Sunday, January 10, 2010

Good Times--and Bad--For the Goal-Oriented

I've never been a huge hockey fan, but I've always rooted for the Blackhawks and have long loved attending a few games each season. Even now, when the Hawks are one of the best teams in the NHL, I rarely watch their games on TV, and except for rare playoff appearances, in the past only tended to see games I actually attended.

Which until last season was pretty cheap and easy.

As recently as the 2007-2008 season, the last of a 5-year playoff drought, you could walk up to the United Center box office minutes before face-off and buy a 300-level ticket for $10 or $15 and pretty much have your choice of any row in the mostly empty upper deck. This was an especially good deal because, when it comes to hockey, sitting up high isn't only a consequence of personal economics, but a genuine preference. I like being able to see how plays unfold and watch passing opportunities develop.

In fact, back in 1995, a friend invited me to the fifth game of the conference finals between the Blackhawks and Red Wings. He was graciously able to use his grandfather's prime season tickets, which were in the fourth row from the glass, parallel to one of the goalies. It was the coolest thing ever, except for the Hawks losing the game--and series--on an overtime goal. But I still couldn't personally tell you if there was ever a puck on the ice that game; I could not see it despite being so damn close.

So I'll happily sit in the 300 level on one of the bends and never wish I was "down there with the rich folk." Not that I'd turn down free tickets if anyone if offering ;)

But now, with the Blackhawks having the best record in the league, and offsetting a disappointing Bulls season after the Bears, Cubs and Sox fell short of hopes and/or expectations, tickets at any face value price are hard to come by.

Forget walking up to the UC at gametime; now you can hardly find a single seat on Ticketmaster for games two months out. The Blackhawks have been basically sold out for the season ever since it started. And even for the rare lowest-priced seats that you can find, they are now $25-30 rather than $10-15, Ticketmaster fees add another 40% (as tickets almost never remain for "walk-up" purchase), only scattered single seats seem to exist and you have absolutely no chance moving down from your ticketed seat.

So while things are awesome for Blackhawks fans in general--who finally have a dominant team to root for--and season ticket holders who are enjoying great games and huge resale values when they can't attend, the Hawks' success has largely put the kibbosh on occasional game yokels like me. Or at least greatly raised the price of admission (through the secondary market).

But having gone to my 1-3 games per season during the bad years, I felt silly not being able to take in any live games now that the Blackhawks are great. So yesterday, for their game against the Anaheim Ducks, I looked on Craigslist and found a seat in the first row of the upper deck, Section 322, right on a bend, for $65.

Forgetting for a moment that these seats were long gone and largely--if not entirely--filled by season ticket holders, if I were able to buy a comparable ticket through Ticketmaster, it would cost about the same or more (I believe the face would be $45 and Ticketmaster's fees at least $20). And if you look at any game on a ticket broker website, such as Gold Coast Tickets for February 3rd, you'll see that all seats, even those in the upper 300s with a $25 face, are selling for over $100.

So $65 for that good a seat was a real bargain, even if the seller didn't "take $50" like I asked. So I went to my first game of a season in which the Hawks have won 20 of 25 home games, and even after Saturday night's devastating loss to the Minnesota Wild, where the Hawks blew a 5-1 third period lead and lost 6-5 on an overtime shootout, had won 7 of their last 9 games overall.

The Blackhawks went down 1-0 early on a Ducks' power-play goal, and after they gave up another first period goal to fall behind 2-0 to a .500 opponent, I told the guy I bought the ticket from, who was sitting next to me, that I wanted my money back. He laughed and reminded me of the Hawks' amazing comeback (on Oct. 12), when after falling behind to 5-0 to Calgary, they came back to win 6-5.

But the Hawks would be shut down for the first 55 minutes of the game by an amazing performance by Ducks' goalie, Jonas Hiller. They finally notched a goal to make it 2-1, but a furious attempt failed to even the score, and an empty net Ducks goal made the final 3-1. This despite the Blackhawks having 43 shots on goal to the Ducks' 12.

Oh well, what can you do? It was still a fun night and, at least before the game, there was noticeable electricity in the air. And the food concessions at the UC, now run by Levy Restaurants, have been significantly upgraded. I had a deli-quality pulled pork sandwich with homemade kettle chips. Quite tasty.

And I again enjoyed one of the greatest traditions in sports: Hawk fans cheering loudly throughout the National Anthem. I'm not big on overt patriotism, but this always gives me goose bumps. Here's the rendition from last night; hopefully I'll be hearing it again--though almost assuredly on TV--during the Stanley Cup:

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