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No curbing Chicago's enthusiasm<br> Cup helps revive passion for Blackhawks

The big red letters that hang from the roof inside the seating area of the United Center proclaim the mammoth building "The Madhouse on Madison."

What memories those words conjure. That was the moniker for the old Chicago Stadium, located across the street on Madison Avenue from the current home that has housed the Chicago Blackhawks and Bulls since 1994. It was always considered one of the noisiest barns in the NHL.

The feeling went away when it was torn down, and the Blackhawks' play didn't help matters. As recently as four years ago, there might have been only about 7,000 people in the building for a game. They missed the playoffs nine times in 10 seasons from 1997-2008.

But everything is different now. Michael Jordan is long gone, the Hawks are defending Stanley Cup champions for the first time since 1961 and the roar of the old Stadium is back.

The Blackhawks had their 105th consecutive sellout for Saturday night's game here against the Buffalo Sabres. The Hawks led the league in attendance last year at 21,329 per game.

Last Saturday's home opener against Detroit was a milestone moment in the franchise's history as the Hawks got to hang a Stanley Cup banner in the rafters of their home rink for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Pete Hassen, a 1988 Sweet Home graduate who used to work for the Sabres and the Empire Sports Network, is now in the Chicago front office and said everyone in the building was touched by the depth of emotion at the ceremony.

"It was remarkable," said Hassen, the team's senior director of market development and community affairs. "We won the Cup last year in Philadelphia so the best thing was being able to celebrate with our fans in the United Center. It's become an amazing place.

"The people are just rabid and absolutely spectacular. For us to be able to have the Cup there and see that banner, it created a mix of emotion and elation."

The Hawks tried to bring some of the elements across the street, with a replica of the old Stadium pipe organ chief among them. And the fans comply by roaring through the Star-Spangled Banner every night. They famously did that during the 1991 NHL All-Star Game, at the height of the Gulf War.

"The respect that the people have for their country, for those who serve their country and for that anthem, is the way for our fans to set the tempo," Hassen said. "It starts there and the crescendo never dips."

Like the buildings, the Hawks have been cognizant to connect their present players to their past. Whereas stars like Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Denis Savard were mostly disconnected for many years, they're now back as official ambassadors.

"To have those guys back in the organization to build that bridge back to the past, which is so important for an Original Six franchise, we couldn't ask for anything more," Hassen said. "They're gracious with the fans in telling their stories and being a part of everything."

The former Hawks were a key part of the banner ceremony, with the members of the 1961 team handing the flag over to the 2010 players before it was lifted to the rafters.

"For everyone that was a part of it, it was something they'll never forget," said Hawks star and South Buffalo native Patrick Kane. "Getting introduced in front of the fans, seeing the Cup come out, taking the banner from the 1961 team and carrying it out, it was special.

"Being able to talk to Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Pierre Pilote is something that's really cool. Especially a guy like Bobby Hull. He can say whatever he wants and get away with it. He's always fun to be around."

The Hawks will hold a Heritage Night on Jan. 9 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Cup team.

"For us to win it in 2010 and be able to celebrate the 50th anniversary in 2011, it made sense to us to have them there on opening night," Hassen said. "It was great for them to pass that banner off to the new guys that had just won."