By Rick Firfer
Having missed the playoffs for the first time in many years, the Chicago Blackhawks cannot be too happy with the way the season went. However, the core group of players on this team certainly has nothing to be ashamed of in regard to its overall record of professional achievement.
Players such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford, Patrick Sharp and a number of others, have provided enough thrills for Chicago hockey fans in the past decade to last a lifetime. Three Stanley Cup championships and numerous division and conference championships have forever etched a place for these players in the hearts and minds of the current generation of fans; and rest assured those fans will pass their memories down to succeeding generations of fans.
What sets these guys apart from all the other winners who have played in Chicago, however, is their heart. Not only has the camaraderie and enduring support they provide to one another been uplifting, but the genuine warmth and openness they display toward their fans has set quite the example for others to follow.
Anyone who has observed how NHL players time and again go out of their way to embrace their fans, both literally and figuratively, will understand that there is a case to be made that hockey players are some of the friendliest and accessible athletes out there. Whether it is honoring a request for an autograph or a selfie, or tossing a stick or another piece of equipment to a kid in the stands, hockey players always seem eager to reward the people who come out to watch them play the game that each of them enduringly loves to play. And the fans always return the respect and affection by remaining steadfastly loyal to their local teams.
Given this background, it isn’t surprising to see a number of professional hockey players participate in off-the-ice programs that are designed to raise money for medical research or to establish free clinics to promote hockey skills among disadvantaged youth or to just generally benefit their communities.
Along those lines, Brent Seabrook, a member of the Blackhawks’ recent Stanley Cup championship teams, has gotten behind a unique program that provides educational scholarships and mentoring services for youngsters who live in some of the most impoverished Chicago neighborhoods. What makes this program unique is that it provides those benefits hand-in-glove with the teaching of hockey skills, so that the youngsters will have the potential to become completely rounded individuals, physically, mentally and emotionally.
The provision of these scholarships and services does not come cheap, however. So, a decade ago, Seabrook, in conjunction with the Inner-City Educational program, known locally as ICE or the ICE Program, conceived of holding an annual fundraising event at a local bowling alley.
The event was cleverly named the ICE Bowl, and it attracted dozens of hockey and bowling fans right from the start. In fact, this event became so popular with the fans that it eventually outgrew the original bowling alley and is now held in what is probably the largest bowling facility in the entire Chicago region, and the number of fans now coming to the annual event is easily counted in the hundreds, rather than the dozens.
What makes this event so interesting is that almost the entire team comes out each year to mingle with the fans, even though this is not a team-sponsored event and attendance is not mandatory. The players come to the event out of respect for their teammate, Seabrook, and to support ICE’s important mission of providing resources to inner-city children that will help them realize their full potential as capable participants in a very complex modern society. And no one says the players and fans can’t have fun while supporting a worthy cause.
The ICE Bowl has two levels at which the fans can support the event.
First, there are those who pay to actually bowl with the hockey players. One player is assigned to each team of four fans participating in the ICE Bowl. For the fans on those teams, the entire evening is like a dream come true. They begin by attending a VIP party ahead of the bowling tournament. At this party, the fans have complete unrestricted access to the hockey players for about an hour. They can hang out with them and talk hockey while downing sliders, calamari, pizza and their favorite brew (except for the kids, who are stuck with the soft drinks), or they can run around taking selfies and getting their hockey cards and memorabilia signed by their favorite players. And, of course, everyone gets a group portrait of their bowling team that includes their assigned hockey player.
When the VIP party comes to an end, the hockey players leave the VIP area and are ushered down a red carpet surrounded by the rest of the fans, all of whom are howling to get the players’ attention. Each of them wants their own chance to corral the players for selfies and autographs as the players slowly make their way down the carpet to the bowling lanes.
To their credit, the players stop and sign just about everything put in front of them, pose for endless photos, hug their fans and give shout-outs to relatives of the fans who are waiting on the other end of cell phones. All the while, the house band is blasting away with ear-splitting music and little kids are squealing with joy. Best of all, the kids from the ICE Program, who are the evening’s guests of honor, never stop smiling and are rewarded with group pictures with nearly every player in attendance.
Although the bowlers do keep score, it is unclear whether the scores mean anything to anybody, as the key feature of the evening is to rub elbows with the hockey elite. And, man, do they get to do that. Also, the annual amount of money raised from this event has grown to many thousands of dollars, which naturally brings a lot of smiles to a lot of faces.
It is also unclear how much longer Seabrook will be able to carry on in the NHL, as a body can only take so much abuse. When his career finally comes to an end, however, the question will be how, or whether, the ICE Bowl will be able to continue. For the sake of the kids, here’s hoping the sponsors find a way.
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.