The NHL gets a hearty welcome in Milwaukee. So now what's the future for hockey at Fiserv Forum?

Long before famed anthem singer Jim Cornelison hit the first note of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the Fiserv Forum ice, it was abundantly clear Milwaukee had opened its arms, heart and wallet to the National Hockey League.

Tickets to Sunday’s preseason game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Minnesota Wild went on sale Aug. 5 and were gone within minutes. Fans who gathered in the Deer District outside the arena for the city’s first taste of major league hockey in nearly 30 years got the party rolling early.

Two hours before the game, people in Blackhawks gear were lined up 75 deep at the Bucks Pro Shop trailer to buy more Blackhawks gear. Wild fans walked proudly among them. The Avalanche, Bruins, Canucks, Capitals, Ducks, Golden Knights, Maple Leafs and Predators were all represented, as were a handful of college, minor-league, high school and youth teams.

“We shouldn’t have been surprised,” Jaime Faulkner, the Blackhawks president of business operations, said of the interest in the game. “One of the reasons we chose to come here is because we knew we had a great fan base, a great hockey fan base here and a great Blackhawks fan base in Milwaukee. We shouldn’t have been surprised, but we were instantly thrilled when it sold out the way it did.”

What’s still a little surprising was where the tickets were sold. More than 80% of orders came from buyers with Wisconsin ZIP codes and just 7% from Illinois, she said.

“Obviously a lot of Blackhawks fans live in Wisconsin,” said Joyann McChesney, who came to the game with her husband Tim. Transplanted from Minnesota, where they were North Stars and Wild season ticketholders, the McChesneys live in Delafield now. They got their tickets through Tim’s work.

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“It’s probably people from Chicago who live here (who bought tickets). I bet it’s transplants. The people we talked to on the elevator, they live here but they were Chicago fans … and they still let us on the elevator.”

She was joking, of course, and they didn’t have to hide their shirts to leave after the Wild scored a 3-0 victory over the rebuilding Blackhawks. Connor Dewar had a goal and an assist, and veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 12 shots.

Jim Cornelison, a legend of Blackhawks games at Chicago's United Center, sings the national anthem before the Blackhawks played the Minnesota Wild on Sunday night in the first NHL exhibition game at Fiserv Forum.
Jim Cornelison, a legend of Blackhawks games at Chicago's United Center, sings the national anthem before the Blackhawks played the Minnesota Wild on Sunday night in the first NHL exhibition game at Fiserv Forum.

A Chicago experience in Milwaukee

Out-of-market fans got a solid exhibition version of the United Center experience, with Cornelison’s rousing anthem accompanied by the crowd’s roar, plenty of “Let’s go, ’Hawks” chants and Chicago hosts handling the in-game entertainment during stoppages.

The host Milwaukee Bucks put their stamp on the night with Deer District entertainment and DJ Shawna and mascot Bango working up the crowd.

The Blackhawks did offer some Wisconsin-specific touches too, with images of state sports legends Bob Uecker, J.J. Watt and Don Majkowski making appearances on the scoreboard screen and spectators having the opportunity to cheer the Green Bay Packers and jeer Illinois drivers.

“Everything here was great,” said Wild forward Frederick Gaudreau, who became a favorite of Milwaukee Admirals fans over parts of five seasons in the American Hockey League. “That’s where it all started in the U.S. when I became a pro. I’ve said it before, but I have a big place in my heart for this town, the Admirals, so it’s fun to come back and see them.”

The game had a handful of other Wisconsin connections mostly on the Wild side. The team is owned by Racine native Craig Leopold and coached by Dean Evason, who spent six seasons behind the Admirals bench. Blackhawks forward Colin Blackwell met his fiancée while playing with the Admirals and spends his offseason in Wisconsin.

Fans cheer as the Chicago Blackhawks enter the rink Sunday night.
Fans cheer as the Chicago Blackhawks enter the rink Sunday night.

More hockey for Fiserv Forum?

Although ice wasn’t a primary feature of Fiserv construction before it opened in 2018, hockey was always in the plans.

Last winter, the building hosted the four-team Kwik Trip Holiday Face-Off college showcase, in which Wisconsin beat Providence for the title. The initial contract calls for two more years, with the next tournament set for Dec. 28-29.

“For us, we built Fiserv to be extremely flexible, knowing we wanted the dimensions and an ice floor for an NHL rink, an NCAA rink, we wanted to do ice shows,” Peter Feigin, president of the Bucks and Fiserv Forum, said a night earlier. “The ability for it to come to fruition is great.

“So, we’ve done college hockey, Division I college hockey before, and I think now it’s just improve the product. Now that you have it, how can we expand it? And for us, there’s another little market on the event side of more high school and college hockey once we have the ice down. We think this all should be a catalyst for growth.”

Feigin and Faulkner both cautioned hockey fans, though, not to get ahead of themselves.

Sunday night was a single preseason game that could lead to more like it and more hockey, in general. But nothing more.

“I do not think there’s a plan in the Bucks’, Fiserv’s or the NHL’s future in Milwaukee expansion,” Feigin said. “This is an unbelievable leap forward and it’s great and we’re leveraging it in such a great way. But this is not step one to get an NHL team.”

Said Faulkner: “I don’t think it would happen, quite honestly. I don’t think that those plans are on the horizon, but I’m not the league.”

Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild players warm up before the NHL exhibition game Sunday night at Fiserv Forum, an event organized by the Blackhawks and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild players warm up before the NHL exhibition game Sunday night at Fiserv Forum, an event organized by the Blackhawks and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Who is Milwaukee's team?

The notion of an annual exhibition – or even one every few years – sounded like a good idea to the McChesneys and other fans who spoke as they waited for the building to open.

“Absolutely,” said Carly Wallace, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and lives in Big Bend. “We hope they do this every year, and we hope the Hawks play here every year.”

She was wearing a No. 88 Patrick Kane jersey she’s owned for 14 years – half her life – and her husband, Chris, was wearing Jonathan Toews’ No. 19. They picked up their tickets in the secondary market but didn’t overpay, she said.

“We still make our way down to Chicago to see games,” Carly Wallace said. “We’ve traveled abroad to see the ’Hawks play. So we’re hardcore.”

And then there was Bob Modlinski, wearing a No. 9 Filip Forsberg Nashville Predators jersey, shorts and sandals watching the Green Bay Packers game outside the Mecca Sports Bar and Grill, waiting with three friends. They were able to get tickets in the front row of the upper deck when they went on sale.

If there are more exhibition NHL games at Fiserv Forum, Modlinski would plan to continue to attend them. He’d just prefer to see a different team.

“First and foremost I do love hockey and I despise the Blackhawks and love the Nashville Predators,” said Modlinski, who lives in the Bay View neighborhood. “I really would like more people to know that the Nashville Predators really are Milwaukee’s team.”

The Milwaukee Admirals are the Predators’ American Hockey League affiliate.

“There’s many big names that get called up and play for the Predators in the NHL and played in Milwaukee here,” Modlinski said. “It’s just like seeing these guys in our backyard.”

Count Admirals owner Harris Turer among those in attendance. His first goal was to watch the game as a fan, his second to catch up with Wild head coach Dean Evason and forward Frederick Gaudreau, both friends from their time in Milwaukee.

Turer said he was happy to have the NHL in town, if only for one night, as well as the college showcase over the holidays. The events are complementary to the Admirals, he said, more than competition for the sport fan’s dollar.

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“Just in general anytime hockey happens and gets attention, that’s good for us,” said Turer, whose team plays at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena a block south of Fiserv.

“People are paying attention to the game. We’re the hockey team in town, so if there’s an event here, even though we’re not playing, anytime hockey is played in the community it brings attention and that’s positive.”

Milwaukee's NHL past and future

Turer made the Arena the Admirals’ home even before the Bradley Center closed and has never second-guessed that move but did like what he saw happening with hockey at the new building.

“Would I, down the road, ever like to talk to Peter Feigin and the Bucks about us ever playing a game at the Fiserv? Sure,” Turer said. “That would be something I’d like to explore down the road. But us playing there on an everyday basis? We belong at the Arena.”

Sunday’s game was the 12th NHL game in Milwaukee, and the first since 1999, when Nashville and St. Louis played to a 2-2 tie at the Bradley Center.

Fiserv replaced the Bradley Center, which was built with hockey in mind with seed money from then-Admirals owners Jane and Lloyd Pettit, who hoped to lure an NHL franchise. The Pettits backed out, though, when presented with a $50 million expansion fee for a team that wouldn’t be competitive for years to come. Included was a payment to the Blackhawks because of the proximity of the new franchise to Chicago.

The Bradley Center opened in October 1988 – with a Blackhawks-Oilers exhibition game – and continued operation through July 2018.

Four years later, big-time hockey came to Fiserv and by all accounts succeeded in a big way, leaving a couple of questions. Was Sunday just a flash of interest generated by pent-up demand? Or was it an indication Milwaukee has an appetite for annual visits by the NHL?

“It’s a great question,” Faulkner said. “We will have to work with the Bucks to see if this is something we can do again. But given what I’m seeing out here already and how fans started showing up … I got here at 1 o’clock, the fans were already showing up. They were sitting in the bars and people walking around in jerseys. There were a lot of people that couldn’t get tickets to the event.

“I know we have a lot more fans up here than helped us bring it to the arena, so I think we could bring fans out again if we bring the Blackhawks back here.”

Jim Owczarski of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Blackhawks-Wild NHL game at Milwaukee Fiserv Forum is a success