NHL

Blackhawks fever infects fans who're fuzzy on game

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CHICAGO (AP)

Chicago Blackhawks sweaters are commonplace around the city these days - though not all wearers realize that's what hockey players and die-hard fans call those ''jerseys.''

As the Blackhawks have a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals with the Boston Bruins, Chicago is awash in red and black hats, T-shirts and jerseys - er, sweaters. But because hockey is a mystery to many - a game played largely by bearded men with hard-to-pronounce names - this particular season's bandwagon is loaded with fans who don't know the difference between the blue lines on the ice and the Blue Line train that runs out to O'Hare.

''A lot of these people, all they know is that somebody in Chicago is going for a championship,'' said Jordan Goldberg, manager of the Third Rail, a tavern a few blocks from the United Center, where the Blackhawks play.

The throngs filling the bars during the games include a fair number of people who are caught up in the party atmosphere, but barely watching the game.

''When a goal is scored, they yell like everyone else but then they go back to what they were doing,'' said Curtis Tinnell, a computer analyst who donned a well-loved Blackhawks T-shirt and cap as he walked through downtown.

Those fans probably also don't know that it's superstition that keeps hockey players from shaving during the playoffs. But the 29-year-old bearded Tinnell does: The last time he grew one was during the 2010 playoffs, which ended with the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup.

That's not to say Chicago doesn't have its share of rabid fans, with intimate knowledge of the team's Original Six history, the game's rules and the fact that those two blue lines are used to determine if a player is offside. But the half-century Stanley Cup drought that preceded the 2010 championship, the fact that the team didn't televise home games until a few years ago and recent NHL lockouts have certainly contributed to a waning collective interest.

So Bob McDermott, owner of The Beer Bistro in Chicago's West Loop, now finds himself fielding questions about everything from why the jerseys are called sweaters (because, he said, it's cold on the ice) to why the players suddenly stop playing for no apparent reason.

''They ask if it is a time out and I say it's not really a time out but part of the game, kind of like a foul ball,'' McDermott said.

Out on the street, it's tough to tell who the real fans are. Stores and souvenir stands sell slightly tattered hats and pre-faded shirts.

But it's also difficult to get people to admit they're getting swept up in the frenzy over a game they don't quite understand.

''I don't think anyone wants to own up to it,' said Jessica Hegarthy, a 42-year-old attorney who was buying a T-shirt for her 6-year-old son. Hegarthy herself grew a bit sheepish when she said that while her husband and son were watching the triple-overtime Game 1 on Wednesday night, ''I was upstairs watching `Real Housewives.'''

But the bandwagon fans do give it away sometimes.

''One of my employees came up to me and said how excited she was and then she said, `If they lose tonight they're done, right?''' said Monique Mendoza, a 21-year-old theater manager, who said she passed on the opportunity to explain it wasn't a one-and-done series. ''I was like, `Get out of here.'''

In Boston, bar manager Jason DeSantis insists that most fans who come out understand what they're watching.

''We have people who don't show their colors until the playoffs (but) they know the sport, they know the teams, they know the players,'' said DeSantis of the Cask n' Flagon, across the street from Fenway Park. ''Without a doubt, this is still a hockey town.''

And Chicagoans seem to be catching on. Jason Braz, who mans a souvenir stand about a mile from the United Center, said there are far more informed Blackhawks fans now than in 2010. Back then, when fans wanted merchandise with the name of Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, (pronounced TAVES), they instead would say ''toes.''

But now, ''the number who say `toes' and not `taves' is much smaller,'' he said. ''The fan base is definitely growing.''

Tagged: Blackhawks

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