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The Stanley Club

A glimpse inside the hockey bar within the ice rink where the Blackhawks practice.

Photograph: Reid Compton
Bartender Katie Walsh (right) chats with Salena Becker (left) inside of the Stanley Club at Johnny's IceHouse on Friday.

On Madison Street near the United Center, men regularly lug duffels the size of body bags. Their first stop: the rink at Johnny’s IceHouse, home to one of the biggest adult hockey leagues in the country. Their second: likely the Stanley Club, the rink’s in-house bar.

There are actually two Stanley Clubs along Madison, perhaps the only watering holes in the city where you can see your breath year-round. One is inside Johnny’s IceHouse East (1350 W Madison St, 312-226-5555), the other at Johnny’s IceHouse West (2550 W Madison St, 312-243-4441), where the Blackhawks squad has been practicing for its preseason debut Tuesday 20.

Both bars overlook the ice and share the same owner (Tom Moro, who also opened the rinks) and the same family-room-meets-frat-house decor: knotty wood paneling, neon beer signs, pretty bartenders who draw drafts from a handle shaped like a hockey stick. It’s an ideal atmosphere to take in a game: The rink bars’ brisk air thrums with radio hits, occasionally punctuated by the air-raid drone of the buzzer between periods of the games below. At Stanley Club West, a photo of the Blackhawks’ mythic bloody-faced bruiser Bobby Hull hangs near one of the flat-screen TVs. It’s an image so iconic to hockey fans, says Johnny’s in-house coach David Hesser, “it’s like our version of Marilyn standing over the subway grate.”

While the Blackhawks’ “open practices” at the west rink are free to the public (see chicagoblackhawks.com for the schedule), don’t expect to clink glasses with the likes of Patrick Kane in the bar afterward. Players have a separate entrance (as well as private digs that include a players’ lounge, massage room and sauna). Besides, notes bartender Jen Mahood, to have them quaffing suds at the bar “probably wouldn’t look so good.” Better luck can be had spotting a retired hockey great, thanks to the pickup games for Blackhawks alumni that happen every other Friday. Brian Noonan, Grant Mulvey and Jack O’Callahan, who played on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, have all been seen tipping back a few inside the bar.

Those with the most visible presence, however, are the adult league players (mostly men), who drive in from as far as Wisconsin to play on teams with names like the Winos, the Neanderthals and Yellow Snow. They toss back handfuls of the bar’s free popcorn and drink beer. Lots of it. (Moro claims the Stanley Clubs are the biggest sellers of Labatts in the state.)

“The conversation in the locker room tends to follow up here,” says Amy Banas, who has tended bar at Stanley Club East since it opened 11 years ago. But the brawling stays on the ice. “I’ve only seen one bar fight the whole time I’ve been here,” Banas says. Above the boards at Johnny’s East, a banner reads, when you lose say little, when you win say less.

Still, during a game one recent evening, a player unintentionally hit his opponent in the face with his stick, tearing open the man’s upper lip. “Anyone bring a sewing kit?” one of the rink’s Zamboni drivers cracked later at the bar. “You just don’t see this stuff on the golf course.”

The 2011–12 Chicago Blackhawks preseason starts Tuesday 20 in Edmonton against the Oilers.

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