CHICAGO -- So I'm standing in the United Center suite with Mr. Hockey himself, Michael Jordan, and his buddy, Kid Rock. We're killing time between the first and second periods of the Chicago Blackhawks-Detroit Red Wings playoff game, and I'm thinking, "NHL, where have you been all my life?"
I mean, when's the last time you saw MJ at a hockey game? Even more incredible, when's the last time Jordan slipped on a personalized No. 23 Hawks sweater (but only after team officials sewed a red patch over the maker's company logo), walked out to his seat and happily posed and waved to the geeked crowd as the Versus cameras recorded every surreal moment? After all, who thought MJ would commit to the Indian?
"That's never happened," says an amazed Jay Blunk, the team's senior vice president of business operations. "We celebrate the little things."
"It's validation," says Hawks president John McDonough, who has known Jordan for years. "It's validation."
So Jordan is at the Western Conference finals the same night the news breaks that he might be in play to buy a majority interest in the Charlotte Bobcats, which is sort of a big deal. Not only that; he dropped the gloves and won a two-hour fistfight with the brutal late-Friday-afternoon rush-hour traffic to get to the UC. And then he stayed for every delicious moment of the Hawks' Game 3 overtime victory against Kid Rock's guys, the defending champion Red Wings.
Sure, the wall plasma in MJ's suite had been switched to the Orlando Magic-Cleveland Cavaliers game, but you can't expect the guy to go cold turkey from hoops, can you? He came. He saw. He wore Hawks red. Not a bad night for a franchise that was mostly irrelevant just two seasons ago.
So McDonough, Blunk, Hawks owner Rocky Wirtz, general manager Dale Tallon, coach Joel Quenneville and the youngest roster in the league are tracking up. Attendance topped 1 million, a franchise first. They've gone from 3,400 season-ticket holders in 2007 to 14,000 and a waiting list. Local TV ratings have climbed. And whatever they're paying Jim Cornelison, who belts out the national anthems, it isn't nearly enough.
But Chicago isn't the problem. The Blackhawks are getting fixed. I don't know if they're going to overcome a 2-1 series deficit to the elegant and scarily efficient Red Wings, but the franchise has returned from the hockey abyss.
The problem is the league itself. How do you bottle what they're serving now at the United Center, and at The Joe in Detroit, and in Pittsburgh, Boston, etc., and make me -- the know-nothing borderline hockey follower -- into a full-fledged NHL fan, TV viewer and occasional paying customer? Because if you can't get me -- and there are lots of hockey tire-kickers just like me -- then the league is never going to be more than a boutique sport in this country.
Until Friday night's 4-3 Hawks win, the last hockey game I watched from start to finish was the 1980 USA-USSR "Miracle on Ice." I've covered a handful of NHL playoff games since then, but that's work. I love the idea of hockey, but I didn't grow up with the sport. If you had asked me six months ago what a Khabibulin was, I would have guessed either a chicken-pox vaccine or a Russian semiautomatic rifle.
McDonough played forward on the Notre Dame High School club hockey team in nearby Niles with Greg Luzinski, who later played for the Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies. McDonough spent 24 years as a Chicago Cubs executive before joining the Hawks in late 2007, but he knows hockey. His office is a shrine to it.
But for the skate-challenged like myself, we mostly depend on TV for whatever small amount of hockey we watch. And with all due respect to the NHL's broadcast partners, the league could use some heavyweight exposure and the return of a nightly highlight show reaching a wide audience.
High-definition TV helps a lot (Hey, I can see the puck!), but I wouldn't be against trying different camera angles other than the traditional side-to-side game broadcasts. I watched Friday night's game live from the upper right corner of the rink, and it was a gas. It was sensory overload, but in a good way.
"TV doesn't do it justice, but at least we're on TV," McDonough says.
As for the sport and the league itself, McDonough calls it "an acquired taste. But when you're hooked, you're really hooked."
I'm not totally hooked, but at least I'm nibbling at the bait. In Chicago, the Hawks have regained the trust of the old-school hockey die-hards. Equally important, they've cultivated another demographic that matters: the 6-24 age group.
"This is almost like a new rock band," McDonough says. "It's like a band that came out with a new hit CD and [the fans] really liked the first one, and now they're going to buy the next one. So these people are giving us a chance again. We missed a couple of generations."
The NHL, which has hit and missed too, will never be for everybody, because everybody doesn't build their nights around watching the Penguins' Sidney Crosby, or the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin, or the Red Wings' Chris Osgood, or the Hawks' Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane. But there are no rainouts, the games usually last about a manageable 2½ hours and OMG, do they skate hard and knock the mouth guards out of each other. Plus, generally speaking, NHL players are genuinely regular guys, not counting the facial scars and missing teeth.
The reality is that maybe the league will have to settle for being something between a regional and national sport in the States. There are worse fates.
But Blunk had the right idea when he said the Hawks "were in a situation where we had to try everything." The NHL shouldn't be afraid of doing the same.
Hockey the brand still has lots of legroom in this country. But on a nutty night in Chicago, it got Kid Rock in the house. It got Jordan. It even got the great Dave Otto in the house.
Dave Otto? He's the former Cubs pitcher who gave up Jordan's first hit in a major league ballpark: a high chopper that bounced into left field during an April 1994 exhibition game at Wrigley Field. I saw Otto during the second intermission.
And for what it's worth, the Hawks and the NHL got me. And they'll get me for Sunday's Game 4. And I don't even need MJ's suite.