’re going to have to do . . . to bring them back.’’

Other teams have been more proactive with their ‘‘fuel.’’ The Sabres are offering 50 percent off merchandise at their team store until after their first home game. The Penguins will offer free food and heavy discounts on merchandise through their first four home games. The Hawks will announce their fan incentives this week.

‘‘We are going to do everything we can to win them back,’’ McDonough said.

Hawks fans will come back. The most loyal fans in sports will come back because they can’t help themselves. I would equate their passion for their team with NHL players’ passion for the game. Players always cave in during labor disputes because they want to play so badly.

So when I hear that Hawks fans finally have had enough, that this will be the time they draw a line in the ice? I’ll believe it when I see it.

Hawks players understand they might need to do some fence-building. Asked where he thought fans’ trust level was with the NHL now, forward Patrick Kane said: ‘‘I don’t know if there’s any, to be honest with you. . . . We know and feel their pain because we were probably in the same situation. You’ve got to remember we’re fans of the game, too. It’s a tough situation, but I think everybody loves the game that’s been put on the ice for so long. You want to come back and watch it.’’

And you will. The Hawks know it.

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