By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Anticipating what was coming, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stepped to the podium Friday at the United Center and was given his customary greeting.
Seemingly everywhere Bettman goes, the boos follow. Such is life for the most powerful man in hockey.
But for Bettman, there’s great pride in seeing the energy of hockey throughout the city of Chicago and the growth of the sport throughout the state of Illinois — yes, even if that means a chorus of boos. After all, youth participation in hockey has doubled since 1993, now with more than 22,000 fans playing state-wide. Illinois now produces the fifth-most Division-I hockey players.
It was just a decade ago that Rocky Wirtz took ownership of the Blackhawks in place of his late father, Bill, and brought life back to the organization. This weekend’s NHL Draft in Chicago is just the latest milestone in the city’s hockey revival.
“We always knew that Chicago was a great hockey city,” Bettman said. “The Blackhawks, as one of the Original Six, always had a passionate following. While there was a period of time where people questioned the following, the interest was always there. The fans needed a reason to respond, and Rocky Wirtz gave it to them.”
NHL Draft week in Chicago came with some disappointing news here, with Blackhawks star and future Hall of Fame forward Marian Hossa revealing that he will step away from hockey due to a skin condition. The allergy and side effects of its medicine will force him to 2017-’18 and likely beyond.
The Blackhawks are still coping with the likely end to Hossa’s career. Bettman is holding out hope for a solution.
“He’s been awesome and we hope that whatever issues he’s dealing with medically can be brought under control so that he can come back,” Bettman said. “He is a great player, a great representative of the game and we certainly wish him well.”
Bettman joked that Wirtz, team president John McDonough and mayor Rahm Emmanuel afforded him no choice but to bring the draft to Chicago. They were relentless in their pursuit of bringing this event to the United Center.
Now, the city has its latest marquee event, this after three Stanley Cup championships won by the Blackhawks. The organization has earned its way back to hockey’s center stage. Chicago’s hockey revival has been well-documented during the last decade. It’s the kind of energy the NHL has sought for non-traditional hockey cities.
The Blackhawks could soon host an All-Star Game. That would be the next major hockey milestone to come.
What’s next for Chicago as a hockey city?
“Only good things,” Bettman said. “More and more kids playing the game. If you asked Rocky and John McDonough and Stan Bowman, they’d tell you they want to be hosting the Stanley Cup more and more and more. But so do 30 other clubs.”