MONTREAL - Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita are two of the most recognizable names attached to the Chicago Blackhawks franchise, but for decades after their playing careers ended they were not welcome at the old Chicago Stadium or the United Center.
Now, under the ownership of Rocky Wirtz and presidency of John McDonough, both Hull and Mikita have been welcomed back as team ambassadors and the two Hall of Famers see a bright future for a Blackhawk franchise that had descended into a black hole for much of the last decade.
Hull and Mikita were part of the pre-game ceremonies Tuesday as the Montreal Canadiens marked their 82-year rivalry with the Blackhawks, part of the Habs' ongoing lead-up to the franchise's 100th anniversary in 2009.
Hull said he was able to go watch a few games at the United Center when his son Brett was still playing, but that those few appearances didn't fill his need to become involved with the Blackhawks.
"That wasn't good enough for me and it wasn't good enough for the people in Chicago because they remembered those teams that entertained them so well in the 60s," Hull said. "They wanted Stan and I back in the fold, they got us, and it was a wonderful feeling after 35 years to still be wanted by the Blackhawks."
Neither Mikita nor Hull could understand why the regime led by the late Bill Wirtz wanted nothing to do with them.
"We were kind of just shut out of the place, some people didn't want us there and we're still trying to figure out why," Mikita said. "It was tough to pick up the paper and see the team's in last place, and they've got last place clinched at Christmas. That's not hockey, that's not a franchise."
Things are finally looking up for the Blackhawks, both on and off the ice. With a strong nucleus of good, young players led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Chicago is not that far away from having a team that could compete for a playoff spot.
And the long dormant hockey fans of Chicago have begun taking notice as the Blackhawks have sold out their last three home games, drawing their biggest crowds in six years.
"I told John McDonough that these kids deserve to be playing in front of the 20,000 people that we used to play in front of," Hull said. "They were standing six deep when we were in there. That's when the players know that they're wanted, when they're playing to an SRO (standing room only) building. These kids deserve that."
Also in attendance to mark the rivalry Tuesday were former Blackhawks Tony Esposito, Steve Larmer, Eric Nesterenko, Al Secord and current Blackhawks coach Denis Savard, who was also a member of the last Canadiens team to win the Stanley Cup in 1993 and received a nice ovation from the Bell Centre crowd.
Representing Montreal were Marcel Bonin, Yvan Cournoyer, Vincent Damphousse, Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur, Henri Richard and current Habs radio colour man Murray Wilson.