CHICAGO (Reuters) - Ice hockey fans thronged Chicago on Friday to celebrate the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup championship with a parade to a boisterous rally at the lakeside park where President Barack Obama marked his historic election victory in 2008.
A sea of red-clad fans stretched through Grant Park from Lake Michigan, with the gleaming city skyline as the backdrop on a bright summer day. Fans lined the route as the players paraded on double-decker buses from their home arena at the United Center to the rally.
The Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup in four seasons by defeating the Boston Bruins 4-2 in a best-of-seven series, capping a National Hockey League season shortened by a labor dispute between players and owners.
There was a stepped up police presence at the rally and parade, and fans were discouraged from bringing backpacks and other bulky items after bombs left in backpacks along the crowded route of the Boston Marathon were detonated in April, leaving three people dead and hundreds injured.
A police spokesman said the rally was peaceful with no incidents or arrests reported. The size of the crowd was not immediately known although authorities had said they expected up to two million people.
The Blackhawks are led by a pair of young skating stars - Patrick Kane, 24, a speedy sniper who won the Most Valuable Player award in the championship series, and Jonathan Toews, 25, the skilled and steady team captain.
Fans chanted “M-V-P” and “Kaner” as a smiling Kane briefly spoke to the crowd. The Buffalo, New York native, who likes to wear his hair in a mullet and has been reprimanded by team management in the past for offseason partying, thanked the fans for “making hockey fun.”
He then presented a team award to goalie Corey Crawford, who Kane said was the real MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Crawford was not even the team’s starting goalie for part of the season.
Only six years ago the Blackhawks franchise, one of the six founding members of the NHL, was floundering with a losing record, poor home attendance and little exposure on television.
In 2007, the death of longtime Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz - reviled in Chicago as a penny-pincher who refused to broadcast the team’s games on local television - opened the way for his son Rocky Wirtz to revive the franchise.
The team drafted Kane and Toews, who immediately shined. The Blackhawks gradually improved and won the 2010 Stanley Cup, defeating the Philadelphia Flyers.
Smoking a cigar and dressed in a red T-shirt emblazoned with “2013 Stanley Cup Champions,” fan Brad Smeele, 25, said he did not even know the rules of hockey well until two years ago when he started watching the Blackhawks regularly with a friend.
“They are fun to watch. They are energetic. The fans are energetic. Everybody is into it now,” said Smeele, who took a train to the parade from the suburbs, where he is a high school teacher and football coach.
The team swept through the regular season, setting an NHL record of 24 regular season games without a regulation loss to start the year, but very nearly bombed out of the playoffs by falling behind the rival Detroit Red Wings before rallying to win in seven games.
The Stanley Cup finals with the Bruins were a bruising series that left numerous players injured.
The Blackhawks organization took out a full page ad in the Boston Globe newspaper on Friday complimenting Boston’s hospitality and sportsmanship during the series, which drew the highest television audience for a Stanley Cup final since Nielsen began tracking ratings in 1994.
Reporting By Greg McCune; Editing by David Bailey