CHICAGO – Ben Smith knows what it means to play in an empty building.
OK, so “empty” might be a bit of an overstatement. But the Blackhawks’ 25-year-old winger spent parts of three seasons in hockey’s minor leagues, and he knows what it’s like to play a game in a building that features all of the energy of a sleeping dog.
“I think a lot of guys in this room will attest to it,” Smith said. “But playing in Peoria on a Wednesday night or Sunday afternoon, …”
Smith smiled and shook his head as his voice trailed off.
“You compare that to playing here at the United Center, and it’s a huge difference.”
Fans judge players by all sorts of statistics, from goals and assists to blocked shots and penalty minutes. The greatest statistics are committed to memory – remember Wayne Gretzky’s 92-goal season? – and passed down to generations of hockey fans.
It turns out that players can judge fans by statistics, as well. And as the Hawks’ sellout streak reached 267 consecutive games during Wednesday’s regular-season home finale against the Montreal Canadiens, the judgment was clear.
“It’s going to be tough to beat this building,” Hawks winger Bryan Bickell said.
Unless Kid Rock and his fellow Detroiters manage to build an extra deck on top of Joe Louis Arena for the Red Wings’ home finale, the Hawks will finish first in the NHL in home attendance for the 2013-14 season. The Hawks averaged 22,623 fans each home game, which leads the Wings (22,201) and Canadiens (21,273).
Meanwhile, the three worst home crowds belong to the Phoenix Coyotes (13,697), Dallas Stars (14,521) and Florida Panthers (14,568).
Maybe someone out there will try to argue that the Hawks’ 267-game sellout streak isn’t that special. After all, it’s easy to hop on a bandwagon and support a winner.
But what if the sellout crowds helped to mold that winner?
In other words: Which came first, the chicken or the hockey puck?
Hawks winger Patrick Kane has had to settle for being a fan since March 19, when he twisted his leg and limped off of the ice with an apparent knee sprain. Kane practiced with his teammates during the Hawks’ morning skate and expects to be 100 percent healthy for the 100 percent capacity crowds in the playoffs.
“I think playing at the UC is obviously a benefit for our team,” Kane said. “Being at home [is significant], especially when a game goes to Game 7. You saw, last year, the series against Detroit. We had that home-ice advantage, and I think it helped us.”
This time around, the Hawks might have to steal a few road wins.
The Hawks trail the St. Louis Blues by four points and the Colorado Avalanche by two points with only two regular-season games remaining. As it stands today, the Hawks would visit Colorado for Games 1 and 2 to open the playoffs.
Sometimes, though, even a road game can feel like a home game.
“Our fans are worldwide,” Bickell said. “You can see it in different buildings.
“And at home, to sell out that many times, to have that support and have that edge against other teams – it’s kind of like a backbone being there.”
At some point, the sellout streak is bound to come to an end.
Then again, maybe it will go on for infinity intermissions. If Hawks fans can keep showing up despite an up-and-down economy and one of the snowiest winters in the region’s history, then what exactly could cause the streak to snap?
“We hope not,” Smith said. “The way the game is growing here and how well this team has done over the last few years, it’s a good recipe for success. We want to keep that going.
“Just like we want to keep winning on the ice, I’m sure the fans want to keep that streak alive and show their support. We appreciate all of it.”
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.