Players and fans happy to have hockey back

CHICAGO -- Kyle Goro and Brad Kolavo bundled up in their winter clothes, grabbed their memorabilia and traveled from Naperville to Chicago's West Side on Sunday morning.

The two friends arrived to Johnny's IceHouse West at 2550 W. Madison St. around 10 a.m. and stationed themselves on the sidewalk near the building's underground parking entrance in hopes of gathering a few autographs.

While the morning's frost and dipping winter temperatures did them no favors, Goro and Kolavo couldn't have been any happier to be where they were at that moment for it was finally hockey season again and their beloved Chicago Blackhawks were about to hold their first official practice since the NHL lockout ended.

"Just getting autographs, just checking the team out for the first time of the year, it's exciting," the 25-year-old Goro said. "I was starting to fear there wouldn't be a season."

Said Kolavo, 30: "It's a big day as far as hockey and the Chicago Blackhawks. I know myself and a lot of people including my friends are excited about some hockey and catching some games."

The feeling was shared by most who occupied Johnny's IceHouse West on Sunday. From the fans who filled the bleachers to those who lined up along the rink's glass to the Blackhawks players and coaches who were greeted by applause and high-pitched screams when they took the ice around 12:10 p.m., they were all happy to have hockey back in their lives.

"It's good to be out here," Blackhawks center Dave Bolland said. "It's good to meet up with the guys and get back to work. It's been a long three, four, five months, but we're out there. It's just good to be back and everyone is happy.

"I think our fans are some of the best fans in the league. It was great to see all of them out there. Coming out onto the ice, everyone is cheering and yelling. That's who our fans are. They've always stuck by us. I'm glad it's all over with and we're back."

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews received plenty of love from fans Sunday, but he said he's out this season to return it.

"The fans are happy to watch hockey again," Toews said. "Couldn't be more appreciative for something like that after everything we've been through the last couple months. I think every single day you spend some time with your fans and sign autographs. That's going to be a huge priority for us whether it's before or after practice or after games. Really got to take advantage of those opportunities to mix in with the fans a little bit and show them we appreciate them coming back and showing their patience like that."

As the fans enjoyed themselves around the rink, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville made sure it was all business on the ice. He brought the team together at center ice at the start of practice, said a few words and quickly had them skating every which way for nearly a non-stop hour.

"It was a great first day," Quenneville said. "I love the pace. I think everyone was excited. I liked how we were able to sustain the pace, not just the guys who had been playing overseas and from Rockford and all over the place. And the guys who weren't playing, I thought their conditioning looked real strong today as well. I liked the first day."

Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said he thought some of the players may have given a little something extra Sunday, too. He said he didn't think that was a bad thing for a team that has its sights on another Stanley Cup.

"I think everyone wants to impress and show they're in good shape on the first day," Kane said. "I think you saw a lot of that. I think if you look at our lineup up and down we have a lot of depth, and a team that we think can go pretty far and do some special things. It's going to be a different type of season obviously, but looking forward to it."