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Musick: Bad taste lingers for Hawks fans

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CHICAGO – Stop in for brunch at the Palace Grill, and you can order from the typical selection of eggs or pancakes or omelettes galore.

But if you want to be like the Blackhawks, you’ll order something bigger. Go for the boldly named sandwich that piles bacon or sausage on top of egg and cheese.

“They always get the Heart Stoppers,” said Christina Lemperis, who manages the diner a few blocks east of the United Center at 1408 W. Madison St. “We’re hoping they’ll be back here more now because they’ll be back in town again.”

Pull up a chair, Jonathan Toews. Grab a seat, Patrick Sharp. Nice to see you, Duncan Keith.

You look like you could use a cup of coffee, Patrick Kane.

After a lengthy lockout, hockey has returned. It took only 113 days and a Chicago teachers’ strike and a presidential election and a royal pregnancy and a non-apocalypse and a troubling peek over the fiscal cliff, but hockey has returned.

So why do I have a bad taste in my mouth?

It has nothing to do with the Palace Grill, which is one of the happiest places to be on a cold Sunday on the Near West Side. You don’t last 75 years in the restaurant business unless you have a great product. You don’t become a hangout for Hawks players by accident.

But on this day, I didn’t come for the food. I needed perspective.

Because I like hockey, I really do. But I’m mad at it.

Eight years after the NHL almost destroyed itself with a season-long lockout, commissioner Gary Bettman and team owners offered a one-finger salute to fans once again. Hundreds of games were canceled. Futile labor meetings replaced dazzling goals and spectacular saves.

Players were fine. Many joined leagues in Europe or Russia to stay sharp and earn money.

But the lockout had a real effect on parking attendants and ticket takers and beer vendors and everyone else who counted on a full slate at the United Center. It hurt places such as the Palace Grill, which relies on hockey fans for extra business from autumn through spring.

Maybe restaurant owner George Lemperis could help cheer me up.

“It’s great,” said Lemperis, who wore a Hawks T-shirt with "One Goal" printed across the top. “It’s about time. I know all of the businesses up and down the street are jumping for joy.

“It’s been hard. We’ve lost a lot of money.”

Lemperis estimated the damage at about $75,000 since September.

Business will pick up again as fans return to the “Madhouse on Madison” to see the Hawks.

Some fans will show up right away. Some won’t. It depends on whom you ask.

Take Jeff Reichenbach and Greg Shirey, who finished brunch as their sons chatted nearby.

Reichenbach said he planned to attend one Hawks game this season, but only because of his son. Reichenbach had tickets for four other games refunded because of the lockout.

“I’m just disappointed,” Reichenbach said, “because I thought the hockey players were like that last group of nongreedy athletes, and I thought that they had a love of the game that could get over this, and they clearly don’t.”

Shirey shared in that disappointment, although he pointed the bulk of the blame at owners for extorting concessions from the players while counting on fans to return regardless.

“I won’t go back this year,” Shirey said.

He paused for a moment.

“I’ll go back if someone gives me free tickets.”

A few feet away, Adam Lindgren and Ryan Scheidt waited for a table. Lindgren wore a Blackhawks winter hat. Both said they would welcome back the Hawks with open arms.

“I’m not going to let it ruin my season,” Scheidt said.

Lindgren agreed.

“I’m just happy that they’re coming back,” Lindgren said. “With the Bears being out, it’s something that we can finally start watching again.

“It’s [bad] how the owners handled everything, but at the end of the day, I’m still a Hawks fan. I’d rather just watch hockey.”

Yeah, I thought with a sigh. Me too.

Eventually.

• Write to Northwest Herald sports writer Tom Musick at tmusick@shawmedia.com.

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