CHICAGO — The Chicago Blackhawks reopened the United Center to 3,820 fans Sunday night for a 4-2 victory over the Dallas Stars — and not a moment too soon for Sean Fitzgerald.
“This is my first game, all right?” said Fitzgerald, a 25-year-old software developer from Elgin. “So I’m excited. I’ve never been (to a Hawks game), so I’m glad we actually have a chance to go this season, especially with COVID happening, even at 25% capacity.”
His girlfriend, Samantha Minorini, chimed in, “And he’s moving next weekend to South Carolina, so it’s magical.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot eased COVID-19 restrictions for the United Center on April 29, announcing that the Hawks and Bulls had the go-ahead to host games at up to 25% of capacity. Both teams started with invitation-only guests, mostly player relatives, as a dress rehearsal.
When Minorini found out the news in an email, she quickly messaged Fitzgerald: “Can we go? I need to know right now! I got the tickets right away, even if he doesn’t go.”
Fitzgerald, wearing a Corey Crawford sweater, added: “I’m not going to miss this. No way.”
The couple sat in Section 228.
Kevin Spencer brought friends Abby Nesslar and Jayton Hall, all of them college students.
“I was worried about it at first because we’re the last team in the country to get fans in the stadium,” said Spencer, 21. “But we’re season ticket holders, so it was really cool to find out we were going to get fans (at games again).”
He saw the news that the Bulls would get the first crack with general fans May 7.
“I immediately pulled up the schedule to make sure there were games after May 7,” Spencer said. “It was really exciting. It’s been over a year since we’ve been back.”
Angela Labate, a 42-year-old-creative director from Chicago, thought the season would pass with no fans allowed at the United Center.
“I actually was looking at tickets to maybe go to Nashville or Dallas,” she said. “So when I heard there was going to be two games left in the season you could possibly get tickets, I jumped on it. I had all the windows open on my computer screen.”
Labate, who sat in the 200 level, wished she could’ve seen Kirby Dach play, had he not aggravated his wrist injury, but said: “I just want to see live hockey again. It makes my heart happy, makes the city happy, reinvigorates our town and just happy to be here.”
It had been 424 days since the last Hawks game with general-admission fans. A crowd of 21,275 watched them beat the San Jose Sharks on March 11, 2020.
Fans queued in two lines along Madison Street, a few dressed in black-and-neon-green Stars alternate jerseys. Stadium employees directed a few stragglers to their designated entrances, based on their seats, or asked if people had filled out the “Health Pass” COVID-19 screening on the CLEAR smartphone application.
Once inside, friends and relatives were grouped in clusters, usually with six seats between them.
The giant visage of Patrick Kane on the video board advised fans to “please stay in your designated area.”
Jim Cornelison sang the national anthem in person from the lower suite level instead of standing on the ice, like he has in seasons past.
Fans cheered at the “Welcome back!” sign on the big board and at the puck drop.
Before Sunday, the public address system had piped in artificial crowd noise to an audience of empty seats, but this night the Hawks welcomed live noisemakers with Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Part 2.”
“Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. We’re so glad you could attend. Come inside, come inside.”
Once fans were settled in, the Hawks put on a show.
MacKenzie Entwistle opened the scoring in the first period with his first career goal.
“You dream about it as a kid,” Entwistle said. “I woke up this morning and called my mom for Mother’s Day. The one thing she said was, ‘Try to get me a goal.’ So, Mom, if you’re watching, I got you one.”
Denis Gurianov answered for the Stars by slapping a rebound of Jamie Benn’s shot past Kevin Lankinen.
But less than a minute later, Brandon Hagel knocked in his ninth goal in a weird way: It bounced off Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin’s arm and the crossbar, went up, then dropped and dribbled in.
With 1:36 left in the first period, Alex DeBrincat scored his team-leading 30th goal of the season, helped by Kane and Hagel on the power play.
After a scoreless second period, Stars defenseman Mark Pysyk made it 3-2 with a goal 2:16 into the third.
DeBrincat closed the scoring at the 16:48 mark.