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Here Come the Hawks! Lockout-Weary Hockey Fans Celebrate Return of NHL

By Emily Morris | January 6, 2013 5:04pm

NEAR WEST SIDE — All signs point to the NHL lockout that began Sept. 15 ending at last, and that means Blackhawks fans and the local businesses who depend on them will get their season, albeit a short one.

Negotiators from the NHL and the players' union announced a tentative agreement in the wee hours of Sunday, NHL.com reported.

While the details of the deal have yet to be announced, the season could begin Jan. 19 or even earlier, multiple media sources. The agreement still must be ratified by the league's board of governors and the players.

At Johnny's IceHouse, located just a few blocks from the United Center on the Near West Side, adult league players weighed in on the long-awaited end of the lockout.

"I'm happy with it, but I'm not happy with it being a 48-game season," said Jim Ceglarek, 27, who played hockey in college and now participates in Johnny's Elite League.

Some of Ceglarek's friends — both self-proclaimed diehard Hawks fans and elite players —expressed similar feelings of disappointment over a shorter season and the long negotiations that have made them question the NHL's focus.

"Being a super fan, I'm turned off," said Tom Mayhan, 36, who also plays in Johnny's Elite League. "It's all about finance, which turns off the blue-collar guy."

"It's a lose-lose," Mayhan, of suburban Hinsdale, added. "We'll see if fans come back."

Fans who definitely plan to return include suburban Skokie resident Bob Gertenrich, who boasts attending every Blackhawks home game since 1966, as well as plenty who took to social media to express their exhileration.

"Can't wait to hear Chelsea dagger again!! #Blackhawks #MadhouseOnMadison," tweeted @brookesaramaher, referring to the Fratellis song played after Blackhawk goals and wins.

"I will go to every Blackhawks game, that's how much I missed them,"@briii_babby chimed in.

Blackhawks players said they were looking forward to getting back on the ice.

"Cant wait too be back infront [sic] of 22,000 fans at the MADHOUSE," tweeted forward Dave Bolland.

At the Stanley Club Bar at Johnny's, bartender Elsa Guerrero said that while she's looking forward to the return of the Blackhawks, she, too thought the lockout revealed a certain neglect for the heart of the sport.

"It's not about the fans, it's not about the loyalty," Guerrero, of suburban Berwyn, said. "It's not about the love of the game anymore."

But having a season at all is good news for sales of tickets, concessions and apparel at the United Center, as well as local businesses that depend on fans.

"It boosts excitement for our own leagues," Guerrero said. "It also would be good for all the neighborhood businesses that have been experiencing a slump during the week."

One such business is long-time Blackhawks staple Palace Grill, 1408 W. Madison St., which has experienced a major dip in revenue since the lockout, said owner Michael Lemperis. As a result, his employees have worked fewer hours and weekdays have been slower, he said.

Lemperis said the past few months have been frustrating as a businessman as well as a hockey fan.

"I was upset. I was angry." Lemperis said. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't angry. It was a lot of money."

Lemperis woke up Sunday morning to dozens of texts from friends letting him know things would be looking up, he said. He swapped his usual Palace Grill uniform for a Blackhawks T-shirt this morning in celebration.

"There's a buzz today, everybody's excited." Lemperis said. "The customers are happy."

Another local shop with cause to celebrate is sports store Gunzo's, which in a moment of unfortunate timing opened a new location down the block from the United Center in August, as the lockout began.

"When it comes to apparel — jerseys, T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats, that's taken a hit," said manager Tom Little, 28, of Wicker Park. But Little said the business has been helped with orders for basketball apparel and equipment from local hockey leagues.

When Little heard from friends that the NHL could reach a deal, he hesitated to believe it. In the past few months, fans have been burned by close calls in which it seemed the two sides could reach a deal, only to have their expectations dashed.

"I didn't want to get my hopes up too high until I heard it officially," Little said.

Though the lockout's ending just missed the holidays, Little said he's excited for orders to start picking up again.

Fans have dealt with lockouts that cancelled or delayed seasons in 2004-2005 and 1994-1995. But Lemperis said past lockouts didn't effect the Palace Grill quite as much as this one, as the Hawks saw a rash of new fans during the 2009-2010 season that the restaurant has come to depend on.

"A lot of people got hurt," Lemperis said. "I'm glad it's over. I'm glad it's done. And it's time to move forward."