Blackhawks-Wild game in Milwaukee a special moment for Wisconsin fans

When his older daughter started playing hockey in 2017, Ryan Kalcich realized his family ought to pick an NHL team to follow.

But living near Green Bay, Wisconsin, there was no obvious choice.

”The Wild games are blacked out here, so we couldn’t watch them,” he said. ”We bought an NHL package online, and it was like, ‘The Blackhawks used to be pretty good, and they have some pretty good players.’ ”

The Kalciches have remained Hawks fans since, even as the team’s performance has lagged. But the four-hour driving distance from their house to downtown Chicago, combined with the Hawks rarely playing Saturday home games, has made it difficult for him to take his daughters — his younger one since has taken up hockey, too — to see the Hawks live.

That will change this weekend. For the first time in 29 years, the NHL will return to Wisconsin when the Hawks and Wild face off in a preseason game Sunday in Milwaukee at Fiserv Forum, the home of the NBA’s Bucks.

Although the American Hockey League’s Admirals and the University of Wisconsin’s hockey programs long have cultivated sizable followings, hosting a (somewhat) official NHL game on home soil represents a new high-water mark for Wisconsin’s slowly growing hockey community.

”We were all pretty jacked when we heard,” Kalcich said. ”It shows NHL hockey to the Wisconsin area. And the fact it’s against the Wild makes it even better.”

Neutral-site preseason games, driven by the NHL’s interest in growing the popularity of hockey outside pre-existing hotbeds and influenced by typically poor attendance for preseason games in NHL arenas, have existed for decades.

Fourteen non-NHL cities — ranging from Bern, Switzerland, to Gander, Newfoundland, to Boise, Idaho — will host exhibitions this year, including some that do so almost annually.

Milwaukee used to be in that rotation. The Bradley Center, the Bucks’ former arena, hosted games annually from 1988 to 1993, including a Hawks-Kings regular-season matchup in December 1992. Milwaukee was considered a prime candidate for an NHL expansion team at the time, with former Hawks broadcaster Lloyd Pettit offering $72 million in a bid that never came to fruition.

Hawks business president Jaime Faulkner was watching a stream of the Blues-Hawks exhibition game last year — held in the Kansas City suburb of Independence, Missouri — when the thought that evolved into this game first crossed her mind.

”It gave me the idea of, ‘Should we be thinking of doing a neutral-site game?’ ” Faulkner said. ”Coming up with the location that would be great for our players and for our fans, I thought of Fiserv immediately.

”I called [Bucks president] Peter Feigin, who I know really well, and said: ‘Hey, I’ve got this crazy idea. What would you think if we came in and played a preseason game?’ I couldn’t even get the sentence completed, and he was like, ‘Hell, yeah, let’s do it.’ ”

Fiserv Forum, the Milwaukee Bucks’ home arena, will host the Blackhawks for the first time on Sunday.

AP Photo/Morry Gash

Neither Faulkner nor Feigin realized at the time what a significant undertaking planning the game would be. It turned out new boards had to be purchased and installed because the boards the arena previously had used for college hockey tournaments didn’t meet NHL standards. Sorting out the Hawks’ and Bucks’ sometimes-overlapping, sometimes-conflicting corporate sponsorships was also a puzzle.

But selling tickets proved to be simple, because demand was sky-high from the start.

Advance sales to Hawks and Bucks season-ticket holders gobbled up nearly all the roughly 15,000 available seats. Once ticket sales went public, the game sold out in less than an hour. Remarkably, Wisconsin residents accounted for 81% of sales, compared with 7% from Illinois and 11% from other states, including Minnesota.

”It shouldn’t have been a surprise, because the data indicated this would be the case, but we were thrilled,” Faulkner said. ”We have been doing a lot of analysis of where our fan base is . . . [and] we have a lot of fans to the north of us, extending into Milwaukee.”

At McGillycuddy’s, which proclaims itself to be Milwaukee’s only official Blackhawks bar, manager T.J. Tomes has seen plenty of anecdotal evidence of that.

The bar typically draws a few dozen Hawks fans on an average game night, but its crowds have dwindled since the dynasty era. Leading up to the 6:30 p.m. puck drop Sunday, however, Tomes said he expects the atmosphere to compare to the Stanley Cup runs of old.

”Fans are going to come out of the woodwork,” he said.

The Hawks’ trip to Milwaukee also will be special for one of its primary participants: new forward Colin Blackwell.

Blackwell met his fianc?e, Lauren, while playing for the Admirals in 2019-20 and now calls Milwaukee home, living there during his summers off. Many of his future in-laws will be in attendance Sunday, watching him play in an NHL game for the first time in person.

”Sometimes when you play this game, people don’t realize I’m not by my friends and family really ever,” Blackwell said. ”[This will be] special because she has some grandparents and family that are a little bit new to hockey and really haven’t gotten a chance to watch me play over the last couple of years.”

He said he expects a lively mood in the building.

”[Wisconsin’s] hockey community is really blossoming, and it’s slowly catching up with the surrounding states,” he said. ”A lot of people are Wild fans and a lot of people are Blackhawks fans, so to have those two teams come in . . . is going to be awesome.”

The Hawks would like to make hosting a preseason home game somewhere outside Chicago into an annual tradition, Faulkner said, and planning for a 2023 event will begin soon. Rockford, Indianapolis and South Bend, Indiana, are three possible cities under consideration.

But first comes Sunday and Milwaukee’s long-awaited reintroduction to the NHL.


Defenseman Connor Murphy has missed the last two days of training camp with lower-back soreness and likely won’t play in either preseason game this weekend. (The Hawks will host the Red Wings on Saturday at the United Center before their trip Sunday to Milwaukee.) Coach Luke Richardson said Murphy’s absence is mainly precautionary.The Hawks cut their camp roster to 50 on Friday, assigning a dozen players to the IceHogs’ camp.Read More

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