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The National Hockey League's Stanley Cup Final series gets under way tonight. The Chicago Blackhawks play the Boston Bruins. It's a classic match-up between two of the NHL's Original Six teams, and they come from a pair of hockey-crazed cities. NPR's David Schaper has this story from one of those cities.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Chicago right now is crazy about the Blackhawks, and you see it everywhere. One of the dinosaurs outside of the Field Museum is wearing a huge Hawks jersey. The famous lion statues outside of the Art Institute are now wearing giant Blackhawks helmets. And there are Blackhawks flags, banners, signs, shirts, hats and jerseys all over town.
RICK SMITH: Well, the atmosphere is - the city is pretty pumped about them.
SCHAPER: While nursing a beer at the Windy City Inn, 50-year-old Rick Smith says for years, he and other hard-core hockey fans were the quiet minority, as the Blackhawks trailed far behind Chicago's four other major pro sports teams in popularity.
But the Hawks have improved greatly in recent years, becoming one of the league's elite teams, while Chicago's other teams are mired in mediocrity. After winning a Stanley Cup championship in 2010, Smith says the team once known as cold steel on ice has caught fire.
SMITH: Everyone knows about the Blackhawks. If you look around the city, that's all people wear are Blackhawk jerseys now and so it's pretty good.
SCHAPER: The Blackhawks have been even converting those sports fans who never cared for hockey before. Thirty-two-year-old Matt Hamilton says while growing up in the Chicago area, he never paid any attention to hockey.
MATT HAMILTON: But it's been awesome the last couple of years, and I love them. It's my favorite sport all of a sudden.
SCHAPER: Hamilton and the thousands of Chicagoans on the Blackhawks' bandwagon may have met their match in Beantown.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Let's go Bruins.
SCHAPER: Hundreds of Boston Bruins fans showed up at the team's arena yesterday, screaming and waving signs to send off the players to the first two Stanley Cup Final games in Chicago. The Bruins, who won the Cup in 2011, are known as a big and physically punishing team that skates well. Whether it's enough to keep up with Chicago's speed and skill is only part of what makes this a dream championship matchup because not only are these two of the leagues best teams, but they are also two of the oldest.
Both the Blackhawks and the Bruins are among the National Hockey League's Original Six teams. But in nearly 90 seasons of hockey, they've never before faced off against each other for the championship. NBC hockey analyst Eddie Olczyk says that makes this Stanley Cup Final extra special.
EDDIE OLCZYK: Because when you talk about two great towns and two great sports cities and two teams that have been around for a long time in the NHL, you know, you need that, especially coming where we were.
SCHAPER: In fact, this year's hockey season almost didn't happen. A bitter labor dispute in which the league locked out players for the second time in seven years delayed the start of the season until mid-January and led to a shortened schedule. Back at the Windy City Inn, Matt Hamilton is one of many fans who started out the season boycotting games. But he says the Blackhawks' record streak of 24 games unbeaten in regulation to start the season reeled him back in. And he says nothing could be better than facing Boston in the Finals.
HAMILTON: I'll tell you what, if you can't get excited about this series, just - you're not going to watch hockey anymore. This is going to get you back in. There are no - there's no more lockout hangover. Not after this.
SCHAPER: And fans in both Chicago and Boston are now hoping for a championship hangover at the end of this best-of-seven series that begins tonight. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.