Chicago, we dub thee: First City of Hockey

Detroit calls itself Hockeytown.

Minnesota dubs itself the State of Hockey.

What does that make Chicago, which this year is host to the Frozen Four, NHL draft and — possibly — another Stanley Cup Final?

Chicago, we dub thee: First City of Hockey.

"Chicago is a place where hockey matters," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "It is a hockey city. Whether it’s what the Cubs accomplished or the passion people have for the White Sox or the Bears or the Bulls, this is a city that knows sports and … we’re proud to have an Original Six team here and to see the great interest there is in hockey at all levels."

In the last decade, Chicago has seen the Blackhawks emerge from the depths of obscurity to become arguably the NHL’s premier franchise and participation in youth hockey explode across the area.

Chicago, which formed its sporting identity on the gridirons, diamonds and hardcourts, has become a hockey town. And numbers support that.

According to USA Hockey, Illinois ranked fifth in the United States with 31,558 registered hockey players during the 2015-16 season, a 42 percent increase since the 2007-08 season. That marks the second-largest percent increase among USA Hockey regional affiliates. In addition, since ’07-08, Illinois saw the largest total increase in participants among USA Hockey regional affiliates with 9,336 new members.

When it comes to the Hawks, who helped spark the growth and interest by winning Stanley Cup championships in 2010, 2013 and 2015, the numbers are even more telling.

The Hawks have a consecutive sellout streak of 414 games — 352 regular season, 62 postseason — dating to the end of the ’07-08 season. With an average attendance of 21,571 this season, they are on pace to lead the NHL in that category for the ninth consecutive season.

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The team’s season ticket holder base has increased 300 percent since ’07-08 and has a waiting list exceeding 20,000. And the team’s TV ratings? They increased 487 percent from 2007-08 to ’16-17, according to the Hawks.

"There’s been growth, there’s been interest and there’s been respect," team President John McDonough said. "We’ve sold out 414 games in a row, which is not easy to do in the largest building in the league. It’s the byproduct of having a good system in place and having an organization that never, ever takes anything for granted.

"We’d like (Chicago) to be respected and perceived as a really good hockey town. It is the ultimate? You’ve got Detroit, you’ve got Pittsburgh and other really good hockey cities, but we want to be at that elite level."

The NCAA certainly believes Chicago is elite, awarding the city the Frozen Four this week at the United Center. Harvard faces Minnesota-Duluth in the first semifinal at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, followed by Notre Dame-Denver at 8:30 p.m. The winners will square off for the championship at 7 p.m. Saturday.

The infusion of athletes, their families, fans and NCAA support staff into the city will provide an economic boost and further raise the city’s hockey profile.

"Hosting these national events is a great opportunity to showcase Chicago as a first-class sports and tourism destination, and we look forward to welcoming NCAA student-athletes, coaches, families and fans to the country’s greatest and most spirited sports city," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement when the city was awarded the Frozen Four in 2013.

Despite the fact Illinois does not have a single Division I program, college hockey is finding a foothold in the area. The number of Division I men’s players from the state has grown from 51 in ’02-03 to 84 this year, making it the fifth-highest total in the country behind Minnesota (203), Michigan (145), Massachusetts (112) and New York (94), according to the NCAA.

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Hawks rookie Nick Schmaltz won a national title with North Dakota in 2016 and called it "my most memorable moment as a hockey player."

"It’s obviously a much bigger stage than your normal college game," Schmaltz said. "There are a lot of fans, it’s a big rink in a big city and it’s pretty fun. I think it will be great here in Chicago."

After the dust settles on the Frozen Four, the Hawks — who have the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference — prepare for the playoffs as a favorite to again host Stanley Cup Final games.

Looming in the shadows of the United Center is the development of a state-of-the-art, 125,000-square-foot Hawks practice facility that also will house youth hockey development programs and recreational leagues and events. The facility is set to open in December, McDonough said.

For the first time this summer, the NHL draft — one of the league’s premier events — will be held in Chicago on June 23-24 at the United Center. In addition to putting the city’s hockey community in the spotlight, it will provide an economic bump.

"Each club probably brings 30 people with them, so multiply that by 31, media — national and international — are probably another 300 to 400 people," Bettman said. "The NHL probably brings at least 100 people if not more in staff, plus fans come in and prospects and their families come in. So in terms of hotel rooms and economic drivers (including) nights having dinner in restaurants … these are all things that we bring so the economic impact is in the many millions of dollars."

The Hawks already are planning their role as hosts.

"We want to give our fans a vision," McDonough said. "They’re about to witness the future, so we have to make sure they understand how important this is. There’s never been and NHL draft here, there’s never been a Frozen Four here. So we want to make sure that the first time they experience it that it’s unique, it’s robust and it’s a really engaging experience for them.

"We think Chicago is now a hockey destination. It seems that other people kind of agree."

For those who have helped hockey soar in Chicago, the popularity is gratifying.

"It’s great to see," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "When you see the college ranks … or these other national tournaments that seem to come here, it’s a good representation of a sport growing on a minor-hockey level too. One thing kind of leads to another, especially when the Blackhawks are having success.

"It’s nice to see that residual effect all over Chicagoland as far as kids wanting to get involved in playing hockey."

Twitter @ChrisKuc

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