By Rick Firfer
Everyone knows how open and big-hearted professional hockey players are when it comes to their fans, especially little kids. In fact, only open-wheel race car drivers come even close to hockey players when trying to keep their fans happy. So, it will come as no surprise to anyone that the annual Brent Seabrook Celebrity ICE Bowl hosted each year by the Chicago Blackhawks star to benefit inner city children is probably the most successful sports charity event held anywhere in the Midwest.
The ICE Bowl, which is actually a bowling event and not a hockey skating exercise, began its existence in a relatively small bowling alley in downtown Chicago about a decade ago. Seabrook was just a budding young player at the time, but since then has become recognized as one of the most skilled players to ever wear a Blackhawks jersey. In fact, if he did not have to play in the shadow of the great Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, both of whom will surely end up in the NHL Hall of Fame, Seabrook would probably be the face of the team, along with the equally tough Duncan Keith.
Back in the beginning, Seabrook, who has a passion for bowling, got the idea that it might be nice to put together a bowling event that would give him and his teammates a chance to mingle with their fans and raise a little money to help inner city children learn how to skate and play ice hockey. The money raised from the fans who bowled with the players would be donated to a group called the ICE (Inner City Education) Program. This program was intended to help disadvantaged youth attain certain educational and emotional goals through sports training and interacting with mentors who would also double as role models.
The first ICE Bowl was relatively small, but a lot of fun. There was also a silent auction of signed hockey items, such as pucks and programs and a few jerseys. But the highlight of the evening was the opportunity that fans had to actually bowl with participating Blackhawks players. Of course, there was total access to the players and over the course of the evening the attendees could get just about everything they brought with them signed for their collections. They even got some bowling T-shirts as part of the package.
The original ICE Bowl went so well that Seabrook and the other players decided to keep the event going the following year and brought most of the players back for another round. Because of a changing roster, however, not all of the same players were available to participate, but word got around about how much fun the first one was, so the number of players participating actually grew. And, again, the folks running the ICE Program were thrilled with the fundraising aspect of the evening. They were also excited about the fact that a number of the children participating in the ICE Program were allowed to hang out with the players at the ICE Bowl.
So, flash forward to the present and here we were, the first Tuesday in March, and it was time for the 2019 Brent Seabrook Celebrity ICE Bowl. By this time, the event had grown so large that it could no longer be held in the original bowling alley and had to be moved to Lucky Strike Lanes, the biggest, fanciest bowling venue in downtown Chicago. Furthermore, there was now so much interest in the event that not all of the people who wanted to attend could actually bowl with the players. The number of bowlers was limited to four on each team, plus the Blackhawks player who would be captaining that team. Everyone else was a spectator, but no one was shut out from the autograph opportunities.
The highest level of participation was as a VIP. If you signed up for that level, you were invited to a pre-event party at the lanes where you could eat some snacks and belly up to an open bar. The real attraction, though, was that the players were all at the party and the fans were free to roam around and hang out with them for about an hour. It was heaven for the collectors, as they were able to get everything they brought with them signed. They also got some very snazzy bowling shirts to wear for the event. And the players signed with a smile because it was a fundraising bonanza for the ICE Program. A win-win if ever there was one.
At the conclusion of the first hour, the party moved out to the main bowling alley, where a mob of additional attendees stood several rows deep behind velvet ropes, waiting for autographs. As each player was announced, he would come out of the party room and walk down a red carpet, signing numerous autographs as he went. The drill was to walk down one side of the carpet and sign for everyone on that side, and then walk up the other side and sign for everyone over there. At the end of the walk, the players would sign items for several of the current participants in the ICE Program. Those children were there with the program mentors and staff people who made certain they got every single autograph and photo they wanted.
Of course, the most popular players were Kane and Toews, who spent almost an hour each signing memorabilia up and down the red carpet. Also in great demand were the host, Seabrook, and superstar goalie Corey Crawford. Some of the other players, like Artem Anisimov, Anton Forsling and Marcus Kruger, were easily recognizable and were also very popular signers, but some of the new guys, like Slater Koekkoek, Brendan Perlini and Dylan Strome were head-scratchers for many of the fans and got by the ropes mostly unscathed. Nevertheless, they all seemed to be having a good time.
One thing about hockey players that may be a bit unusual among their peer group (i.e., professional athletes) is that, as a group, they do not seem to be very interested in saving stuff from their careers or anyone else’s. At last year’s Blackhawks Convention, several players admitted to saving some stuff, but no one seemed to have an extensive collection of anything.
Major League Baseball players are generally like the rest of us, even though they do not like to admit it. But they do stash things away whenever they can. Hockey players, not so much. So, when we asked Seabrook what he collected, he turned the subject back to the ICE Program and how proud he was that his teammates were so excited to get behind him and the program. And, like a gracious host, he thanked us for covering the event.
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.