The NHL offseason brings many things: weddings, babies and lake houses, but for the Blackhawks, it also means its annual convention at the Hilton Chicago (720 S. Michigan Ave.). With this summer being my third year attending, I have a few tricks and tips on how to survive one of the busiest weekends of the summer.
This year’s convention will have new features and interactive activities. I suggest trying out the virtual reality experience, hockey 101 sessions with chances to play against Blackhawks prospects and checking out the Design-Your-Own-Puck station. The “Emergency Goalie Challenge,” which is a game designed to get you from the locker room to the ice, might be fun as well.
You can see all the new experiences, here.
Here are some things I’ve picked up in the past that have worked me to navigate the weekend. They are, by all means not the only way to do things, but they’ve worked for me in the past and have made my experience much better.
Top 10 Tips and Tricks for the Blackhawks Convention
1. Get there early and know where you’re parking
- Leave early — there will be traffic Friday and Saturday morning, but it usually is tame Sunday. The Hilton’s parking is only for guest staying at the hotel, so use a nearby parking garage like the one around the corner on eighth street that is half a block away.
2. Activate your pass and pick up your backpack
- Account for time to activate your pass as every pass comes with one scratch and win opportunity, which you need to do in the lower level before the convention begins Friday. You also receive a drawstring bag filled with a weekend agenda packet and other goodies. Fans can line up for the Opening Ceremony beginning at noon. Security will only recognize fans who begin to line up at that time, according to the team’s website. It doesn’t hurt to be early, though. The International Ballroom will open at 3 p.m. for the Opening Ceremony, which starts at 5 p.m.
3. Prepare for the Opening Ceremony
- Getting a good spot for the Opening Ceremony is crucial. It might be a good idea to have one or two people in your party get there early and hold your spot, while the others go downstairs and activate their passes and get their bags, then switch for the other half to do the same.
- The lines work in three parts: the line in the hotel hallways, the ballroom where people are seated and the ballroom where Opening Ceremony happens. You’ll be given wristbands during the second phase with return times to allow for 15 to 20-minute breaks outside of the room for bathroom breaks, food pickups or just getting the legs moving. Finally, you’ll be brought up to the ballroom for the Opening Ceremony.
- From there it becomes chaos. People do their best Tom Wilson impression to get to the closest spots — don’t let them! You’ve waited and earned that spot just as much as anybody else! But also, be kind, respectful and know there are screens to see if you’re unable to secure a close spot.
4. Plan your days in advance to reduce stress
- You won’t be able to do everything, so it’s important to pick and choose the most important events to you. Some autograph and photo sessions have a limited number of wristbands for fans to meet players and alumni. Usually the limit is somewhere between 250-500, so getting to those lines quick is the goal to ensure a wristband, especially if it’s for someone you really want to meet.
- Big-name players like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be involved in panels in the main ballrooms, which don’t have requirements to attend. There will be screens, so you can see everything, but having a seat during a 45-minute or hour long session can be a blessing. Planning for the things you’d like to do can be an easy way to reduce stress. Also, remember to take breaks to hydrate and throw down some food to stay energized. Packing water bottles, granola bars and other small snacks can save the day when you’ve been waiting for hours.
- Sunday is usually the wind-down day, when it’s mainly alumni or other members of the organization. I still highly recommend going, even though it only goes until 1 p.m. It’s a smaller crowd but has great panels, usually with older Blackhawks telling stories from the 60s to the 90s, and more. It’s also a great chance to grab some leftover merchandise, where you might even find a gem. Use up your entire weekend pass!
5. Stick together and have an emergency plan
- This might be a given for all crowded events, but have a plan in case someone in your group gets lost. If you’re bringing kids, writing your cellphone number and name with a Sharpie on their hand or wrist can be a way to make sure they can find help if they get lost by having an adult call you. The crowds can get thick and it can be easy to lose people, even adults, so making a chain by holding onto the other’s backpack or holding one arm up in the air so the others know where to go can be helpful, too. Making sure everyone is safe and sound (see what I did there) is the most important thing.
6. Make new friends!
- The days can be long and it can be anxiety-producing, but making connections with other Blackhawks fans is what this event is all about. Strike up a conversation and get to know someone new – who knows, you might even run into them some time at the United Center. My first year, I was sitting next to Vinnie Hinostroza’s parents for three panels, and didn’t know it until the final show and I introduced myself.
7. Visit the Interactive Hall
- It’s one of the most underrated things at the convention. It features shoot the puck, bubble hockey, Bud Light Lounge (21 and older), and even a fitness test area where you can see if you can go through the same testing as the players do at the NHL Scouting Combine. It’s a good way to escape the madness of the popular exhibits.
8. See “The Second City” comedy show Saturday night
- This is the best part of Saturday, hands down, as “The Second City” actors and actresses put on a comedy show with players and others. Last year, Adam Burish did a freestyle rap and it was b-e-a-utiful. While hockey players aren’t the best actors or comedians, their willingness to give it a shot and make a fool of themselves is what it’s all about. I have cried laughing multiple times during these shows, and they get the audience engaged and involved. This is a must-do, and seats fill up hours before, so grab a good seat in the main ballroom early.
9. Ask lots of questions
- During each panel session, there are tables off to the sides with cards to fill out your information and ask a question to players on the panel. The moderator will ask them at the end, so make sure to stick around to see if yours is answered. They read out your name and hometown, too, and most times you can wave a hand in the air to identify yourself. I have asked Duncan Keith, Chris Chelios, Toews and Kane questions in the past, and the answers they give are not short — they go in-depth and provide a detailed response. It’s a great way to connect with your favorite players.
10. Have fun!
- This event can be crazy, chaotic, stressful and exhausting, but in the end, it’s supposed to be fun. It’s a chance to shake hands with your favorite players — past and present — and make a connection with them, and learn something new. It’s an opportunity not everyone gets, and it’s one of the most personalized experiences you’ll probably have with professional athletes. Make the most of it, enjoy time with friends and family, and remind yourself how much you love hockey.
Let us know in the comments if you’ll be attending, and what you’re most looking forward to! Enjoy, have fun and be safe.